Purdue, Kaplan and the Purpose of Higher Education

(My essay in The Hechinger Report, May 2017)

Mitch Daniels, the Purdue University president and the former Indiana governor, recently announced that Purdue plans to acquire seven for-profit schools and colleges from Kaplan University, along with more than 30,000 online students and some 3,000 current Kaplan employees. The new nonprofit university will have its own name but carry the Purdue label.

In response, the Purdue University Senate held a special session and passed a resolution condemning the deal, saying it posed a potential threat to Purdue’s academic quality. The resolution also noted that the faculty was never consulted prior to the announcement, something the Senate said violated the practice of shared governance and faculty control of the curriculum. The Senate also questioned how faculty governance and academic freedom would be assured at the newly created university, and it called for a rescission of the decision by Purdue to acquire Kaplan.

The blogosphere has been buzzing ever since. A story in Inside Higher Ed (May 5, 2017) generated more than 40 responses in just six hours, most of which were largely supportive of the Senate’s position, although some backed President Daniels.

At the heart of the dispute is an issue that has bedeviled education for centuries: the struggle for access by those seeking education, and the opposition by those who are educated and who seek to preserve their special status by restricting access to newcomers.

In the Middle Ages, literate monks worked to prevent the spread of literacy to peasants. Colonial-era colleges were almost exclusively limited to the landed gentry (male only, thank you). African Americans were obliged to create their own colleges, since very few of the existing colleges, including public colleges, permitted their enrollment. Jews were placed on a quota system in the first half of the 20th century by many of our most prestigious institutions. Some Ivy League presidents opposed the GI Bill, because it opened the doors of higher education to the working class. There are claims that, even today, students of Asian descent face a higher standard for admission at the University of California than do white students.

The students (current and prospective), the colleges and universities, and society at large all are parties of interest as regards who are, and are not, offered admission to college — and their views are not congruent.

The purpose of college from the student perspective is to assure access to, and graduation from, colleges and universities that will prepare them well for their post-graduate future.

The purpose of college from society’s perspective is to build a stronger society. A recent study at Georgetown University found that 73 percent of the jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession required a four-year degree. Since only about 34 percent of adult Americans have a four-year degree, it is clearly in society’s interest to have more college graduates, and this means supporting the creation of educational pathways for students who are now largely excluded from higher education, including working adults and most low-income students. A better educated workforce, one with the skills and abilities needed by the knowledge economy, will accelerate the growth of our nation’s economy, and provide a higher standard of living for more Americans.

The purpose of college from the perspective of the individual institutions is to survive and prosper. At many colleges and universities, this purpose manifests as actions to protect and enhance their “quality,” a word we can interpret as meaning “reputation,” or even “ranking.” Purdue University is a fine institution, regularly ranking in the top 60 or so national universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. It has every reason to be proud of its academic reputation, and understandably wants to protect it. Purdue enrolls about 28,000 undergraduates, has a six-year graduation rate of 76 percent, and 43 percent of its freshmen are from the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class.

But Purdue is a public university, and surely that means putting the public’s interests ahead of its own. Our nation needs to double the current percentage of adult Americans with a four-year degree. Public universities are being called upon to scale up. Purdue President Daniels proposes to do just that, by putting Purdue in the big leagues of online instruction through the acquisition of Kaplan. He is doubling the size of Purdue’s footprint, without adding a single student to the 28,000 undergraduates now on the West Lafayette campus. As president, he has no interest in weakening the perceived value of a Purdue degree, so I take it as a given that he will be scrupulous in ensuring that the online students meet the same academic expectations as the students in residence. Many of these online students are working adults, who are only able to access higher education through an online option—and now they may have the possibility of earning a degree from Purdue!

The issue of how higher education can better serve society was made more immediate by the recent release of survey results showing that 58 percent of adult Americans believe that colleges and universities put their own interests ahead of the interests of students (Hechinger Report, May 11, 2017). We in higher education can ill afford further alienation of the public.

The controversy at Purdue will not be the last time that faculty at well-established universities face the question of whether to place the obvious needs of society ahead of concerns they may have about the possibility of damage to their institutions’ reputations. I very much hope that the Purdue University Senate will reconsider its objection to what President Daniels is proposing to do. Purdue has the opportunity of showing the country how a great public university can provide even greater service to society by dramatically increasing access to a Purdue education.

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 6: Transforming the 20th-century university to meet the needs of 21st-century America

In this series of blog posts, we have examined the strengths and weaknesses of the American system of education — especially higher education — and its purpose from the perspective of the student, the individual campus and the nation. Today’s collection of colleges and universities represent the culmination of the largely uncoordinated growth of institutional, state and federal initiatives at various points in our country’s history, unfettered by any overarching national educational policy. The absence of a higher education policy is both a primary strength (it has created competition among colleges, and competition promotes quality) and a primary weakness (most colleges and universities overemphasize their own interests, and, as we have seen, those interests are not generally congruent with the broader interests of individual students or society at large).

As measured by the economic strength of the United States, we are obliged to conclude that this model has historically served our nation well—but, as other nations have dramatically increased their investments in higher education, it is far from assured that our higher education model is well suited to preserving our nation’s strong economy in the future.  Prior posts in this series have addressed this problem in detail.  Now it is time to consider the changes that are overdue, if we are to retain our country’s economic hegemony — to say nothing of the need to rebuild the socioeconomic ladder if ambitious and hard-working low-income students are to escape poverty.

The National Goal

As the United States continues its economic evolution from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, the country requires a workforce with the level of education that meets the needs of today’s job market. Although not all futurists agree, prevailing wisdom is that between 60 percent and 70 percent of jobs in the future will require post-secondary education — that is, a high-quality certificate or an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree. In 2008, President Obama set a goal of having 60 percent of American adults with post-secondary education by 2026, and the Lumina Foundation concurred. Regrettably, as a nation we are stuck at about 45 percent, and virtually no progress toward the 60 percent target occurred during the Obama era.

In short, the current model of post-secondary education has not proven responsive to meeting the changing educational needs of the country. A new model is needed — just as in 1893, when a presidential commission called for a national goal of universal high school graduation, and again following World War II, when the G.I. Bill opened the doors of higher education to those who had historically been denied access.

What changes are needed for at least 60 percent of American adults to acquire post-secondary education? I believe several things must happen simultaneously, since no single change will be adequate to meet the 60 percent target.

