Why America’s Obsession with “the Best” is Destroying Higher Education

Animal behaviorists and psychologists tell us that athletic competitions are symbolic warfare. In a simplistic parallel, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees (substitute the name of your favorite teams as you wish) are today what Athens and Sparta were in ancient Greece, or Venice and Genoa were in the Renaissance, or any number of Central and South American city-states were in the years before colonization by Europeans. Sports teams are tribal identifiers, uniting their “fans” (allegedly an abbreviation of “fanatic”) into an “army.” Members of the “army” often display their support by wearing the team’s colors or portions of their uniforms, thereby providing easy visual confirmation of their partisanship.

On one level, identifying with a team is a harmless outlet for the need to belong to something or to identify with like-minded individuals on a particular subject, and most people are able to keep their passion for their team within socially acceptable bounds.

But perhaps because modern technology has made watching an athletic competition at a distance (via television or online streaming) so easy and available, sports have become ever more integrated into our lives. Indeed, based on television viewership, sporting events are now our preferred form of entertainment. It may well be the case that at no time in human history have sports competitions been as socially significant as they are today.

The problem is that the rules and objectives of sports are easily applied to other areas of social endeavor where they don’t belong. In sports, the point of competition, especially in current times, is not merely to compete; it is to win. We want to know which team is “the best,” and we create “playoffs” or “title matches” or “championships” to settle the question of who or what is “the best.” Huge numbers of people are glued to their various media outlets for major championships; enormous amounts of money are wagered on the outcomes; coverage of the big games is so ubiquitous that those not interested find it difficult to identify someone with whom to have a conversation on any other topic.

Regrettably, this obsession with “the best” is undermining higher education in three distinct ways.

First, a great deal of money is spent by colleges on their athletics programs, and that money is therefore unavailable to support academics or other more central functions of the college. It is not unusual to find a basketball or football coach who is, by five or more times, the most highly compensated university employee. Yet it is rare that an athletics program generates enough revenue to pay for its operating budget (let alone the capital costs of arenas and stadiums). In fact, fewer than two dozen universities make a profit on athletics, and it is common that a university in Division 1 will divert several tens of millions of dollars annually from its general operating budget into the athletic budget to make up the difference between revenue and expenses.

Why are universities so often besotted by their athletics programs?

The most common answer is to build school spirit, by which they mean to create a campus climate that will induce students to enroll and alumni to donate — but that only happens if they have winning teams. Of course, they can’t all be “the best” at the national level — by definition there is only one of those — but they can potentially win their conference, and perhaps be selected for post conference play, and (depending on the sport) even be on national television. Or they can go broke trying to reach that level of distinction. We might wish that some of these schools would show similar commitment to enhancing the quality of their educational programs.

In sum, college athletics generally contributes significantly to the overall cost of running the university, and therefore also contributes disproportionately to the rapidly rising costs of tuition and fees, but with no demonstrable educational benefit to the students.

Second, college sports teams are now being used as proxies for the institutions themselves. “Our football team won the national championship;” ergo, we are “the best” in the classroom as well. That reasoning is completely ridiculous, but easily exemplified: the University of Alabama, long a powerhouse in football but not historically highly regarded for its academics (U.S. News & World Report currently ranks it the 110th best national university) has nonetheless parlayed its football success into an expansion of its enrollment. Over the past decade it has grown its undergraduate student body by nearly 13,000 students, almost all of whom are from out-of-state, for a total of well over 16,000 students who are not from Alabama. Even though it discounts these students by a collective $100 million, the University of Alabama still nets more than twice as much tuition money per student from each out-of-state student as it does for each in-state student — so this program has been a huge financial success.

The irony, of course, is that the success of the football program has utterly nothing to do with the quality of the academic program. But our obsession with sports, and especially with winning, creates a visceral desire to be associated with “the best,” even if the reference is to a sports team and not the university itself.

Third, the ranking of sports teams has carried over to the ranking of institutions — not on the basis of wins and losses, obviously, but in an effort to determine “quality” (a synonym for “the best.”) It’s easy enough to construct a method of deciding the best football or basketball team (although the methods themselves are often subject to intense criticism, especially if the method chosen appears to put your team at a disadvantage). But what are the metrics that properly determine institutional quality? Universities are not sports teams; they do many things and serve many purposes. How do you construct a fair and objective set of metrics by which to measure educational quality?

The quick answer is that you do not, because there is almost no agreement on what the primary role of college should be, let alone how to measure how well it is doing. If graduation rates are what counts, colleges will preferentially select the academically strongest high school seniors they can find, and that will mean an overwhelming number of students from relatively affluent, mostly college-educated, families. First generation and/or low-income students will be passed over and left behind — not a desirable outcome for a society that claims to believe in meritocracy and the opportunity for social mobility.

The same kind of unintended consequence will befall almost any criterion you might choose.

Accordingly, the default criterion becomes how famous the college is, which is often a surrogate for how much press coverage its sports teams generate, or how large an endowment it has — and the size of the endowment is also generally related to its age (since endowments grow larger with the passage of time, those colleges that have been around the longest are advantaged). Most such schools are a few of the flagship public universities, or private colleges that have served generations of the American aristocracy, who have been both loyal and generous.

But this line of reasoning leads us to the huge problem we face today.

Too many prospective students believe that their long-term success hinges on whether they are admitted to “the best” college or university, although (frustratingly for these overachievers) the identity of the “best” university varies, depending on who or what is doing the ranking. “Best” can also vary from year to year. For example, over the past 20 years, U.S. News has annually named either Harvard or Princeton the best national university; the California Institute of Technology broke through to occupy that spot once, in 2000. While a given student may well have a preference, presumably not too many applicants would become despondent because they were admitted to Harvard but not Princeton (or vice versa).

Yet the fact that there is more than one “best” university (meaning that there are several institutions widely regarded as top universities) does not equate to satisfying the demand from well-qualified students seeking admission to “the best.” Lost in the stampede of prospective students seeking an instantly recognizable name to decorate their diplomas is the critical point that the real “best” campus is not necessarily the most famous, but the one that best serves the particular student’s interests. Unfortunately, our collective obsession with “winners” and “the best” drives the decision of college choice completely in the wrong direction.

There is no easy solution to this dilemma. As long as prospective students (and their families) remain obsessed about gaining entry to one of the handful of very highly ranked colleges and universities, we will continue to read stories of hard-working and conscientious students being denied entry to the college of their choice, and the heartbreak and sense of failure that results from that denial. We will read of the unfairness when a high-achieving, low-income student, without any resources or support system, misses out because a student from an affluent family, with ready access to tutors, private counselors and summer enrichment programs, was offered admission instead.

It’s like the problem a professional sports team based in a city of moderate size (and limited budget) has in competing with a big city team for the best players — and I use that particular analogy because it reinforces my contention that we have become used to thinking about so much of what happens in our society from the standpoint of how sports are structured. The best players want to play for the best teams, and the best teams are usually those with the biggest budgets. Top students want to attend top universities, and top universities are those with the most recognizable names.

