Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 8: Forging a New Social Contract

For the past several weeks, I have endeavored to provide a guided tour to the history of higher education in America, and its connection to the national economy. It has been a bumpy ride.

Expectations for higher education have waxed and waned over the years, as higher education policy and practices on the one hand, and economic aspirations and requirements on the other hand, have been thrown out of equilibrium because they were changing at very different rates. But there is no question that we are, today, at a moment of serious disequilibrium.

In Part 6 of this series of essays, I spoke to the issue of what needed to change in our higher education infrastructure. Part 7 focused on why these changes were needed. Now, in Part 8, it’s time to address how these changes might occur.

In the absence of a dramatic rethinking of the role of higher education, there is no reason to believe that time is our friend, that things will improve on their own, or that patience, however difficult to sustain, will prove to be a virtue. To the contrary, the rate of social and economic change is accelerating, and our educational infrastructure is lagging behind and becoming increasingly out-of-date.

The problem worsens, even as we examine it.

In an ideal world, a national spokesperson would emerge — a presidential candidate who would inspire us with an achievable vision of a future that would lift all Americans, and unite us with a goal and a sense of purpose that would sustain us as we worked to rebuild our higher educational infrastructure. Such a vision would imagine strong partnerships of higher education institutions, corporate America, and state and federal governments, allied and laser-focused on the educational outcomes we have been discussing throughout this series of essays.

Perhaps we will see that visionary emerge in the coming years; perhaps not.

But we could increase our chances literally 50-fold if we held open the possibility that such a person might emerge as a gubernatorial candidate. The work I am describing could (and perhaps should) be done at the state level, as a proof of concept, before becoming a national call to arms.

Where would such a candidate begin? How might a conversation be initiated? Does it have to start with a visionary politician?

Well, no. In the absence of a rallying cry from a political candidate, quite a bit of work could be done in advance, to prepare the ground, as it were. There are two other entities that would, in any case, need to be a part of any proposed solution. They are the institutions of higher education themselves, and the businesses, industries, foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are, in their various ways, totally captive to the success or failure of the educational transformation about which I have been speaking.

Let’s consider some of the steps each group might take, as a way of getting some cards on the table, and as bait for an ambitious yet socially conscious political candidate:

Initiatives from Higher Education

It seems obvious to me that the process starts with higher education’s acceptance of its role in changing the status quo in the hope that, by so doing, opportunities can be created with business and industry on the one hand, and federal, state and foundation officials on the other, that will allow the educational change process to be nurtured and to accelerate.

  • Higher education writ large must embrace the ideal of doubling the number of adult Americans with a four-year degree as quickly as possible. Each institution should decide for itself the particular role it intends to play, but these intentions should be clearly articulated on the institution’s website for all to see. (Public institutions may find that if their responses to this challenge are too tepid, the states will issue their own directives, a possibility that itself should provide adequate motivation for them to be imaginative in what they propose.)

I note with interest that, at present, the total undergraduate enrollment of the eight Ivy League schools is less than 60,000 students. Moreover, of the 273,000 applications for admission to one or more of the Ivies last year, only 23,500 were sent letters of acceptance — well under one in 10.

With so much attention being given to the enrollment policies of these exalted institutions, focused especially on urging them to accept many more talented but low-income students, one wonders why they do not allow themselves to grow. Only two of the Ivies have more than 7,000 undergraduates — but public institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan, all of which are ranked nearly as high as the Ivies, have more than 30,000 undergraduates each.

So if there is no close connection between small size and high ranking, why do the Ivies ignore the growing demand for their services? [1] And if they are not willing to be part of the solution toward a better educated America, then why is it acceptable that Washington should continue the current tax policies that encourage them to grow their endowments but not their student bodies?

  • Increasing the number of traditional-age students admitted. Many institutions apparently believe it is in their interest to limit access (by offering only a modest number of acceptances), in order to enhance the perception that their quality as an institution is derived from their exclusivity. We should applaud institutions, such as Arizona State University, that have responded to growing demand by adding to their enrollments, rather than by increasing the number of denial letters.


  • A commitment to retaining and graduating students in far greater numbers. (Two good examples related to improved student success are Southern New Hampshire University [2] and Gateway Community and Technical College [3]). As I have argued earlier in these essays, admission without graduation is in no one’s interest. Campuses committed to working conscientiously and effectively to drive up retention and graduation rates will lower the risk that students and parents will take out loans but leave without a degree, and will also reduce the cost per degree awarded.