Setting Policy Priorities

  1. Society’s Interests Must Prevail

In Part 4, we considered the competing priorities of students, society and the institutions — and the unsatisfactory result when these conflict. Since increasing the supply of post-secondary graduates requires significant financial investment, and since neither students (and their families) nor the institutions have the financial capacity to change the status quo, we are obliged to turn to society (that is, state and federal sources) for funding. However, in order to secure funding, the interests of society must take priority over the interests of the individual student or institution.

By today’s standards, that proposition may sound dramatic, or even radical, but it is important to recognize the long history of governmental involvement in higher education, beginning with the establishment and funding of the first state institutions in 1790, and the initiation of federal funding with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1863. The GI Bill of 1943, the Truman Commission of 1946, the creation of the National Science Foundation (the source of many university research grants) in 1950 and the introduction of Pell Grants in 1965 all represented additional governmental investments in higher education, and each had the express purpose of strengthening the national economy by expanding educational opportunity at the bachelor’s and graduate levels.

In order to garner public support for increased state and federal spending on higher education, it will be important to characterize this funding as an investment and not as an expense. Given the facts, this argument should be easy to make. In his or her lifetime, the average college graduate pays approximately $200,000 more in income taxes than the average high school graduate — an amount far in excess of the current or future level of per-student governmental investment. Investing in higher education pays off for society. Increasing the amount of that investment will increase the amount of national “profit” (in the form of additional income taxes).

So, while it is true that a better educated workforce is:

  • more informed on public policy matters;
  • far less likely to rely on the social safety net;
  • healthier and less likely to be incarcerated;
  • more publicly spirited;
  • on purely economic grounds, a strong case can be made that larger, not smaller, state and federal investments in higher education are both necessary and desirable.

But it is not appropriate for society to dictate specific educational outcomes, such as by choosing and preferentially funding the majors and subjects from which students must select. Beyond the fact that any society needs artists, musicians, philosophers and journalists to provide balance to a nation strongly inclined to favor wealth accumulation over truth and beauty, the $200,000 in additional taxes paid by college graduates over their working lifetimes already accounts for the fact that some of these graduates are in the fields we just listed. Trying to entice (or direct) them to become computer scientists or engineers, where the financial payoff to society is greater, is both unnecessary and unworkable. A free society must surely include the freedom to pursue one’s passion — even if that passion is sometimes not highly rewarded financially.

  1. College for Everyone?

Some people who ardently support public transit do so not because they intend to use it. Rather, they hope that other people will use it, so that the roads are less crowded when they drive their cars. Similarly, some people argue that college shouldn’t be everyone’s goal.  After all, we need tradespeople as much as we ever have — but that should be the goal for other people’s children: My kids are going to college.

This is a difficult debate.  On the one hand, we value a society in which people are free to pursue their dreams, and if that means going to college, well, so be it. On the other hand, not everyone is well served by college, either because they lack the interest or ability to succeed, or because they are better served by a different career path.

But do young people of high school age really know what they want? What is in their long-term interests? Should they be asked — or required — to make a decision while still in high school that would forever determine the trajectory of their working lives?

The default position at which our nation seems to have arrived is that everyone should be educationally prepared for college so that their options are not foreclosed prematurely, and going to college to “find oneself,” to “find one’s passion” or just to postpone looking for a job immediately after high school is entirely acceptable.

The problem is, in an educational system that draws heavily from the public purse, it is both expensive and wasteful to allow — even encourage — young people to founder in college, as they attempt to find a purpose and a direction for their lives. That’s why many educators recommend a gap year between high school and college, or even advocate for a year or two of public service before college, to ensure that young people entering college do so with a clear purpose and commitment.

But advocating a gap year, or a year or two of public service, doesn’t resolve the underlying problem — that there are two irreconcilable perceptions regarding college access. Some people note with concern that our current model of higher education is wasteful and inefficient because it is too accessible to students who lack either the educational preparation or the personal commitment to succeed, and these critics use low graduation rates as proof of the wisdom of their perspective.

Others, however, point out that our current model discriminates against low-income students, students for whom English is a second language, and students of color, noting that all three groups are seriously underrepresented among college graduates. Far from limiting access to only the best prepared and committed students, they argue that the challenge is to expand access to more students from groups that have not historically succeeded in college.  Indeed, they point out, if this is not done, we have no arithmetical possibility of reaching the 60 percent target.

My own view is that the solution does not center as much on expanding or restricting access, but on creating a culture of success, where the expectation and goal is that the overwhelming majority of students persist and graduate (see Part 5 in this series). I’ll talk about how to achieve this outcome later in this blog post.

  1. Education vs Training

Members of the faculty may differ on many topics, but they typically hold one view in common: The role of college is to educate, not to train. By that, they mean college is a place where students don’t just learn factual information, although acquisition of such information certainly occurs. Rather, college is a place where students learn how to think, to communicate effectively, to assess the quality of the information they encounter, to prepare analyses and arguments, to extrapolate their understanding when faced with novel situations, to be nimble and adaptable, to work well with others, and so forth. These are the hallmarks of study in the liberal arts, and they are traits and abilities looked for and expected by employers. Much social growth and intellectual and emotional development takes place between the ages of 18 and 22, and spending those years at a residential college is generally of profound value to people as they begin their professional lives. They may have learned the fundamentals of accounting or engineering or architecture, but without the academic foundation of the liberal arts, they are not truly educated.

So for many faculty members, this comprehensive idea of education not only defines what college is intended to do, but also what a bachelor’s degree represents. Anything much different from what I have just described does not measure up to the “traditional” standard, and therefore is not equivalent. Consequently, new models of education are often viewed with suspicion and are rarely welcomed by the academy.

The problem is that this perspective conflates two quite different aspects of a traditional undergraduate degree taken in residence: information acquisition and intellectual understanding on the one hand, and social and emotional growth on the other. Ideally, both occur at colleges today. Both are needed for success in a career and in life. And four years seems to be about the right amount of time to spend.

But, surely, we should not expect that an educational model developed for recent high school graduates would meet the needs of working adults equally well. Yet, that is typically all we have to offer to working adults who decide to start (or complete) their bachelor’s degree. Rather than a one-size-fits-all educational model, suppose we were to design a model specifically for non-traditional students, such as working adults. How would it look?