The reality is that the prestige of the school has little to do with the long-term success of the individual student. A diploma from a famous school may help in getting a first job, but very quickly career success will depend on the attributes of the individual, not on the name of the school on the diploma. And many students feel out-of-place at so-called “best” schools, where everyone is an academic superstar, and many of them are rich as well.

As long as we have 20 times more students trying to fit into a place like Harvard (and that’s the actual ratio of applicants to admits), we can be sure that the great majority of them will face disappointment — even despair. Inasmuch as Harvard will never choose to grow in order to meet the demand of rising numbers of applicants, it’s time to change the narrative. Parents and high school counselors need to assure high school seniors that they will not be seen as failures should they attend anything less than the “best” university. College admission is not the equivalent of winning the 100-meter dash. College admission is the start, not the end, of the race — and that start can happen at any college or university.

Take a deep breath, prospective freshmen.You are not failures at the age of 18 because you were not offered admission to an Ivy League school. Focus instead on enjoying the education you will receive at the college that accepted you.

In the long run, you’ll be just fine.

Reversing the Victory of Elitism over Meritocracy

A recent trio of announcements relating to higher education emerged separately but deserve to be linked. By connecting these breaking news stories, we can see just how insidiously the quest for “excellence” has eclipsed every other competing social value, even in the world of higher education.

First are the annual reports of high-achieving students being crushed by learning that they were not offered admission to the elite colleges they had chosen — and that represented the essential next step toward the successful lives they had imagined for themselves. (This year’s letters to the editor from distraught students and parents were in The New York Times on April 22.) Failures at the age of 18! And all because they were going to have to settle for a college that was not at the very top of their lists!

Yet all these students had done is what they had been conditioned to do, almost from birth: work very hard earning good grades and accumulating extracurricular activities in order to join the growing competition for the relatively few seats available at elite schools, all in the name of “excellence.” Nothing less than “excellence” would suffice. The fact that the large majority of these high school seniors would be rejected or “wait-listed” — and based on the tiny number of students who are ultimately accepted off the wait list, “wait listed” seems best defined as “being placed in limbo and ignored for several months before being rejected” — thereby leading to senior angst on a massive scale, is just the price one pays in striving for “excellence.” (In other societies, this whole business might qualify as child abuse.)

Second, Amherst College, in the midst of a $650-million capital campaign, announced on its website that it had recently received a single anonymous gift of $100 million.

Third, in news widely covered by the media, Mount Ida College of Newton, Mass., founded in 1899, said that it will be closing its doors at the end of this academic year, forcing its 1,300 undergraduates (plus prospective freshmen) to find other institutions where they might start or complete their post-secondary education.

Consider the relationship of these three stories.

The elite institutions are not increasing the number of seats they have available for new students, yet they are under increasing pressure to admit more students who are high-achieving, but low-income — even as they are seeing growth in the numbers of highly qualified and relatively affluent applicants. The result is a continuing decline in their acceptance rates, thereby breaking the hearts of even more high school seniors. (The acceptance rate of applicants at top liberal arts colleges is generally now around 15 percent; it is in the single digits at elite national universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.)

Amherst College has fewer than 1,900 students. Now that it is $100 million richer, the college says it will construct a building and hire more faculty, but it has announced no plans to add students. Amherst students may have a marginally better educational experience because of this gift, but there won’t be any increase in the size of the Amherst student body. The number of students applying to Amherst will probably increase, but the freshman class will still have fewer than 500 students. Accordingly, the gift will actually reduce, rather than enhance, the likelihood of any given applicant being offered admission to Amherst.

And that’s regrettable, because for the past 15 years Amherst has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the second-best liberal arts college in the nation, just behind Williams College. Ah, but in the early years of this century, Amherst was ranked first, ahead of Williams. What would it take for Amherst to reassume its top position?

As it happens, the Williams endowment is about $200 million larger than that of Amherst. (That both colleges boast endowments of well over $2 billion — or more than $1 million of endowment per student — evidently is not yet sufficient.) Would a larger endowment put Amherst back on top? A successful capital campaign for $650 million may answer the question.

But does anyone other than the students and alumni of Amherst or Williams care which of them is number one and which number two? Moreover, the cost of burnishing Amherst’s already lustrous reputation may come at the expense of prospective college students elsewhere. Mount Ida went out of business because it could not attract a sufficient number of students who could afford to pay its tuition, despite deep discounts. That same $100 million would have kept Mount Ida in business by allowing them to increase financial aid for needy students. Instead, we have a closed college, and 1,300 students (many of whom are low-income) being forced to look elsewhere. The $100 million gift may provide a marginal benefit to Amherst, but it is not a gift that provides any benefit to American higher education in general.

I’m not suggesting that Amherst and Mount Ida were in competition for the gift; it’s almost surely the case that the anonymous donor at Amherst has a connection to that college and no connection to Mount Ida. Yet although current federal tax policy places a modest surcharge on endowment earnings for a relative handful of extremely wealthy colleges and universities, it is still the case that the gifts themselves are not taxed, a policy that encourages wealthy individuals to enhance still further the endowments of already exceptionally rich colleges and universities. And there is no end in sight. The growing inequality we see in the wealth and income of individuals and families is mirrored in the world of higher education. The “1 percent” syndrome also exists in higher education, and the chasm in wealth between the elite campuses and all others continues to widen.

This is a situation that does not bode well for our country. The students at these elite universities are disproportionately from families in the top 10 percent of wealth and income. Although Amherst meets the financial needs of its students, almost half of them have no demonstrated financial need and are paying the full list price, which for the current year is almost $70,000 annually (including room and board) — a figure well beyond the reach of the great majority of American families.

Why, with an endowment of over $2 billion, is Amherst’s list price so high? Two reasons: first, its competitors charge about the same amount. A significantly lower price might suggest a “product” of lesser quality. Second, a high list price discourages most people from applying in the first place, suggesting that the colleges think that families at the very top of income and wealth prefer to be with people of similar means. Four years at Amherst costs more than the initiation fee to join Mar-a-Lago; the mere fact that a person is present says a good deal about his or her wealth and power.

Too harsh? Take a look at the Williams College view book that is sent to prospective students, an oversized brochure that gets right to the point. On the second page, in capital letters and a huge font, it reads:






And in case your eyes slid too quickly over the words, “$2.5 BILLION” is printed in gold.

The following page of the Williams’ brochure is focused on the specifics: high graduation rate, low student-faculty ratio, acceptance at famous graduate schools (all the examples are in the Ivy League) — and high starting salaries, high mid-career salaries and the Williams alumni network to get those well-paying jobs.

The quality of the education? The transformative consequences of four years at Williams? Personal development? Those don’t warrant the big type. But in small type, on the same page, Williams tells us: “With strength comes responsibility. That’s why we use our endowment to level the playing field.”

Which playing field would that be? Polo? The one named for a student’s grandfather? How can an elitist school claim to be leveling the playing field when its students are overwhelmingly from the top tier of family incomes?

