Higher Education in America: A Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

A New Course Heading for the Ship of State

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

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

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

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

Pros & Cons: How America Funds Higher Ed

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

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

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 3)

It’s Not a Good Thing to Be Other Than a King

In Part 1 of this series, I examined a recent report from Moody’s that predicted growing economic separation between a handful of the wealthiest universities and the rest of higher education. Media coverage of the report did not examine the consequences to either higher education or the American economy, should Moody’s prediction prove true, nor did the coverage assess the accuracy of the analysis, something that I sought to address.

In Part 2, I noted that extreme wealth in a handful of famous universities was not true historically, but is, instead, a relatively recent phenomenon.

Now, in Part 3, we look at the other side of the story: What does it mean to higher education in general that wealth is so unevenly and inequitably distributed across the 4,000-plus colleges and universities in this country? And why isn’t there greater concern about this extreme inequity on the part of the American public?

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 2)

The Growth of Institutional Wealth

In Part 1 of this series, “It’s Good to Be the King,” I addressed a recent report from Moody’s Investors Services that predicted a growing separation of a relative handful of super-rich universities from the rest of higher education. I also considered the media coverage generated by the Moody’s report, and expressed my bewilderment that the report’s conclusions did not generate deeper analysis and greater concern.

Perhaps the reason that there was not more media attention and review was because Moody’s summation of the institutional wealth of the richest universities did not surprise many people. There is evidently a broad understanding – and perhaps even acceptance – that some universities have amassed significant wealth, and that the universities with the most recognizable names, and/or the strongest reputations, are often the wealthiest universities.

Does Wealth Inequality among Universities Pose a Threat to the American Economy? (Part 1)

It’s Good to Be the King

On April 16 of this year, Moody’s Investors Services published a report entitled “Wealth Concentration Will Widen for U.S. Universities.” This report was the subject of articles on the same day in such major media outlets as the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and BloombergBusiness.

The underlying tone of the Moody’s report was fundamentally positive, as was true of the media reports referenced above. Given Moody’s previous grim reports regarding the perceived financial weakness of much of American higher education (see an earlier blog post in this series, Moody’s Blues, Feb. 14, 2013) a positive report on a few enormously wealthy AAA-rated institutions was presumably welcomed by many readers and investors.

Tuition-Free Community Colleges and the Law of Unintended Consequences

A detailed look at President Obama's plan

On Jan. 9, President Obama announced the America’s College Promise proposal, an initiative which, if adopted and funded, would make an estimated nine million students eligible for an average of $3,800 per year in tuition assistance at community colleges throughout the nation, for an estimated cost of $60 billion. (“Fact Sheet: White House Unveils America’s College Promise Proposal: Tuition-Free Community College for Responsible Students”)

Modeled after programs in Tennessee and Chicago, the proposal is closely linked to other initiatives of the Obama presidency, including increases in the maximum value of Pell Grants; the expansion of education tax credits; pay-as-you-earn loans (wherein loan payments are capped at 10 percent of income); and so forth, all designed to address the president’s call for increasing the percentage of the adult population with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from today’s level of approximately 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020.

Year Three of Affordable Excellence: An Update

How we have enhanced educational quality at RWU, even while holding the line on price

In October 2012, following months of discussion and analysis, the Roger Williams University Board of Trustees adopted an initiative called Affordable Excellence®. These two words reference a host of actions devoted either to making an RWU education more affordable to a broader cross-section of families of high school graduates hoping to enroll at a high-quality private university, or to enhancing the quality of that education even beyond its already very high level.

Higher Ed, Income Inequality & the American Economy (Part 2)

Will more and better education fix the economy?

Last week, I provided an overview on a topic of vital importance: the highly uneven nature of America’s economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008. Corporate America and its shareholders are doing very well – but the great majority of wage earners are not. What accounts for this unevenness? Noted Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw is quoted as saying, “The best way to address rising inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment,” (The New York Times, “Income Inequality and the Ills Behind It,” July 30, 2014). Is this statement true? Or does the real answer lie elsewhere?

The Ultimate Question: “Is College Worth It?” (Part 6)

Our six-week exploration unearths a clear answer to that question

We’ve spent five weeks looking at the question that continues to be the focus of reports and articles in the media – “Is college worth it?” – from the standpoint of four distinct concerns: its perceived lack of affordability; the burden of debt that faces so many graduates; the relative scarcity of well-paying jobs for recent college graduates; and the risk that a student will borrow money, not complete his or her course of study, and be economically worse off than if he or she had never started. (As an aside, I should note that the question of the worth of a college education has been so frequently asked that it is now being satirized. The Onion recently posted the following headline on its website: “Study Finds College Still More Worthwhile Than Spending 4 Years Chained to Radiator.”)