  1. Expanding the College Market

There are 27 million Americans who started college but didn’t finish, but there are remarkably few avenues open to them to complete their studies because institutions of higher education are focused on the recent high school graduate — not the working adult without an undergraduate degree. We cannot reach the nation’s educational goals by focusing just on improving the K-12 pipeline. We must also find ways of educationally qualifying working adults.

One of the things we must recognize is that a traditional college experience — in residence, full-time, dutifully sitting in the classroom 15 or 20 hours a week — is not only a terrible design for working adults, but it is also unnecessary. Much of what happens to traditional-age students while they are enrolled in college has independently happened to people who did not attend (or who did not finish) college. What is missing in their education is more factual in nature and less developmental. They do not require the social and psychological nurturing of most teenagers or lessons in time management. They can instead focus on the acquisition and use of information.

Those more limited needs permit an educational design that is both simpler and faster. Using competency-based metrics, rather than seat time (see Part 3), courses can be face-to-face or on-line (or blended) to allow students to move at their own pace, yet still acquire the level of learning reached by traditional residential baccalaureate students. This model of adult education is inching its way forward ever so slowly, having been delayed by concerns from regional accreditors and the U. S. Department of Education that it may not be sufficiently rigorous. But it is now in place at a few accredited institutions. The number of participating institutions needs to expand dramatically, if we are to serve the huge number of individuals who both seek and need the opportunity to acquire a college education.

Yet we shouldn’t limit our thinking just to traditional degrees. Very often what working adults need is the acquisition, or enhancement, of specific skills and abilities, as a consequence of the ever-changing job market. Colleges and universities can very easily develop certificates or badges in defined areas — blocks of three courses, typically — that can stand alone or be stacked in such a way that they could eventually be converted into an undergraduate or graduate degree.

We can no longer think of a college education as a one-time vaccination against ignorance that lasts for a lifetime. In the rapidly changing world of 21st-century America, we will need occasional booster shots to keep our skills current for today’s marketplace. Traditional institutions of higher education will either step up to deliver these booster shots or stand by while non-traditional providers start taking over our industry.

  1. Face-to-face vs. online

There is a widespread belief that the answer to expanding college access is through the internet. Everything can be put online, and all would-be college students can acquire a degree at their own speed — for a lot less than the cost of traditional colleges.

There is no question that some students would thrive in such an environment, but most traditional-age students would not. Imagine this situation: Your 18-year-old son walks into your living room and says, “Mom and Dad, I’m going to my room to take my college degree. See you in four years.” You just know this isn’t going to end well — and it will probably end before lunch.

Two things: First, most teenagers need far more structure in their learning environment than can be provided through a series of online courses. Second, this model raises again the distinction between education and training: It is very difficult to simulate the social environment of a residential college and the constant interaction with others in an online world.

Alternatively, online is often far more preferable and effective for adult learners than is a residential learning environment. As I argued earlier in this post, the absence of educational models designed to meet the needs of adult learners is a huge handicap in attaining our national goal of 60 percent of American adults with a college degree. It would be highly ironic if we abandoned a residential, face-to-face model of education for traditional-age students in order to force them into an online world, when what we need to do is build that online world for the adult learners who now are unable to access the educational model for traditional-age students.

Repairing the Pipeline

At present, about 83 percent of high schoolers graduate, and 66 percent of those start college (public or private, two-year or four-year) the following academic year. However, in some states, less than 5 percent of community college students complete their studies in two years, and, nationally, less than half of the students in public universities graduate in four years. These numbers are grounds for outrage. One wonders why the tax- and tuition-paying public isn’t running around with their hair on fire. We will never meet our national educational goals with so many students failing to complete their degrees.

To be sure, many students are part-time because they need to have a job while in college, but nationally 38 percent of community college students attend full-time. How, then, to explain such low graduation rates? Some number of part-time students do eventually complete their studies, attesting to their tenacity. But a delayed graduation keeps them out of the college-educated job market for an extended time, resulting in a reduction in both their income, and the taxes they pay, over their working lifetimes. Successfully moving more students through the educational pipeline, and in a more timely manner, is critical for both the individual and the country.

How might we achieve that goal?

  • Increase financial support: Our national goal should be to ensure that all students have adequate financial resources to permit them to be full-time. This would require a significant increase in the Pell Grant program by:
    • Enhancing the individual awards and adjusting them yearly for inflation.
    • Increasing eligibility to include more families.
    • In calculating the size of individual awards, factoring in living costs, not just educational costs, to address the current need that students often have to work while in school.

But wouldn’t such a program be prohibitively expensive? I could be flip and say “Not in comparison to the budget of the Department of Defense, and surely strengthening our economy is at least as important to our nation’s future as creating a new generation of nuclear weapons.” But let me be more practical. Here are several suggestions:

  • Phase in the increase costs over several years.
  • To maintain their eligibility for Pell Grants, require students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and to complete the appropriate number of academic credits annually to keep them on pace for a timely graduation.
  • Require students to have some “skin in the game,” on the order of $5,000 for an associate’s degree or $10,000 for a bachelor’s degree, with federal student loans available for students without the necessary personal or family resources.
  • Eliminate the tax exemption on investment income earned by university endowments, and dedicate those funds to paying for an expansion of Pell Grants.
  • Rethink the institutional purpose and the role of faculty and staff: As I said in Parts 3 and 5 of this series of blog posts, institutions offer a mixed message to students regarding their level of commitment to student success.  Some campuses regularly exceed the anticipated graduation percentage, predicted on the basis of student quality at entrance (high school GPA and test scores), whereas other campuses regularly fall short. These institutional differences in outcome result from the presence or absence of both student assistance programs and positive faculty attitudes to the students in their courses. We know enough about student learning, about the academic and psychological needs of students, and about best educational practices to recognize that there is absolutely no reason why families should be so tolerant of sub-optimal graduation rates that now give pause to many students and families as they contemplate the wisdom, and cost, of attending college. The financial consequences to the student, the family and the nation of a failure to complete the degree are simply too great to be accepted as inevitable. We must:
    • Hold campuses accountable for achieving graduation rates that reflect the relative academic quality of the student body, or lose eligibility for federal funding.
    • Hold campuses accountable for providing ways in which students can receive the level of support, inside and outside the classroom, that enhances students’ academic success, including augmenting the staffs of the Counseling Center, the Advising Center, the Tutorial Center, and other similar offices.
    • Make widely available the best practices of campuses that have high rates of retention and graduation.
    • Require the acceptance of academic credits transferred from any accredited institution by the receiving institution. Too many transfer students are currently required to repeat coursework at their new institution that they have already successfully completed at their previous institution.
    • Encourage more four-year institutions to create their own two-year college to allow less well prepared students access to a developmental program designed to merge with the regularly admitted students in the junior year. Most four-year institutions are so concerned about preserving their academic reputation that they seek to limit access only to students who are indisputably ready for college—and that is a formula to preserve the status quo, not one that will expand access or create progress toward our national goal of 60 percent of Americans with post-secondary education. We cannot reach the 60 percent goal by focusing exclusively on students in the top 25 percent of their graduating class. As long as that goal is seen as someone else’s responsibility, we are effectively encouraging colleges to think only about what they want, rather than addressing what American society needs today.
    • Not accept the cynical response that increasing graduation rates can only be done by lowering academic standards.
  • Recapture those who have leaked from the pipeline: Regardless of how effective the efforts are to retain students until they graduate, a significant number will leave without having completed their studies, for a variety of reasons. Are they doomed to go through life with “some college,” but no degree, and to deal daily with the economic consequences of never having finished? Today, the answer to that question is effectively “yes.” But, as I have argued earlier in this post, that is only because traditional higher education has all but ignored them and their needs. New educational models, focused on the acquisition and assessment of competencies rather than the amassing of hours of seat time, and using online education rather than face-to-face instruction, can be effective in assisting these students in completing their degrees, and qualifying for the jobs and salaries available only to college graduates — with significant economic benefit to themselves and their families, and to the country as a whole.