Federal tax policy has not only permitted but encouraged the development of a set of colleges and universities that are the educational counterparts of exclusive country clubs, where the price of admission deters average people from even considering applying. By allowing wealthy donors to make tax-exempt gifts to the very schools to which their children and grandchildren will be applying, we have created a wealth-based aristocracy that is both self-perpetuating and largely closed to those who would aspire to climb the socioeconomic ladder. A young person of modest means will not have the advantages of a great K-12 education, summer enrichment programs, special tutors and the many opportunities that are commonplace for the children of privilege, and will instead have to hope to be among the tiny number of applicants selected by elite schools who are not of the social elite.

So what to do? In various ways, professional sports leagues have addressed the problem of having too much success repeatedly concentrated in the same handful of teams. To address the same problem, higher education might consider creating a semblance of parity among a larger number of schools than the miniscule few now occupying the top rung. Specifically, I suggest that we follow the lead of the National Football League, which strives for some level of team-performance parity by capping the size of the salary pool for players. The salary cap ensures that rich big market teams do not have a built-in advantage over teams in small markets that lack equal access to financial resources.

How can that idea be applied to higher education?

A first step might be to eliminate the tax deduction for donors on gifts made to any college or university that already has more than, say, $1 million of endowment per student. An endowment at that level would permit colleges to draw down $50,000 per student per year — a figure that should itself be sufficient to educate the student without a need for additional funding (although presumably the college would still be charging for tuition and fees).

I recognize that the situation is far more complicated at those universities with extensive graduate and professional programs, where dedicated endowment accounts are restricted in how they can be used and where expenses can be much higher. So, for purposes of starting a discussion, my recommendation is limited to undergraduate education and the endowment accounts that are used for that purpose.

But unless and until we begin to swing the pendulum away from inequity and back toward parity, America will continue to be beset by the looming educational problem of the day: a rigged system of higher education where those with wealth and power are hugely advantaged in gaining access to a high-quality college education relative to those who have neither. The corollaries of this problem are a decline in the average quality of a college education; costs rising faster than students and their families can afford; rapidly accumulating debt from college loans and rising default rates on those loans, especially from those who started college, but did not finish; and a widening gap in income and quality of life between the college educated and those who are not, with whites and Asians disproportionately represented in the first group and blacks and Latinos disproportionately represented in the second.

That is not the America I want for my grandchildren. Let’s change it.

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

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 5: Is There a Disconnect between What America Needs and What Colleges Actually Do?

In my previous essay, I cited an op-ed by Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, in which he called for a doubling of the number of college graduates, in order to close the skills gap and produce the educated workers needed by today’s economy. Mr. Bok urged a massive expansion of public institutions (and their funding) to achieve this ambitious goal.

But it’s well known that almost all states have been moving in the opposite direction for many years. State appropriations for higher education have not only failed to keep pace with inflation but have declined significantly in most states, even as many of the public institutions have increased their enrollments.

How, then, can Mr. Bok’s call for many more college graduates be reconciled with the fiscal policy of the individual states — and how have public universities managed their affairs in the face of sharply reduced state appropriations?

It is common knowledge that, as a consequence of reduced state support, public institutions responded by raising their prices substantially. Over the last decade, in-state tuition increases at 50 public flagships, expressed in 2017 dollars, ranged from 3.9 percent (Ohio State) to 113 percent (Louisiana State). [1] Average annual tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities now range from just over $5,000 at the University of Wyoming to about $18,000 at Penn State and the University of New Hampshire. The public university with the highest price is the College of William & Mary, at $20,287. Room, board, books, out-of-state fees and incidentals are all in addition to these figures.

The quest for additional revenue

What isn’t as well known is the second strategy employed by public universities to recoup dollars lost from state appropriations and to enhance net income. That strategy involves luring students from other states (or countries) to attend as out-of-state students and charging them a substantial tuition premium. [2]

This quest for additional operating dollars creates a conflict of interest for public universities. Do they see serving the students of their state as their highest priority, or do they prioritize a robust bottom line? Or is it something else, such as national ranking or institutional reputation?

I randomly selected 25 flagship public institutions from all parts of the country and examined their enrollment patterns over the decade between 2006 (just before the Great Recession) and 2016. My analysis shows that most of these institutions prioritized growing revenue over increasing access for in-state students, especially for the vast number of low-income students who continue to be woefully under-served by higher education. Specifically:

  • In 2006, the average undergraduate enrollment at the 25 selected flagships was 22,054, of which 79 percent were in-state, 19 percent were out-of-state and 2 percent were international.
  • By contrast, in 2016, the average undergraduate enrollment at the 25 selected flagships had grown by more than 3,000 students to 25,165, of which 67 percent were in-state, 25 percent were out-of-state and 7 percent were international.
  • Despite overall growth, the lower percentage of in-state students meant that the average number of in-state undergraduates in 2016 actually fell to 16,962 from 17,430 in 2006.
  • Put another way, over the 10-year period, out-of-state students increased by 53 percent, international students by 423 percent and in-state students dropped by 3 percent.
  • Among the 25 universities, the largest increase of in-state students was 2,496 (Missouri); the largest decrease of in-state students was 6,058 (Purdue). Purdue also tripled its percentage of international students, to 18 percent.
  • One university (Alabama) grew by almost 13,000 students, but fewer than 200 of those were in-state. Alabama’s out-of-state population increased from just over 3,000 (20 percent of the total undergraduate population) in 2006 to more than 15,000 (54 percent) in 2016.
  • Only two universities (University of Florida and Florida State) among the 25 had fewer out-of-state students in 2016 than in 2006.
  • Over the decade, while there were some shifts in the national ranking of these 25 universities, as declared by U.S. News, there was no obvious correlation between national ranking and changes in in-state, out-of-state, international or total enrollment growth (or shrinkage).

What are we to conclude? Given the diverse nature of the enrollment changes over the past decade, it is obvious that the governors and legislatures of different states have not been of one mind regarding whether their flagship public universities should have the freedom to determine the size of the incoming class, the home state or country of the students they recruit or the amount of tuition they charge, as the universities considered the options available to them to resolve the budget problems created by reductions in their state allocations.

It is also true that campus leadership — individuals serving as presidents and trustees — inevitably changed during the past decade, so it is difficult to draw defensible conclusions linking actual enrollment outcomes with the motivation behind those outcomes.

Nevertheless, it seems apparent that identifying and securing more revenue was the primary concern for leaders at most public flagships over the past decade — even at the expense of limiting access to their prospective in-state students.

The motivation to prioritize revenue is understandable, but acting on that motivation, as many of the universities did, by very significantly increasing out-of-state enrollments, reinforces cynicism among the state taxpayers about how committed these public institutions really are in serving the public versus prioritizing their own self-interests.