  • Adult students. I spoke at length in the previous essay about the failure of most of higher education to create meaningful opportunities for adults to complete their undergraduate degrees, or to obtain post-baccalaureate certificates or graduate degrees. The demand for these services will escalate dramatically in the coming years, and higher education is currently completely unprepared. Again, every institution should commit to articulating the role it will play in providing access for adults, and to advertise that role prominently on its website. (These are not simple matters to resolve. Despite a state commitment, Tennessee, for example, is falling behind its goal of having 55 percent of its adults with a degree or high-value certificate by 2025. [4] Worthy goals must be supported by a realistic plan to meet the goals.)


  • Related to the role institutions need to play in providing access for adult students is the opportunity they have to create long-term relationships in which their alumni return repeatedly to upgrade their skills. This idea of “return” does not need to be in person; much of adult education in the future will be largely online. But higher education institutions have historically spoken of being “learning communities” and of their commitment to “life-long learning.” Creating relationships with one’s own alumni, such that they think in terms of repeated episodes of focused learning throughout their working lives (and perhaps beyond, into their retirement years) represents both a need and an opportunity that higher education institutions must seize.


  • Cost issues: We must work to make the cost of a degree or certificate cheaper, and more effective and efficient. (A recent book provides an analysis of why college costs continue to rise.) [5] We must develop models and proofs of concept and sell these ideas to government and business. (There is no shortage of ideas. Think about the recent efforts to make certain public institutions tuition-free for qualifying students. [6] Various foundations have developed thought pieces for consideration by higher education institutions. [7]) We need to think about achieving specific competencies, not accumulating seat time. We need to use technology wherever it is reasonable to do so, recognizing that not everyone needs or expects the same thing. Our objective should be to meet students where they are and take them to where they need to go. (For example, California Governor Jerry Brown has provided $120 million in his 2019 proposed budget for a new online community college to help provide access to the millions of Californians who now cannot physically attend an existing college or university.) [8]

Initiatives from Business and Industry

  • There are already a handful of wonderfully creative programs that have been initiated by corporate America. One such is the program by Starbucks, in conjunction with Arizona State University, to create educational pathways leading to an undergraduate degree at minimal cost for Starbucks’ employees. [9] There is no reason why similar programs could not be initiated by other major employers, working with their local public and private institutions of higher education.


  • Internships: Many businesses and corporations (and NGOs) now offer internship opportunities for local students to receive college credit in return for an apprentice-type role within the organization. These positions sometimes lead to offers of permanent employment, inasmuch as the business and the intern can learn about each other within the safe confines of an internship. But this idea could be greatly expanded to look far more like the co-op model pioneered many years ago by Northeastern University, wherein students alternated semesters or years in class and at work, effectively putting themselves through school without incurring debt. Something akin to this model will be needed to ensure access to higher education for low-income students today.


  • Consortia: Chambers of Commerce should work with their business members, and their human resources offices, to identify particular skill sets needed by employees of various companies to advance in their careers, and to identify the employees themselves in order to create a critical mass of students that would justify a programmatic response by a local higher education institution. Something like this once happened for K-12 teachers, who individually were working at many different schools, but who collectively generated the numbers that prompted universities to respond, creating a pathway by which the teachers could earn their graduate degrees. The kind of work I am suggesting through the development of consortia mediated by chambers of commerce would not always need to be for academic credit, depending on the circumstances, but regardless, the design would prove economically feasible and beneficial for all parties.

Initiatives from Foundations and Government

  • There is no shortage of foundations vitally interested in enlarging and enhancing educational success, and collectively they have spent millions of dollars to develop examples of best practices — and yet the results to date have been less than earth-shaking. But the reason underlying the modest success shown to date is that generally there is no true and lasting partnership: The foundation grant is to a handful of well-meaning individuals at a particular institution, but the institution itself has made no commitment to change its business model. And once the grant funds are expended, things generally revert to the status quo.

The missing ingredient here is government.

Whether at the local, state or federal level, there needs to be far better coordination between and among the funders (foundations and government agencies) and the providers of product (the higher education institutions). As it is, government and foundations often find themselves serving as individual funding sources when they could be collaborating. (State elected officials also worry about the cost to students and their families of public institutions, and recently have been endeavoring to create a shared policy regarding tuition prices. [10] Even so, individual states continue to cut appropriations to their public colleges and universities. [11] There are concerns that the Trump administration is abandoning the long-standing partnership between the federal government and higher education. [12] But good ideas continue to be advanced by both external groups [13] and internal government committees. [14])

Both foundations and governmental agencies are in love with the idea of consortia of colleges and universities collaborating to maximize the scope and significance of the work that is being supported by the grant. Yet as we have seen, higher education institutions compete with each other in every conceivable way. Expecting them to get together voluntarily to develop a shared philosophy in order to qualify for a grant will ensure, at best, lowest-common-denominator thinking. True innovation is far more likely to come from an individual institution, and long-term success will come when the resulting model is copied by other institutions as a new “best practice.” Funding entities should focus more on competitive grants (colleges and universities understand competition), rather than seeking cooperation and collaboration as a first step.