 Summary

Our current model of higher education has been adapted and augmented since the Colonial era to meet the changing needs of the local and national economies, but its evolution is no longer keeping pace with the current rate of social change. Specifically, our model reveals itself to be completely inadequate to meet the needs of business and industry that increasingly require many more employees with post-secondary education. Unless we find a solution to this problem, we face the prospects of being overtaken by countries and regions with a stronger system of higher education, and, as a consequence, with economies that are growing faster than is our own.

Several things must change at the same time to address this need for a higher level of educational attainment for more Americans. We must:

  • Increase the educational skill level of high school graduates. Too many of them are not academically prepared to take college-level courses.
  • Focus on a far greater level of college success than we see at present. College should not be the equivalent of a weeding-out process where the weakest and least affluent are eliminated — and in huge numbers. We must rethink our system so that the large majority of students succeed — and do so in a timely fashion.
  • Find ways of recapturing those who prematurely leak out of the educational pipeline, for whatever reason, through the creation of “intake pipes” for working adults who want a college degree, but cannot access a model designed for full-time traditional-age students.
  • Think of education as something that happens periodically over a lifetime, rather than as a defined period of time that, for most individuals, ends with a bachelor’s degree. Colleges should develop certificates and badges, designed for specific populations to meet specific needs, and typically delivered online, to meet the ever-changing needs of working America.

We are facing a painful paradox: The employers of America are asking for many more college-educated employees, even as many colleges are struggling to fill their classrooms, owing to the continuing decline in the number of high school graduates. Yet there are literally millions of working adults seeking to start or complete their undergraduate degree, or other program, but who have no place to go. Do the traditional colleges and universities of America have the will to respond to meet this new and growing need by developing programs to serve working adults, or by accepting less qualified students (with the understanding that they would also be accepting the responsibility to support and graduate them)? Or will the traditional colleges cling to the current model, perhaps tinkering a bit around the edges, and watch each other die off?

Our tagline at Roger Williams University is “a private university serving the public good.” If we are to be true to that commitment, we have no choice but to be in the front row of the vanguard of American universities that dedicate themselves to expanding college access to working adults and to those high school graduates who today are too often excluded.

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 4: Is higher education fulfilling its purpose?

Two quick data points: In comparison to the adult population of Rhode Island, Massachusetts adults are 27 percent more likely to have earned a four-year degree — and the median family income in Massachusetts is 20 percent higher than in Rhode Island. I submit that these are related data: The higher level of education is responsible for greater economic success. So if, as I have postulated, the key to rebuilding the American economy is increasing the attainment of post-secondary education, then it is essential we have an academically effective and economically efficient system of higher education. But to assess how well colleges and universities are doing, we must first agree on the purpose they are intended to serve. Is their purpose to meet the needs and expectations of students? Is it to meet the needs of the individual colleges? Or is it to meet the needs of society? Let’s consider some alternatives.

Purpose from the Standpoint of the Student

  1. The purpose of college is to allow young people to find their passion and role in society.

This was the primary purpose consistently identified by freshmen students until about a decade ago. College was a place to learn facts and knowledge and, in so doing, to hope to gain wisdom; to understand something about the depth and breadth of human experience across the ages; to test one’s beliefs and moral tenets against those of others; in short, to grow and develop as an individual. This purpose is still identified as important by entering freshmen, but only secondarily to their current most important reason for going to college — preparing for a job.

  1. The purpose of college is to acquire the skills necessary to qualify for a well-paying job.

This purpose is the one most endorsed by today’s generation of college students (and their parents). With the labor market continuing to undergo profound changes, and, following several decades during which growth in median family income has not kept pace with increases in the cost of living, students see a college education as an essential prerequisite for having the comfortable middle-class life enjoyed by many of their parents.

But we know that the market value of different majors varies enormously. Students graduating in engineering can expect a starting salary in excess of $60,000, and finance majors may start for even higher sums, but arts and humanities majors might earn less than half that amount. If college is all about securing a well-paying job, shouldn’t students with a burning desire to study music or English literature ignore their passion and choose instead to become accountants or computer scientists? Yet if they do, will they be successful? Will they enjoy their work and their life?

Studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in living a great life is to have a purpose (typically in the form of a job) that the individual finds emotionally and intellectually rewarding. Some level of financial success is also very important — but not if it comes at the expense of having to do a job that one hates. As it happens, students most often select majors that interest them, rather than choosing a major on the basis of the level of starting salary. Their stated reason for going to college — preparing for a well-paying job — is belied by their choice of a major based on their personal interest in their selected academic field, not on financial return. Perhaps this generation of college students is not so different from past generations after all.