The unintended consequences

Enrollment growth stemming largely from out-of-state students comes at the expense of other institutions, public and private alike. The out-of-state surcharges increase the total cost of attending these public institutions to the same level as that charged by many private institutions. These out-of-state students are not from families new to higher education or from traditionally under-represented groups. These students had always planned to attend college somewhere but were lured to an out-of-state flagship for reasons that one can only hope are educational in nature.

Additionally, in some states (e.g., Pennsylvania) the state colleges have seen significant declines in enrollment even as the flagship campus was growing — one class of state public institutions competing with another class of state public institutions.

Well, you might say, that’s just American free market competition at work. But when the taxpayers are asked to continue supporting a public university with a shrinking enrollment even as they are hearing demands for more support at another public university that is growing, it is easy to understand their skepticism regarding how the leaders of public universities are interpreting their mission.

And it gets worse.

Overlapping the decision by many flagship publics to emphasize the enrollment of high-paying out-of-state and international students (often with the consequence of reducing enrollment of lower-paying in-state students) is a general shift toward more affluent families and away from less affluent families. New America recently released a study [3] showing a significant enrollment increase at selective public universities over the past 20 years of students from the top 20 percent of family income —  and a corresponding drop in students from the bottom 40 percent of family income.

Consider the case of the College of William & Mary, the second-oldest higher education institution in the country (and a public university since 1906). More than half of its students are from families in the top 10 percent of income, and more than a third from the top 5 percent of family income. Conversely, only 12 percent are from families earning less than $65,000.

Or the University of Alabama, which, as we learned, added almost 13,000 undergraduates over the past decade, with fewer than 200 coming from in-state. Their merit scholarship program of more than $100 million (the largest of any public university in the country) allowed the institution to increase its share of students from families in the top 20 percent of income to 59 percent (up 13 percentage points in just 10 years) — and the University of Alabama is only one of a dozen public flagships that spends in excess of half its financial assistance dollars on non-need-based aid. Among all 50 states, Alabama ranks 44th in both educational level and per capita income. Wouldn’t you expect that Alabama’s flagship public university would be focused on improving the state’s economy by helping more state residents obtain a college degree and thereby earn a higher income?

In 1879, then-president James Angell said that the role of the University of Michigan would be to provide “an uncommon education for the common man” and thus be “an antidote to aristocracy.” But now more than 10 percent of its undergraduates are from families in the top 1 percent of family incomes, and only 16 percent are from the bottom 60 percent of all earners. The median income of the parents of students at Michigan is roughly three times the median income of Michigan families in general. [4]

What happened to “the common man?”

The University of Michigan successfully preserved its U.S. News top five national ranking among all public universities, but although it added almost 3,000 undergraduates between 2006 and 2016, it is actually serving fewer Michigan residents today than in 2006. You might have thought that, in a decade when the city of Detroit was struggling for survival, the focus of the state flagship public university would have been on the state’s needs. The state’s major newspaper certainly takes that view. [5]

Should a focus on the bottom line be deemed inappropriate?

Is a shift by certain well-known universities to serving more affluent families really a problem? Should we limit the opportunity these universities have to compensate for significant declines in state appropriations, or to compete with other institutions for status and rankings? Won’t the students who are being passed over enroll at other, albeit lower-ranked, universities and still complete their undergraduate degrees? Why shouldn’t these elite publics set a high bar for admission, if they can still meet their enrollment objectives?

These questions raise the critical question of the purpose of a public university. Is its purpose to become as “good” (meaning famous for its quality) as it can possibly be, or is its purpose to serve the public in its state to the best of its ability?

Three points:

  1. Public universities exist first and foremost to serve as “engines of mobility” — that is, to serve as the ladder up which climb those members of each generation with the requisite will and ability in order that they may reach their full potential. If we believe at all in social justice, then we must ensure that no student is denied a robust future because the ZIP code of his or her family created an insurmountable handicap. But we are failing to live up to our ideals. One recent commentator called our elite institutions “engines of inequality” because of how little they are currently doing to “cultivate our fabled American can-do spirit” by providing support for low-income students. [6]


  1. In the past, many universities established enviable records in effecting social mobility. Over half of the students from low-income families who attended an Ivy League school found themselves in the top 20 percent of all earners by the age of 32. [7] Public flagships have done almost as well — over a third of their low-income students moved to the top 20 percent. But the problem is the number of such students is tiny. Students from the top 1 percent of family incomes are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than are students from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes, and now the numbers of such students at flagship publics are declining when they should be rising.


  1. High-achieving, low-income students are almost as successful at top schools, be they public or private, as are students from wealthy families. Forcing them to attend less selective schools has a correspondingly negative effect on their graduation rates. Students are best served if their abilities roughly match those of their classmates — an argument for increasing, not decreasing, their numbers at elite universities.

In conclusion, in the absence of any coherent policy at either the federal or state level, both public and private universities act on their perceived need for increasing revenue (in part to make up for the loss of state appropriations, in the case of the public universities, and in part to be able to compete with their peers), and, to a lesser degree, to maintain (or improve) their national rankings. [8]

Regrettably, lost in their focus on revenue is their obligation to serve the public by making room for talented low-income students at their institutions.

It is unreasonable to assume that this situation will change for the better, absent state or federal policy designed to ensure greater opportunities for talented, low-income students.

But before we take up a consideration of possible initiatives at the state or federal level, we should consider the outcomes we most need to achieve. By starting with outcomes, we can work back to the policies we must create to achieve those outcomes.

Next week: Working backward from desired outcomes.

[1] “Flagship Universities with the Lowest Percentage Tuition Increases, 2007-17,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 17, 2017

[2] Interestingly, some of the elite private institutions followed a similar strategy, but for a different reason. Three Boston-area universities increased student diversity on campus by recruiting and admitting (presumably wealthy) international students, rather than by creating access for (presumably mostly low-income) minority students born in the USA. “Lost on Campus, as Colleges Look Abroad,” Boston Globe, Dec. 13, 2017

[3] Moving on Up? October 2017

[4] “In Trump country, a university confronts its skeptics,” Politico, Nov. 9, 2017

[5] “U-M socks away millions in endowment as families face rising tuition,” Detroit Free Press, Feb. 5, 2018

[6] “Poison Ivies,” The Baffler, Nov. 13, 2017

[7] Moving on Up? Ibid.

[8] “How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus,” Politico, Sept. 13, 2017

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 4: How Many American Adults Should Have a College Education — and How (and by Whom) Is That Question Answered?

A quick history of education

The history of education is fascinating, if only because it can be seen as evidence of how the powerful have repeatedly used limiting access to education as a weapon to deny rights and opportunities to the underclass.

Let me restate that point, because it is important: Historically, the expansion and enhancement of literacy rarely resulted from a deliberate policy of benevolence but instead occurred because at various times expanded literacy proved to be in the economic interests of the ruling class. We should never assume that the default position is increased literacy; to the contrary, the default position is continued ignorance of the underclass, and it is shocking to see confirmation of that even today. (Witness current efforts in Washington and in various states to focus public higher education on job preparation, at the expense of a traditional liberal arts education. [1])

In the Middle Ages, before Gutenberg and his printing press created mass-produced books, formal education was essentially lacking in most European countries — unless you were a monk. The capacity to read and write was essential for members of the clergy because they needed to be able to read the Mass or to copy manuscripts. But since the Mass was read to the congregation, it was not necessary (and, from the standpoint of the church, not necessarily desirable) for common folk to be able to read and write themselves. They needed to know only what God wanted of them, and the monks, who could read God’s word, were there to tell them. So no good could come from universal literacy.