Finally, foundations and governmental agencies should stop looking at their traditional partners, and broaden the scope of their search image. Bluntly, true innovation is far less likely to come from wealthy institutions that are today well buffered against the winds of change (such as the Ivies), and far more likely to arise within tuition-dependent institutions for which pragmatism overrules an oversubscription to ideology.

As Samuel Johnson famously said, “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Innovation will come from institutions that are now feeling threatened — and funders, be they foundations or government agencies, should ensure that both public and private institutions are eligible to compete for funds.


The connection between educational attainment and economic strength (at the level of both the person and society as a whole) is so strong, and of such long duration, that we are inclined to take it for granted. Historically, as it has proved socially necessary and desirable, the level of educational attainment has grown with changing societal needs, but in ways that sometimes make it difficult to determine which is the cause and which the response.

This chummy relationship is now in peril  — a fact we have been almost fatally slow to realize. America’s current economy is gravely threatened by an imbalance between the actual skills and abilities of our workforce, and the needs of business and industry.

A highly inefficient educational system — a pipeline with as many leaks as intact pipe — acceptable though it may have been in the past, now reveals its inadequacies in 21st-century America. We literally cannot afford to have so many people of working age with such a limited set of skills — and yet our educational system is not in any way designed to raise the achieved educational level of the American public in a short period of time.

Leaving aside the question of the adequacy or inadequacy of K-12 education in America, our highly disaggregated system of colleges and universities, responding far more robustly to their own internal perception of needs rather than to those expressed by the broader society, is still showing its inability to be what America needs it to be today. Absent any even more compelling reason, there should be no expectation on anyone’s part that somehow — magically — all will be well at some point in the near future.

Some — a few — individual campuses will respond in meaningful ways and will therefore survive as institutions, but the likelihood that enough campuses will adapt to meet current needs is sufficiently low that America will surely face an extended period of slow economic growth, and fall behind the economies of other countries that are growing far more rapidly. The long-term consequences to the viability of American democracy are hard to predict, but they will certainly be negative.

The problem is akin to the challenge of untying the famous Gordian knot: Where to begin? Although there are things that will almost certainly happen for the better at some colleges and universities, and on the part of some businesses, the magnitude of the problem requires the government to play a significant role. This is the kind of problem that government exists to resolve because it is just too large to be taken on effectively by other component of society.

In the years at the end of World War II, and despite a decade-long Great Depression, followed by a brutal and devastating war, America nevertheless found within itself the capacity to respond to the “can do” attitude of our national leaders at the time by imagining a far larger population of college students than had ever previously existed. In the complete absence of evidence, Americans believed that by investing huge numbers of tax dollars to build and expand hundreds of colleges and universities they would be creating a better world for their children, their neighbors and the country as a whole.

We desperately need someone to articulate a similar need today, whether at the state or federal level, and those of us in higher education must be ready to respond to that call. We desperately need a new Truman Commission. The future of higher education — the future of America — depends on our collective response to this crisis.

[1] “Top universities could take thousands more low-income students, study says,” Hechinger Report, May 2, 2017

[2] “Spotlight on Innovation: How Southern New Hampshire is Replacing Remedial Education with Just-in-Time Academic Assistance,” Academic Impressions, Jan. 11, 2018

[3] “Spotlight on Innovation: A New Take on Developmental Education and Gateway Community and Technical College,” Academic Impressions, Jan. 12, 2018

[4] “Tennessee colleges face achievement gaps and decreasing adult student enrollment,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 9, 2018

[5] “The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges and Universities,” Archibald and Feldman, Oxford University Press, 2017

[6] “Why Free College Tuition Is Spreading from Cities to States,” Huffington Post, Jan. 5, 2018

[7] “Making College Affordable,” Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, November 2017

[8] “Mixed Reviews for California’s Proposed Budget,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 11, 2018

[9] A Dec. 11, 2017, posting on the Starbucks website took note of the 1,000th graduate of this program which was initiated three years ago

[10] “State higher ed leaders call for better coordination on tuition,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 9, 2017

[11] “Iowa’s public universities facing another $5.1 million cut,” The Gazette, Jan. 11, 2018

[12] “There are no quick fixes for the failing American university,” Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2017

[13] “Necessary but insufficient: federal-state affordability partnerships must also incentivize completion,” Young Invincibles, November 2017

[14] “The college affordability crisis in America,” U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, November 2017

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