From the standpoint of many students, the purpose of attending college is being met, whether that purpose is learning more about one’s interests and direction in life or acquiring job skills. But a great many prospective students never have the chance to attend college. Young people from lower socioeconomic levels often find college too expensive and too risky. The national six-year completion rate at public colleges and universities is less than 60 percent, and just 16 percent for those who start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution, as many low-income students do. A one-in-six likelihood of graduating — especially if a student must take out a student loan — is unacceptably risky, but there are precious few alternatives for ambitious low-income young people to assure their economic futures.

Viewed in this light, we are forced to conclude that college is only serving the purpose of some students.

Purpose from the standpoint of the college

  1. The purpose of college is to fulfill the campus mission statement.

The individual college or university also has a perspective regarding its purpose, and that purpose may have been amended or rewritten several times since the college was established. Thus, even colleges founded by religious denominations for the express purpose of educating clergy generally have become far more ecumenical — even secular — in the years subsequent to their founding, and today’s mission statement may bear little resemblance to their original mission statement.

Unfortunately, too many colleges have ended up all trying to do the same thing: Recruit outstanding high school students in order to enhance their own reputations. The fallout from this strategy is that too little attention is paid to the educational needs of high school students who are merely “good,” or even “adequate,” but are not “outstanding.” That is, there are very few high quality colleges willing to admit high school students who are in the bottom half of their graduating class. As a consequence, the educational interests of many students are in conflict with the ambitions of individual colleges and universities.

Let me provide a specific example.  Last year, the 20 private colleges and universities having the greatest success in fund-raising (new money, not endowment earnings) all raised more than $200 million each (one raised more than $1 billion). Put another way, the least successful of these 20 institutions raised 2-½ times more money in one year than the entire endowment of my own campus, Roger Williams University.

And in response to this remarkable success in fund-raising, they also all raised their prices — not because they needed the revenue but because they felt the need to keep pace with the price increases of their institutional peers. The list price of tuition, fees, room and board at 19 of these 20 institutions is now well over $60,000 per year — and the 20th institution costs more than $70,000 per year. Although all of these campuses are generous to the students they admit who have financial need, the number of low-income students on these campuses is not large, and about half of their students are paying the full price, meaning that they come from exceptionally wealthy families.

So why, in the face of great fund-raising success, don’t they lower their prices, encouraging more students to apply? The answer is that they don’t need to: They are attracting record numbers of applicants, and currently only accept between one in five and one in 20 applicants, depending on the particular institution. They are answerable only to themselves, and they compete with each other not for the best students (they all have “best” students), but on measures such as which institution raised the most money, or which had the greatest return on its endowment investments, or which has the largest endowment. Aren’t these criteria more suited to a Fortune 500 company than for institutions of higher education? Some commentators have, unkindly but perhaps accurately, described these universities as “hedge funds that do some teaching on the side.” When our most prestigious universities are mocked in this manner, is it any wonder that the American public has become increasingly more cynical about the value of college in general?

So as measured by the need every college has to meet its enrollment and net revenue targets, the very wealthy institutions are doing exceptionally well. The colleges and universities with endowments in excess of $1 billion, and with acceptance rates below 20 percent, are more successful today than at any time in their history.

Institutions (both public and private) in a second group are surviving, but not prospering. They are faced with a shrinking pool of high school graduates and a decades-long period of flat or declining median family income. The choice these institutions face is to increase financial aid to bring in the class (but risk not meeting their net revenue needs), or to meet their net revenue needs by holding the line on financial aid (and risk not bringing in a full class of freshmen). The institutions in this group are getting by, but each year brings new challenges.

Finally, there is a group of institutions that is struggling. A growing number of both private and public colleges are not consistently meeting their enrollment and/or revenue targets. In many parts of the country, the supply of college seats currently exceeds demand, and unless these struggling colleges can find a way to increase demand (such as by expanding educational opportunities to groups historically denied access to higher education), they will be forced to close.

Collectively, colleges and universities are finding that the economic opportunities and threats they face today are moving them away from their mission statements, and toward much greater attention to their business model. Wealthy universities are highly focused on accumulating more wealth, if only to keep pace with their institutional peers that are equally focused on wealth accumulation. “Surviving” and “struggling” campuses are doing whatever they feel they must in order to make it through another academic year (see, for example, “Cut to the Core,” an analysis of pending—and highly controversial—reductions in the core curriculum at Long Island University, Inside Higher Ed, 3 March 2017).  In many instances, the campus mission is in direct conflict with today’s economic realities, and, when that happens, economic realities win every time.

In light of what is actually happening at the moment, we may reasonably conclude:

  1. The purpose of college is to create a business plan that sustains the institution.

Purpose from the standpoint of society

  1. The purpose of college is to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another; to generate new knowledge; and to prepare future leaders.

As colleges that were established in the Colonial era to educate ministers in the faith of the founders later became secular, they nevertheless retained a strong sense of serving the public good, and not the whims of individual students. Additionally, public universities, most notably the land grant institutions, were formed to educate engineers and agriculturalists, professions that would enhance the economic competitiveness of the state and nation. Later, with the advent of graduate education and the professions, public and many private universities have become places where funded research is undertaken, and where doctors, lawyers and other professionals are educated, all with an eye to building a stronger and more competent society.

So, from the perspective of society, the purpose of college is much less about conferring a benefit to an individual, and much more about creating a well-educated citizenry, invested in the continuing success of American society and democracy. Over the past 40 years, however, the American public, through its elected leaders, has significantly reduced funds supporting public higher education, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) accepting the notion that the benefit (and therefore the purpose) of higher education accrues to the individual, and only secondarily (if at all) to society.

This is a critically important point, because, as I noted earlier, it is imperative that we agree on the purpose of college if we are to measure its effectiveness. If our collective view today is that colleges exist primarily to serve the individual, then clearly we have no obligation to invest public funds in the process: The individual and his or her family should personally cover the costs of a college education. Of course, reciprocally, college graduates, having paid for the cost of college themselves, have no obligation to “give back” to society, beyond paying more taxes as a consequence of the fact that their college degrees assure them salaries that are almost always higher than those of non-graduates.

The problem with this view is that it ignores those who lack the financial capacity to pay for a college education, meaning that this model minimizes social mobility of talented individuals from families with modest incomes. Yet, interestingly, even as the states have reduced their per-student support at public universities, the federal government has — through the Pell Grant program, federal work study and subsidized federal loans — created opportunity for at least some low-income students to attend college.