The printing press, the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment all worked to change the thinking about literacy. And as the Industrial Age began to replace a largely agrarian economy, workers needed to be able to read, write and add and subtract numbers, in order to provide greater utility to the merchants and factory owners for whom they worked.

During the 19th century, free public education through grade six became a common goal in the United States and in many European countries, and the resulting more literate workforce drove economies upward. In America, the idea of a universal high school education began to spread during the latter years of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th century. But as late as 1940, only half of American adults had earned a high school diploma.  (There are still almost 25 million adult Americans today — nearly 12 percent of all Americans over the age of 25 — who never finished high school.) [2]

Currently, high school completion rates nationally stand at 84 percent. But that means 16 percent of the class of 2017 failed to complete high school, and too many of those are entering a world without the skills needed to secure a well-paying job.

During the 1950s and 1960s, as it became increasingly clear that a far brighter economic future awaited those individuals who were able to attend and complete college, parents lobbied to do away with the two-track system in high school (wherein high-achieving students were placed on the “college” track and less successful students were put on the “clerical and trades” track), and instead to create a system that would prepare all students for college. (Whether the students actually chose to attend college was entirely up to them and their parents, but the argument was that they all should be prepared to attend college.)

This was an important change because, until this point, the expansion of educational opportunities was driven by the economic needs of the state or nation. Now we began to see an argument being made on behalf of the individual: it’s not enough that we have sufficient numbers of college graduates to meet our country’s economic needs. I want my child to have that opportunity.

Who should bear the cost of education?

Thus began the tension between the twin beneficiaries of expanded numbers of college graduates: society as a whole, because more college graduates meant increased tax revenues due to higher salaries; and the individual, because the college graduate clearly benefited economically and in so many other ways, in contrast to the person with just a high school education.

This tension has been at the heart of the debate over the last half century about the funding of higher education: Is it the responsibility of society at large, or should it be primarily the responsibility of the individual, and his or her parents?

College funding obligations aside, the problem with the goal of universal college preparation was that it resulted in too many high school students with a high school diploma in one hand and a college rejection letter in the other (or a letter of acceptance that required the student to do remedial work before being able to enroll in college-level courses). That is, a high school diploma and college readiness are not the same thing. Indeed, in some states more than half of students with a high school credential are not qualified to enroll in credit-bearing courses in college.

One answer to this problem has been to increase the size and number of community colleges, where students with little money and/or a poor K-12 education can begin their post-secondary work. For example, under the California Master Plan of 1960, students in the top eighth of their high school class were guaranteed a seat at one of the campuses of the University of California; students in the top third were admitted to a campus of the California State University; and everyone else was obliged to enroll in a community college. The idea was that students who completed their associate’s degree at the community college would then be offered the chance to transfer to a branch of the University of California or the California State University, where they could complete their undergraduate degree.

The problem in California and other states was that the “open admission” standard for community colleges — where anyone can enroll, even without having completed high school in some states — placed the community colleges in the position of having to remediate the relatively poor K-12 education received by a majority of their students. The students were, in effect, repeating work they ostensibly had been taught in high school but that they obviously had never learned. Even the California State University, which admitted only the top third of the high school graduating class, found itself with enormous numbers of students who required remediation before they could enroll in college mathematics or English courses.

The odds against completing a college degree rise dramatically if a student requires remediation. Six-year graduation rates at the California State University campuses vary considerably, but several have historically been below 40 percent, a figure that is sadly typical for many state colleges in other states as well.

Graduation rates at community colleges are far worse, in large measure because the percentage of college-ready students is even lower than in the state colleges. So three-year graduation rates (for a two-year associate’s degree) often fall below 20 percent, and most never finish their degree, let alone transfer to a four-year school.

How much education is enough?

The cost of providing an opportunity for a college education to students who did not receive a quality K-12 education, or who are “late bloomers,” is enormous. And yet the reason behind creating this opportunity remains as valid today as it was when the “two-track” system was abandoned: How else are people who are born poor, who attended failing K-12 schools, who never “caught fire” in high school (or whose fire was somehow extinguished) to have the chance to improve their lives?

Access to a college education is that chance.

Americans note with disapproval those countries that force all secondary students who aspire to attend college to take a qualifying exam, the outcome of which is determinative as to whether that student will progress to a well-paying job or be relegated to the ranks of the working poor. America is the land of opportunity! We believe in second chances! Everyone should have the right to a college education if they have the intelligence and the will to succeed!

But there remains the question of the cost of providing such opportunities.

Although places such as New York City and California experimented with free public higher education, it proved too expensive to be sustained. Our collective will to create additional capacity at colleges and universities waned as the tax bills arrived. Besides, we reasoned, since almost half the students who start college today don’t finish, surely that suggests that many college students shouldn’t have been in college in the first place. In fact, the argument goes, we would be better off with fewer college students, and we could do that by raising entrance standards and excluding those who are clearly not capable (or at least not ready now) of handling a college curriculum successfully.

The fallacy of this line of reasoning is that it assumes that our current educational paradigm, at all levels of education, is as good and as equitable as it possibly could be, so anyone failing to complete a particular level of education does so because of personal inadequacy (“poor learner”), not because of inferior or inadequate instruction.

This simple dichotomy ignores the reality that students are not automatons. Many people face crises while they are seeking an education: a family emergency to which they must devote their attention; food or housing insecurity; not enough money for child care, books, transportation or tuition; discrimination because of race, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

The point is: While it is convenient to blame the unsuccessful student for failing to be successful, much of the time that lack of success stems not from inferior intellect or a willingness to work hard but from limitations entirely beyond the ability of the student to control.

Moreover, if we are already educating as many people at the college level as are capable of learning at that level, how do we explain the fact that there are many countries in the world that are educating greater proportions of their citizenry than we are? (And be careful about suggesting that their educational standards are lower than ours.)

Is our country doing enough to create successful and equitable educational pathways for students, both at the K-12 and the college levels? How do we meet the economic needs of our country with our current model? Reducing the number of students in college will do nothing to resolve the problems business and industry have in finding a sufficient number of workers with the skills and abilities these businesses require.

Do we educate to meet social needs, or is it about personal development?

In a recent article, [3] Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, makes a persuasive argument for a dramatic increase in the production of college and university graduates. Mr. Bok proposes increasing institutional capacity and doubling the number of college graduates by pouring a great many more tax dollars into public institutions. Unfortunately, in today’s anti-tax world, that suggestion will surely fall on the deafest of ears.