So, too, have the private colleges, especially those with sizeable endowments. The federal programs and the efforts of private colleges, however, are together far short of meeting full need of all prospective students, and do not begin to make up for reductions by the states in the level of financial support of public institutions.

What does it all mean? By now, it should be clear that there is no consensus on whether the purpose of college is for the individual, for the college itself or for society at large. Consequently, it is very difficult to measure the effectiveness of the current model because it is trying to achieve three very different outcomes simultaneously. As long as we cling to this multipurpose expectation of college, we will continue to have sub-optimal results. College is too expensive for low-income students and is therefore inaccessible for most of them. Collectively, even as a relative handful of institutions has become fabulously wealthy, most colleges are having mixed success surviving as they continue to rely on a business model that no longer meets the needs of America today. Society is not being well-served by an insufficient supply of new college graduates to fill the jobs needed by a knowledge-based economy, in which a significant majority of the jobs require a college degree.

Purpose Based on Today’s Reality:  Choosing Winners and Losers

  1. The purpose of college is to select those exceptionally talented individuals who will make their mark and improve the world around them.

We could certainly make the case that, if only by default, this is the true purpose of college in 21st century America. Today’s college students are disproportionately from families of at least some wealth, where typically one or both parents are themselves college graduates. They come from affluent neighborhoods and have attended very good K-12 schools. Indeed, well over 70 percent of the children of families in the top quarter of family income will become college graduates.

If the purpose of college has degenerated to a process of predetermining winners and losers, we are playing a high-risk game. The students who attend the top 100 private colleges and universities represent less than 3 percent of all the students enrolled in college, and that figure does not include those high school graduates who were unable to continue their education, often for financial reasons. We are gambling that offering a superb college education to a tiny fraction of college-age individuals (and letting the rest struggle to get by under sub-optimal circumstances) will ensure a talent pool for the next generation of sufficient size to allow America’s economic hegemony to continue in a world where many countries are investing heavily in their systems of higher education in an effort to overtake us economically.

Such a system is not just dangerous; it is also spectacularly unfair because it largely preordains the outcome (who gets to attend top colleges and who doesn’t) not on the basis of innate abilities or personal drive, but on the basis of one’s zip code. It does not foster social mobility, as evidenced by the fact that young people in families in the top quarter of family income are seven times more likely to earn a college degree than are the children of families in the bottom quarter of family income — and that ratio has not improved in the last 40 years.

So where are we? What is the purpose of college?

We are forced to conclude that the purpose of college is to preserve the status quo at a time when we desperately need to change the status quo. The educational playing field is sharply tilted in favor of young people from higher socioeconomic levels. We pretend everyone has an equal chance, that everyone can choose a major based on their passion or on their desire to make a good living, but we know the system is rigged: The likelihood of success is directly linked to the quality of the college at which the student is enrolled, and top schools preferentially choose students who have already proven themselves in high-quality K-12 schools.

Is there no hope of reform, or even of better outcomes? To the contrary, the fact that our current model of higher education serves so few interests well creates the opportunity to make major changes in the model. But before we start considering solutions, we will return to the problem of the leaky pipeline in Part 5: Can We Reduce the Number of Students Who Leak from the Pipeline?

Is Freshman Admission Only About Prestige?

The Background

In October 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $10 million investment to assist talented high school students of modest means gain access to “top” colleges and universities — “top” being defined as institutions with graduation rates consistently in excess of 70 percent. (There are now 270 institutions meeting that criterion.) Research had shown that less than half of high-achieving, low-income students applied to any “top” school, and this initiative was meant to address that problem.

In the press release, David Coleman, president of the College Board, said, “We cannot stand by while remarkable low-income students do not access the opportunities they have earned.” Mr. Bloomberg himself saw this as a worthy project because, as he said, “America is the world’s greatest meritocracy” and we need to make sure “that family income does not prevent talented and qualified students from applying to top colleges.” Both gentlemen were arguing that more high-achieving, low-income students needed to be encouraged to apply to “top” colleges. On the other hand, Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, said, “Top universities and colleges…cannot fully succeed…if they don’t enroll American’s top talent from all socioeconomic backgrounds to maximize our nation’s potential.” He put colleges and universities on notice that it is their responsibility to admit more talented low-income students. That is, it’s not just that more such students should apply; “top” schools need to accept them.

The press release itself, however, went beyond just arguing for fairness in the admissions process to note the economic benefit to the individual student: “Students who attend these [top] schools have earnings that are about 25 percent higher than those who attend less selective colleges.” I’ll examine the validity of that argument shortly.

Over the succeeding two years, several actions were anticipated, including the development of a cohort of advisers who would be matched with students of low and moderate means to provide guidance; the creation of research funds to allow analysis of the impact of the initiative; and the funding and convening of a task force of college and university presidents who would, guided by the Aspen Institute, “develop actionable recommendations [to] enroll and graduate substantially more of these high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students.”

Today

On Dec. 13, 2016, Ithaka S+R (a nonprofit that provides advice and guidance to the academic community), in conjunction with the Aspen Institute, announced the creation of the American Talent Initiative, a program that is the outgrowth of the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant. At present, 30 “top” colleges and universities (21 private, nine public) have signed on; more are expected in the coming years, but only institutions with graduation rates above 70 percent will be eligible.

This press release was picked up nationally the same day by, among others, Inside Higher Ed and David Leonhardt in his column in The New York Times. Mr. Leonhardt was especially effusive in his praise of the initiative.

And why wouldn’t he be? What’s not to like about a push for greater economic inclusiveness in the makeup of the freshman classes of very good colleges and universities, many of which have historically enrolled only a handful of low-income students?

As it happens, there are quite a few problems, both practical and theoretical, about this initiative. Consider:

• The only good school is a “top” school. Think of the “top” schools, collectively, of representing the summit of Mount Everest. It is the highest mountain in the world! No other mountain is its equal! Only the very best mountaineers can ever expect to reach its summit, and therefore the cachet of having done so is particularly strong, because the number of successful climbers is so small. Many may aspire, but few will succeed. This is a terrible metaphor for higher education, and yet it’s how many people think about college choice: “I must climb Mount Everest, or live my life as a failure. I must be admitted to a ‘top’ school or have everyone see me as a loser.” Surely, what we most want for our children is the opportunity for them to receive a great education that prepares them for success in a career and in life, as opposed to valuing most not their college experience but the name of the school that appears on the diploma.