And really what Mr. Bok’s proposal demonstrates is the utter futility of calls for action that are not truly directed at anyone in particular, that do not include a consideration of the steps that would need to be taken to achieve the results being called for, and that come from someone — and I say this with the greatest respect for Mr. Bok — who is not in a position to deliver any of the outcomes that he wishes to see (since he is no longer the president of a university).

Mr. Bok is by no means alone in this position. The Lumina Foundation, a foundation with considerable resources, has been calling for years for a significant increase in the production of college graduates (and would appear to have the opportunity to make investments in ideas that might well advance its agenda). And early in his first term, President Obama himself called for a near-doubling of the proportion of college graduates by 2026 (but he never made a strong push to create the political will to achieve this outcome).

Regrettably, we have seen only very modest gains in the percentage of American adults with a post-secondary degree (associate’s or bachelor’s) or high-value certificate over the past decade. We must conclude that calls for action, in and of themselves, have limited value in enhancing the level of higher education attained by adult Americans. We need a more comprehensive and inclusive campaign.

With that in mind, might there be ways by which we could make education more successful for more people, thereby lowering the cost per degree received? And if there are, shouldn’t we start using them?

We will examine these questions in upcoming postings to this blog site. First, however, let’s examine how well colleges and universities are doing with our current model of higher education.

Next week: Is there a disconnect between what America needs and what colleges actually do?

[1] “Mike Lee, Mia Love: It’s time to modernize higher education,” Deseret News, Dec. 15, 2017. (Mike Lee is the junior senator from Utah; Mia Love is a congresswoman from Utah. Together, they have introduced the HERO Act—Higher Education Reform Opportunity—in the Senate and House to “open doors to new education opportunities” that do not involve four-year degrees at traditional colleges and universities, but focus instead on massive online open courses—MOOCs—and certification exams that utilize “alternative accreditation paths.”)

[2] “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” U.S. Census Bureau

[3] The Boston Globe, Sept. 9, 2017

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 3: The Relationship between a College Education and a Well-Paying Job; Reconciling a Liberal Arts Education with the Needs of Employers

Historically, the universities of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the colleges of Colonial Age America, had almost nothing to do with preparing young men for the world of work. (There were almost no women in college until well into the 19th century). Rather, the universities served to introduce the next generation of society’s expected leaders to classic Greek and Roman writers and thinkers, and to sharpen their skills in grammar, logic and debate.

To be sure, some students became lawyers, doctors or theologians, but for the most part the traditional college or university education focused almost entirely on teaching people how to reason, analyze and communicate.

Things began to change after the Revolutionary War, with the establishment of the first public universities. But even these were relatively scarce until the Morrill Act of 1862 established land grant colleges that were specifically devoted to agriculture and engineering — applied fields in which the acquisition of certain skills and knowledge connected an area of study to a particular line of work.

No longer were college students limited to the sons of wealthy merchants and landowners. Some now prepared for jobs in industry (as the Industrial Age came into its own) — and some college students were women!

In 1870, Johns Hopkins University, established on the German model, introduced the idea that graduate education and research should be within the scope of what universities do. The resulting production of students at the graduate level provided the faculty needed to allow new colleges to be established, and to permit existing institutions to grow.

Even with these changes, however, most college students still majored in the liberal arts, and many colleges taught only the liberal arts (as some do to this day). Liberal arts colleges, and liberal arts faculty, continued to emphasize the non-economic purpose of higher education: to instill a love of learning, and a life of the mind, as one of society’s loftiest goals—and a goal that needed to be nurtured and protected.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it had occurred to business leaders that people who had attended college must be quite smart, and they began preferentially hiring college graduates. They hired them not necessarily for what they knew, but because they had demonstrated that they were bright and could learn and reason with ease. Businesses were content to train these young graduates in the specifics of what they needed to know to contribute to the business, recognizing that they learned quickly and were likely to stay with the company for their working lives.

Liberal arts faculty and liberal arts colleges looked askance at such blatant commercial use of the education they had provided to their students, but since neither the colleges nor the businesses asked anything more of the other, both were content to let matters run their course.

Increasing educational opportunity

With the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, and the work of the Truman Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy in 1946/47, the doors of colleges and universities were flung open to people from all walks of life. These new students from the working class were far more successful than many believed they would be, and higher education in America was forever changed. The percentage of adult Americans with a baccalaureate increased from 5 percent in 1945 to more than 30 percent today.

Growth in the economy allowed the ready absorption of newly minted college graduates into that economy, and growing numbers of college graduates in turn contributed to economic growth — a kind of virtuous circle, where supply and demand for college graduates stayed roughly in balance, even as the economy grew and the nation prospered.

What should be the focus of education?

But everything changed with the Great Recession that began in 2008.

Almost immediately, demand for newly minted college graduates plummeted, even as the production of graduates continued, throwing the balance between supply and demand out of equilibrium. Those few businesses that were hiring could limit their search to individuals not only with a college degree but also with relevant experience — something that the typical new college graduate did not possess.

Businesses promptly canceled their training programs for new employees because newly hired but experienced employees needed very little training. Almost overnight, new college graduates — especially in the liberal arts — found themselves with few job offers, and obliged to accept temporary or part-time jobs. The college graduate working as a coffee shop barista became the image etched in the minds of the parents of college-age young people everywhere, and they wondered aloud whether a college degree was still the ticket needed to join the middle class — or even whether a college degree was worth the price.

Conservative governors of several states openly challenged the notion that public (i.e., taxpayer-supported) institutions should engage in producing liberal arts graduates with no marketable skills (conveniently forgetting, of course, about the “soft skills” possessed by the typical liberal arts graduate, such as the ability to think, reason, synthesize, collaborate and communicate, among others). We need more STEM graduates! We need more graduates in the trades! Even President Obama questioned  the wisdom of students who elected to major in art history.

The liberal arts faculty pushed back hard. Hundreds of years of history were on their side. As I have noted, the traditional college education was never about preparing people for careers. Businesses chose to hire college graduates and then train them. Now, they were saying that businesses no longer wished (or needed) to shoulder the expenses of training, so the task of preparing students for the workplace must, by default, fall on the colleges.

In the intervening years, the job market has improved and more colleges have seen the virtue of students’ combining a liberal arts education with specific skills in one or more of the professional schools (and/or of gaining relevant experience while an undergraduate through internships or other examples of project-based learning). [1] So the tension between the wishes and expectations of the businesses and of the parents of college students on the one hand, and the liberal arts faculty on the other, has diminished — but not vanished.

Neither side has relinquished its position. We await only another recession for a resumption of hostilities.

In the meantime, here are two things to consider:

First, a powerful case can be made that the best reason for obtaining a college education today is because of the strong interrelationship among being well educated, getting a great job and living a great life. [2]

Thinking about a college education only in terms of how it prepares you for a job can cause you to undervalue the other factors in living a great life, as well as tempt you to try to “time” the market — that is, to choose a major based on the needs of the job market at the moment. The problem is that the job market is constantly changing and what is “hot” today might be ice cold tomorrow. Getting a good educational foundation on which additional education can be built as and when needed is the better strategy.