• Capacity problems. American Talent Initiative’s goal is to increase the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students entering “top” colleges by 50,000 over the next 10 years—and there are currently at least 12,500 such students graduating from high school each year. These are not small numbers. How will the “top” colleges and universities accommodate the influx? The nine public universities that now each enroll an average of more than 29,000 undergraduates can presumably grow (although one wonders if a campus of such enormous size is the best learning environment for high-achieving, low-income students), but the 21 private colleges and universities (averaging 4,500 undergraduates each) do not intend to grow their enrollment — meaning that the high-achieving, low-income students will displace some of the high-achieving, higher-income students (or legacy students) these schools are now enrolling. For these schools, it is a zero sum game. In order to create more winners, there have to be more losers — and the competition for slots will be even more intense, and the pressure on high school seniors to gain admission to “top” schools will be even more intense and traumatic that it is at present. Just what high school seniors need: more stress.

• Why not expand capacity? Surely, the solution is to create a better balance between supply and demand: there are presently too many very good students trying to gain access to a limited number of freshmen seats. Why aren’t we working harder to expand the number of “top” schools? If the criterion is a graduation rate of 70 percent, can’t we create incentives for schools to retain and graduate more of their students in order to reach the 70 percent level? At Roger Williams University, through specific programs and practices we have implemented over the past five years, we have raised our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate from 78 percent to 84 percent, and our four-year graduation rate from 58 percent to 64 percent (for the entering class of 2012). Since the 70 percent target is a measure of the six-year graduation rate, it is entirely possible that RWU’s entering class of 2012 will reach that figure by May of 2018. Moreover, since subsequent classes are being retained at even higher rates than the entering class of 2012, RWU is not far off demonstrating a consistent graduation rate above 70 percent.

Will that make RWU a “top” school? Well, yes, in the sense that we will qualify, according to the criterion used by the American Talent Initiative. But the more important point is that a substantial number of colleges and universities could reach this figure if they tried actively to do so — and more “top” schools would reduce the anxiety of high school seniors (and their parents) seeking admission only to a “top” college or university.

At the very least, efforts by schools to reach graduation rates of 70 percent or more would respond to those who think that American higher education currently consists of just two categories: a relative handful of truly exceptional universities, separated by a giant chasm from a huge number of institutions unworthy of a second look by any talented and ambitious student. We need to create more universities that are seen as exceptional; to return to an earlier metaphor, we need more mountains to accommodate those who aspire to climb them.

• “Top” is not properly defined. For purposes of this study, a “top” school is one that consistently has a graduation rate over 70 percent. But this relatively high graduation rate is less a function of the quality of the educational program than it is the result of a rigorous winnowing of the applicant pool. These are schools that are designated “more selective” or “most selective,” meaning that they accept less than 30 percent of their applicant pool (in some cases, less than 10 percent), and the students who are accepted are almost invariably exceptionally well qualified, as demonstrated by high school GPA, class rank and test scores. Any college or university with large numbers of such students can expect to see high retention and graduation rates. Indeed, if one knows the academic index (test scores and GPA) of the freshman class, it is relatively easy to predict that class’s graduation rate. In other words, a “top” school is a school with many “top” students, not necessarily the best academic program.

Surely a case can be made that a better definition of a “top” school is one that shows the greatest academic gains (using pre-tests and post-tests), or one that demonstrates the greatest transformative results, or one that shows, from surveys, the highest level of student satisfaction — all of which are more directly related to the quality of the educational experience than is the level of selectivity at the time of admission.

• Is there an economic payoff from graduating from a “top” school? As I mentioned earlier, one argument for creating greater access to the top schools for high-achieving, low-income students is that they will have an economic benefit — perhaps as much as 25 percent greater lifetime earnings, as compared to students who graduated from “lesser” schools. Those earnings data come from surveys of graduates from many different schools, and they are intended to identify the schools with the greatest ROI — return on investment, meaning earnings relative to actual cost of their college degree.

The problem is that, once again, one of attributing results — in this case, income — to the school itself rather than to the relative success of the individual graduates. Might we reasonably assume that some number of students currently attending “top” schools are the sons and daughters of very affluent parents? Might a higher proportion of the graduates of these schools be brought into the family business, or be encouraged to attend graduate and professional schools, or be set up for success in other ways? There is no factual proof that high-achieving, low-income students themselves will benefit financially from attending “top” schools, only that their prospective classmates have historically done quite well financially after graduation.

• But are there any risks for high-achieving, low-income students at “top” colleges and universities? Actually, there are. Many students are painfully aware of whether or not they “fit in.” Are their classmates like them? Do they share a common philosophy and view of life? Is the college likely to be a “second home”? Some low-income students, even if academically high-achieving, do not thrive on campuses where everyone is as bright as they are — and where the other students are far more affluent, with more expensive clothes, cars and tastes. Increasing the numbers of high-achieving, low-income students at “top” schools may not be the panacea it is touted as being.

So what should high-achieving, low-income students do? Any prospective student should certainly consider schools for which he or she is academically qualified; choosing an institution where one is well matched intellectually with one’s classmates is important to consider. But ultimately students should select a school based on their sense of how well they will fit in, whether they believe they will be happy and enjoy their college years, as opposed to forcing themselves to be something they are not, in the belief that the prestige of the college is the only criterion that matters. People are ultimately the happiest when they buy shoes that fit and are comfortable, not when they force their feet into an attractive shoe that is the wrong size and hurts their feet. Perhaps it is wrong to compare buying shoes to selecting a college, but fit matters a lot in both instances in terms of ultimate satisfaction and quality of life.

And “fit” is the paramount issue, because the consequences of choosing the “wrong” school are profound: Nationally, only 67 percent of students return for their sophomore year to the college where they started as freshmen, and within six years of when they started as freshmen, only about half of all students graduate from the campus at which they began their studies. A student’s first priority should be select a school where they are most likely to graduate; a prestigious name on the diploma should be a secondary consideration.

The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education

My essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 15, 2016

Three questions: What does Donald J. Trump’s election portend for higher education? How should we respond to ill-conceived, threatening, or dangerous initiatives from Washington? Is higher education somehow complicit in President-elect Trump’s victory?

He did not focus on higher education during the presidential campaign, beyond an occasional bombshell, but with the Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress, many of their initiatives will now receive support from the new president.