Second, lifetime earnings in different job sectors broadly overlap. Engineers generally have higher lifetime earnings that English majors, for example — but some English majors earn more than some engineers. The point is, median salary for a particular major does not tell you the range of salary for that major, nor does it predict the actual salary of any one individual. [3]

The takeaway is that college students should not abandon their commitment to an area of study that ignites their passions to make themselves into something they are not in hopes of a potentially bigger paycheck. Lifetime salaries by major are not chiseled in granite, and the future is too uncertain.

But failing to appreciate what employers are looking for in a new hire is an equally serious mistake. To repeat, the better response is to combine the strengths of professional study with the breadth that comes from the study of the liberal arts by balancing your major (primary interest) with a minor in a completely different area that extends your skill set. For example, majors in graphic design or dance may be very well served by taking a minor in marketing or management.

Graduates in professional fields tend to be hired quickly (assuming that their area is in demand when they graduate), whereas liberal arts graduates often drift from job to job for several years before getting on track. Liberal arts graduates with some defined professional skills, on the other hand, tend to get started on their careers more quickly, because those skills are attractive to employers — and their liberal arts skills allow them to be successful once hired, and to advance their careers.

Final point: The traditions of the academy should be respected, if only because their ultimate value is proven by virtue of their longevity. Only certain religions can claim a longer history than can the oldest of our universities (in marked contrast to the relatively rapid turnover of businesses and corporations, for example).

But it’s true that, as our society evolves, certain factors that support our society must evolve along with it. Higher education today plays a very different (and arguably much more important) role in supporting and strengthening our society than it did four centuries ago. And we in higher education should not be so in love with our traditions and history that we blind ourselves to the need for us to adapt to current demands and expectations of our society. Our challenge is not to reject these demands outright but to respond to them even as we honor the values and traditions that are the basis of what we do.

Next time: How many Americans should have a college degree — and how (and by whom) is that question answered?

[1] “From Liberal Arts to Making a Living,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 22, 2017

[2] Great Jobs, Great Lives. Gallup Organization, 2015

[3] “Six Myths About Choosing a Major,” The New York Times Education Supplement, Nov. 5, 2017

Recognizing the Indigenous People of New England

Dear Roger Williams University community,

The arrival of Europeans in the New World is celebrated in the United States with Columbus Day in recognition of one of the earliest of the European explorers. But, of course, Columbus Day reflects the European perspective, and it does so at the expense of the indigenous peoples in the Americas, whose lives and cultures were forever transformed (and often lost) with the arrival of the Europeans.

During the last academic year, both the Student Senate and the Faculty Senate passed resolutions urging Roger Williams University to recognize and commemorate the fact that the land on which our campus now sits was, for untold generations before the arrival of Europeans, occupied by Native Americans. The two Senates hoped to provide some balance in how we recognize the “discovery” of America by having RWU declare an “Indigenous People’s Day,” and to so note the day on the University calendar. As president, I am accepting this recommendation, but with an important modification.

Columbus Day is not a particularly good choice for Indigenous People’s Day because it is a holiday and classes are not in session. Accordingly, at least for this year, I am declaring the balance of the week that begins with Columbus Day—that is, Tuesday, October 10th, through Friday, October 13th—to be “Indigenous People’s Week.” After all the years of ignoring them, it’s reasonable to conclude that the indigenous peoples of our state deserve more than just a single day.

It is important to note that the underlying intent goes beyond a simple notation on our academic year calendar. Rather, we anticipate and expect activities inside and outside the classroom that every year will provide our students the opportunity to develop a balanced view of the impact of European colonization of our region by ensuring that the voices of the indigenous peoples are heard. Given the presence of King Philip’s Chair within sight of the campus, it seems particularly appropriate for Roger Williams University to be taking this action – and to do so this year, when the campus discussion theme is “Talking about Race, Gender, and Power.”


Donald J. Farish,


A Statement on the Violence in Charlottesville

Under the guise of exercising their rights under the First Amendment, a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, members of the alt-right, and anti-Semitics gathered in Charlottesville on Friday and, outfitted for violence, paraded through the campus of the University of Virginia, brandishing torches and shouting racist and homophobic slurs as they confronted counter-demonstrators. Regrettably but not surprisingly, violence ensued, resulting in three deaths and almost two dozen injuries serious enough to require hospitalization. One white supremacist drove his car into a group of counter-demonstrators, an act that Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, subsequently labeled ‘terrorism.’

I repudiate in the strongest possible terms the hate speech and violence we all witnessed on Friday in Charlottesville, and I reiterate my personal support for ALL members of the Roger Williams University community, representing a variety of races, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations, gender identities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds.

As college and university campuses, including RWU, are preparing to reopen for the coming academic year, campus presidents need to find the right words to communicate to their students, faculty, and staff. How do we balance our inherent commitment to the First Amendment with the reality that there are provocateurs whose goal it is to inflame the passions of members of the campus community and, if at all possible, to incite violence?

I think it is imperative that we separate the exercise of the freedom of speech from the initiation or instigation of violence. Violence is NOT protected by the First Amendment, and neither is incitement to riot.

And it is equally important that university presidents speak to the messaging itself. Whenever challenged, institutions of higher education must go on record to reaffirm the principles that guide us and that form our core values. So let me be clear: Racism, anti-Semitism, and all expressions of intolerance and hate are in direct opposition to RWU’s commitment to equality and inclusion, and have no place on our campus.

Finally, I ask that you join with me in keeping the families and friends of those killed or injured in Charlottesville in our hearts and thoughts.

Donald J. Farish,


Is the Role of Higher Education to be Inclusive or Exclusive?

(Extended version of my essay in The Providence Journal, Aug. 10, 2017)

The United States is on a collision course with disaster. Unless we change our current model of higher education, our country will never have the educated workforce it needs to support and grow its economy.

A 2016 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, of the 11.6 million new jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession, 8.3 million (73 percent) required a four-year degree — powerful evidence that we are continuing the transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Yet a 2017 report from the Lumina Foundation showed that only about 32 percent of American adults have a four-year or graduate degree — a percentage that has changed little in the past decade. In the absence of a sufficient supply of college graduates, how can American business and industry grow? And if American business and industry does not grow, how can the American economy expand?

Don’t assume that the law of supply and demand will take care of this problem. That’s not the appropriate model when it comes to higher education because, overwhelmingly, individual institutions of higher education are focused more on maintaining, and if possible enhancing, their own reputation than they are on producing more graduates. In other words, their obsession with quality (often equated with ranking) eclipses society’s need for quantity — a statement supported by findings from a just-released New America survey of 1,600 American adults (“Varying Degrees”).