Some proposals will spring from basic Republican values — reducing federal power and influence; shrinking the government; spending much less (except on defense), coupled with tax cuts; reliance on the free market. Some proposals will result from President Obama’s past actions, especially executive actions. Still others represent spillover into the world of higher education from deeply held concerns in other realms.

Here’s a quick list of things we should not be surprised to see.

What are the threats?

  • Pressure on colleges to reduce their costs or risk having their endowments taxed.
  • Greater emphasis on career education, at the expense of study in the liberal arts.
  • Re-enfranchisement of for-profit institutions.
  • Additional pressure on regional accreditors, and a push for even more educational credentialing by corporate America rather than by traditional colleges and universities.
  • A reduction of federal support for higher education, including the budgets of the National Science Foundation and the Pell Grant program, and greater reliance on student loans through private banks.
  • Institutional risk-sharing, if a sizable percentage of students default on their loans.
  • Raising the bar for unionization.
  • A weakening of Title IX, possibly including the elimination of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, or perhaps the department itself.
  • A rollback of pending changes in overtime eligibility.
  • Significantly fewer new international students.
  • Direct threats to the status of undocumented students.
  • As a result of one or more Supreme Court appointments, negative changes affecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community and women.
  • Defunding of climate-change research, weakening of environmental regulations, and expanding the use of fossil fuels.

What should we do in response?

Those things will surely not all come to pass, but it would be dangerous to assume that our academic lives will continue as before once Trump is sworn into office. What the higher-education community does in response will depend on the specifics of any proposal. But with a large number of academic associations having their annual meetings in January through April, this would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values, our students, and our historic role in supporting the American economy and way of life.

Has academe been complicit in the situation we face?

Sadly, I think the answer is yes. Ernest L. Boyer warned us more than 20 years ago that higher education had lost a key and historic value: the idea that we exist primarily to serve the public good. This was a universally held position at the beginning of the 20th century, even though those then going to college were primarily young, white, relatively affluent males. Ironically, as higher education became accessible to many more people in the years following World War II, it also gradually lost its spoken commitment to serve the public good. We started representing our worth by using metrics such as research dollars and publications, endowment size, exclusivity in admissions, and national rankings.

This would be a good time for us to consider how we might present a united front on actions that we perceive to be a direct threat to our values.

Underlying the 2016 presidential election was a deep divide between those who were succeeding (or at least who saw a pathway to success) and those who felt disenfranchised and abandoned by a society and a government that were not paying enough attention to their needs. The disenfranchised on the left backed Bernie Sanders and lost; the disenfranchised on the right backed Donald Trump and won. The responsibility of college presidents now must be to articulate higher education’s role in creating agency for many of those who feel disenfranchised.My campus has promoted affordability by freezing tuition for the past five years and increasing financial aid 30 percent; created educational programs for such nontraditional students as prisoners on work-release, teenagers entering the juvenile justice system, and inner-city high schoolers; provided training for corporate employees; and instituted work-force-development programs for underemployed workers.

It’s time for college presidents to make a collective pledge to America to stand for social justice and the creation of opportunities for those whom higher education has traditionally excluded. It’s time we recommitted to having as our primary mission “to serve the public good.”

Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 2)

Before we choose a solution, let’s identify the problem

In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.

Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.

The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 1)

Let’s examine the merits of the prevailing sound bites on colleges and universities

I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.

Ah, for the good old days!

This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).

As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?

Higher Education in America: A Way Forward

To change the conversation, colleges must actively and openly address society's concerns

It is becoming increasingly difficult to pick up a newspaper, open a magazine, or walk into a bookstore without being confronted with yet another screed about the problems of higher education in America, each one seemingly more shrill than the last. With book titles such as Academically Adrift, or American Higher Education in Crisis?, or Why Does College Cost So Much?, it is no wonder that the parents of a prospective college student are confused and frustrated as they enter the season of campus visitations.

By way of welcoming the start of college this fall, The New York Times recently devoted its entire Sunday magazine (Sept. 13) to a series of articles collectively entitled Collegeland. If anyone thought it was safe to go back into the academic waters, these articles will frighten them back to the beach before they get their ankles wet.

There is no question that problems abound in the world of American higher education; they are serious, and they need to be addressed. But the good news is that genuine efforts are under way at many colleges and universities to implement solutions to these problems. Not every college is deaf to the voices of criticism. Consider three of the most vexing concerns:

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 5)

A New Course Heading for the Ship of State

For the past several weeks, we have been considering the ramifications of a Moody’s study done in April of this year that noted a widening gap in wealth between a handful of very rich colleges and universities, and all of the other institutions of higher education in America.

Even as I was writing the posts in this series, something occurred that dramatically underscored my concerns about the wealth gap in higher education. John Paulson, a hedge fund manager and multibillionaire, gave $400 million to the world’s richest university: Harvard.

Wow! That’s an enormous amount of money! A gift of that size would have instantly placed the beneficiary among the richest 200 institutions of higher education in the country – even if that institution’s endowment had been zero when the gift was received. But think about this: John Paulson’s gift of $400 million is, on the one hand, the largest gift in Harvard’s 379-year history; but, on the other hand, it increases Harvard’s endowment by a little more than one percent, and, after taxes, it represents less than two percent of Paulson’s net worth. Isn’t it extraordinary that a gift of $400 million can be made with so little sacrifice on the part of the donor, and have so little impact on its recipient? And since $400 million is equal to the total annual income of all of the people in a city with a population of 25,000 (median family income in America is just over $51,000; assume three people per family, on average), this gift to Harvard epitomizes the outrage of many that our economic rewards system is completely out of balance.

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 4)

Pros & Cons: How America Funds Higher Ed

In the first three parts of this series, we initially looked at a report from Moody’s regarding the growing separation by wealth between a small number of extraordinarily rich colleges and universities and the very large number of institutions that are heavily dependent on tuition to fund their annual budgets. Subsequently, we reviewed the history of wealth acquisition by the very rich campuses and noted that it was a relatively recent phenomenon. Then we examined the consequence of this imbalance in wealth in terms of the long-term viability of tuition-dependent colleges and universities.

Now, in Part 4, we will consider the relationship between historic patterns of public and private financial support for higher education, and the current very high level of frustration, on the part of parents, politicians and pundits, regarding the diminishing opportunities for young people to receive a college education that is both excellent and affordable.