This obsession manifests itself in two distinct ways, both of which hurt the American economy. First, almost all four-year colleges and universities seek to admit the very best high school graduates they are able to recruit — with “best” being those with the highest GPAs and test scores, ideally from high schools with reputations for being strong academically. Because the publications that rank colleges and universities use, as one criterion, the percentage of college freshmen at a given college who are in the top 10 percent, or 25 percent, of their high school graduating class, these are the students most in demand. But if the American economy needs 70 percent of its workers with a four-year degree, which are the colleges willing to take students from the bottom half of their high school class? The answer is that these students have few college options and, for the most part, those options are unattractive. Colleges prove their worth and enhance their reputations by being exclusive — not inclusive.

Second, the emphasis on “quality” creates a grading system that ensures some number of college students must fall short of an instructor’s expectations, and falling short in enough courses causes the student to leave without graduating. The four-year graduation rate of less selective colleges is often below 20 percent — just one in five receives the degree on time, and the six-year graduation rate is commonly below 40 percent.

How can this model be changed to meet today’s societal needs? Here are three answers:

  1. Colleges and universities must dramatically increase their graduation rates. It is unconscionable that there are institutions graduating less than 20 percent of the freshmen they admitted four years earlier. These low graduation rates are a national disgrace, and the American public should demand better. As a nation, we literally cannot afford to have half of each entering class of students failing to graduate within six years (“half” being the national average graduation rate across all higher education sectors). What other business or industry could survive if half of its input never made it out the door as marketable product?

Too many institutions of higher education continue to miss the point of their mandate. A college education should not be seen as the civilian equivalent of Army Ranger School, where a majority of would-be Rangers are expected to wash out. Colleges choose who they admit — and by choosing in this way, they establish what might be seen as a quasi-contractual relationship with their students to do everything in their power to help them achieve their educational aims. Instead, too many institutions still act more as judges than as advocates; more as inquisitors than mentors; more as auditors than as teachers. And when students fall short of expectations, the conclusion is that they are poor learners, not that the institution is doing a poor job of teaching.

The response to these criticisms is, of course, predictable. “Gasp! You would have us lower our standards of quality in order to give students outcomes they neither earned nor deserve!” To which I respond: Nonsense! We can provide far more guidance and assistance to students without in any way compromising the expectations we have of what and how they learn. We can enliven in-class and out-of-class instruction to make learning far more interesting. We can move away from counting the hours a student must spend in a classroom to earn three credits, and move towards a direct assessment of the learning outcomes we have for the course. These changes are all within our reach and ability, yet for the most part we ignore them — because there is not yet sufficient pressure and expectation for us to change the standard model.

Suppose the regional accreditors (or the federal government) set an outcome standard of, say, 75 percent graduation in four years of all full-time students (those taking 15 or more credits each semester). Institutions failing to meet that standard would be placed on probation by their accreditors or lose some portion of federal funding. Does anyone seriously believe that we would not immediately see far greater attention being paid to successful student learning? Why should it take the threat of penalties to motivate colleges and universities to do a better job of graduating their students?

  1. Lower income students must be given significantly greater opportunity and support. Institutions of higher learning do a respectable job with students from the top quarter of family income, many of whom have college-educated parents, and almost all of whom are the product of quite good K-12 school systems. About 77 percent of students in this income bracket will ultimately earn a four-year degree.

However, colleges and universities have had much less success with students from the bottom quarter of family income, only 9 percent of whom will earn a four-year degree. If the United States is to see a significant increase in the percentage of adults with a four-year degree, we must work to make students from the bottom quarter of family income more successful.

Creating greater access and better educational outcomes for low-income students is not an insurmountable problem; we’re just choosing not to address it.

Many of these students did not attend high quality K-12 schools; most will be first-generation college students; they may or may not receive moral support from their families; they are generally unfamiliar with how colleges operate, and often feel out-of-place trying to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. By providing them with educational “coaches” — individuals dedicated to helping them in every facet of their lives — a few institutions have seen dramatic increases in retention and graduation. This model should be the norm, not the exception.

And we have to stop punishing people just for being poor. Low-income families tend to live in areas where the K-12 school system is often terrible; where the neighborhood is often dangerous; where families routinely confront food and housing insecurity, and move frequently, often disrupting the children’s education. Then, when the children finish high school, too often their only educational option is a community college, where funding on a per-student basis is far lower than at state colleges and universities, to say nothing of most non-profit private institutions. And we wonder why low-income students are one-eighth as likely to earn a four-year degree as are high-income students, who overwhelmingly attend colleges and universities that are far better funded on a per-student basis?

Why does our society find it in any way acceptable to provide the most financial support for those who need it least (students from the top quarter of family incomes), and to provide the least financial support for those who need it most (students from the bottom quarter of family incomes)?

  1. A new educational model is needed for working adults who require additional skills, or who want to complete their undergraduate degree. There are literally millions of American adults who have more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. Virtually all of them would be economically better off with a four-year degree, and surveys find that about 75 percent of them would very much like to have a four-year degree. But the opportunity to do so is just not available.

The traditional model for a college degree requires four years of full-time study, typically in residence. This model is all but useless for a working adult who cannot give up employment to attend college, and whose time is limited by job and family responsibilities. Not-for-profit higher education has been painfully slow to respond to this need, a fact that provided the opportunity for for-profit institutions to enter the market and develop what can most charitably be described as a “mixed” record.

America’s need for a far better-educated workforce cannot be met simply by enrolling more high school graduates. We must also develop new methodologies to serve working adults, who neither need nor want a “seat time” education (that is, one based on the input of how many hours a person spends in a lecture hall to earn a college credit). Rather, they need to earn credits based on the output of academic competencies achieved. This model is moving with glacial slowness in the world of traditional higher education; change has to happen far more quickly, in order that the educational needs of millions of adult Americans can be met, and in order that we can create the larger pool of college-educated workers that our economy so desperately needs.

Accomplishing even one of these three changes will be challenging. Achieving all three may seem impossible. Yet while there is a real sense of urgency on the part of both the American public and the American economy, it is not necessary that all of higher education responds overnight. It is enough that some institutions, public or private, decide that there are certain actions that they can take that will address these three changes. And they can do so while still protecting their ranking:

  • Programs for adults can be developed in such a way that they will not interfere with the current college ranking system, which is based on measures relating only to first-time, full-time freshmen.
  • Working to increase graduation rates will help an institution’s ranking, because graduation rate is an important criterion in the ranking process.
  • Creating access for low-income students, on the other hand, may affect an institution’s ranking (because these students generally score lower on standardized tests and on high school GPA), but these institutions will have to ask themselves whether they exist solely for the purpose of establishing a high ranking for themselves, or whether their more fundamental purpose is to meet the needs American society has of them.

As even a few institutions respond to one or more of these needs, they will demonstrate that so much of what we think of as being fundamental and ingrained in higher education is, in fact, a product of the model we are using — and that model can be changed. Indeed, it must be changed, if America’s economic strength is not to be undermined in the coming decades by an educationally ill-prepared workforce. Higher education needs to hold itself accountable in ensuring that this gloomy forecast does not actually occur. And the first step in being accountable is to adopt inclusivity — not exclusivity — as higher education’s watchword.

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.