Education is Solution to Nation’s Most Serious Threat

(My letter to Rhode Island's congressional delegation)

Dear Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Congressmen Langevin and Cicilline:

Along with 400 others, I had the pleasure of hearing you speak on a variety of national issues at the annual Congressional Breakfast, sponsored yesterday morning [May 8, 2017] by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Rhode Island is indeed fortunate to have four such committed and accessible individuals representing our state’s interests so ably in Washington.

Had there been opportunity for some Q & A, I would have raised my hand with a comment and question. People may disagree about the most serious threat facing our nation today — North Korea? Isis? climate change? cybersecurity? — but I would argue that our country’s most serious threat is damage to our nation’s long-term economic security.

And the solution to that threat can be reduced to a single word: education.

Consider:

  • A recent study from Georgetown University found that, of 11.6 million jobs created since the Great Recession, 11.5 million required some level of post-secondary education, and fully 8.4 million (73 percent) required a college degree.
  • At present, only about 45 percent of adult Americans have post-secondary education that includes a degree or high quality certificate — well short of what the job market currently demands.
  • Colleges and universities do an excellent job of educating relatively affluent Americans who had the good fortune to attend high quality K-12 schools — 77 percent of the children of Americans in the top quarter of family income can expect to earn a four-year degree.
  • The same is decidedly NOT the case for children from families in the bottom quarter of family income, among which only 9 percent earn a four-year degree.
  • This 8-to-1 ratio of success, as between the top quarter and the bottom quarter, has not changed in 40 years! More of what we have been doing will not produce anywhere near enough individuals with the level of education needed by today’s employers.
  • Historically, calls for greater levels of educational attainment have repeatedly been greeted with slow response times:
    • It took almost a century for all of the states to adopt free and mandatory public elementary and secondary education.
    • In 1893, a presidential commission in recommended that all adult Americans should have eight years of elementary education, and four years of secondary education. By 1940, only 50 percent of Americans had accomplished that goal.
  • There was one exception to this kind of protracted response: When the GI Bill was passed in 1943, and was followed by the Truman Commission report of 1946/1947, creating a dramatically increased expectation of, and possibility for, the attainment of a college degree, the percentage of Americans with a four-year degree quadrupled in just 25 years—and that period coincided with one of the most robust periods of economic growth in our nation’s history.

My point is that unless the federal government catalyzes the process of creating more college graduates, the reaction time of the higher education community in developing opportunity for many more Americans to receive far more education will be so slow as to be essentially useless. The rapidly changing needs and expectations of the job market will greatly outpace the ability of higher education to respond, resulting in an American economy that will quickly be overtaken by the economies of China and other countries and regions that are far more focused on expanding educational attainment than is the United States.

What do I mean by “catalyze?” Federal grants and loans to assist low-income individuals to obtain a college education began in 1965; the creation of the Pell Grants (initially, BEO Grants) occurred under a Republican president in 1972 — but almost from the beginning, the size of the grants did not keep pace with inflation, and today, while exceeding the price of tuition at most community colleges, the maximum Pell Grant is well short of the price of tuition at flagship public universities, let alone the price of tuition at private colleges.

And it is the other costs — room and board, transportation, books, and miscellaneous expenses — that are the true impediment for most low-income students, and the Pell Grants do not address those expenses.  State plans that offer “last dollar” tuition guarantees will assist middle-class Americans, who do not now qualify for financial aid, and will provide them much needed relief from the burden of student loans — but these plans will do little to create greater access for more students, and nothing to improve unacceptably low graduation rates.

The federal government must increase its investment in low-income students, by doubling the size of individual Pell Grants (to about $12,000 annually), if these students are to have any real opportunity to earn a college degree — and it is properly termed an investment, not an expense, because, beyond the general economic benefit of having a large workforce with the skills needed by the knowledge economy, over their working lifetimes, college graduates pay on average at least $200,000 more per individual in income taxes than do high school graduates. The federal government will make money by investing in the creation of more college graduates. Surely that argument should appeal to both Democrats and Republicans alike.

Higher education institutions must do their part. We must strive to be inclusive, not exclusive — we need to provide access to students in the bottom half of their graduating class, and then support them such that they are far more likely to graduate than they are to drop out. We must commit to a culture of anticipated success, not expected failure. We must focus on serving the public good, not protecting our ranking in U.S. News & World Report. And those commitments must be in place if we are to receive the benefits of increased government investment. (The government’s return on its investment, through the higher taxes paid by graduates, is directly proportional to the number of Pell recipients who actually graduate. I suggest limiting the availability of the enhanced Pell Grants to institutions that graduate at least half their entering class on time — either two years or four years, depending on whether we are referencing the associate’s degree or the baccalaureate.)

So my question, gentlemen, is: Can you — and will you — support the notion of a significant escalation in government support of higher education, in return for the commitment of the higher education community to do its part in creating pathways to success for a significantly larger number of students — including working adults, who need their own pathway, not the pathway built to serve teenagers? I stand ready to work with you, shoulder to shoulder, to rebuild the American economy by expanding post-secondary educational opportunities for far more Americans than are being served today. Rhode Island is the perfect site for a pilot study of this idea, and Roger Williams University, for one, will commit to being a partner. Thank you for your consideration.

Rebuilding the American Economy

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

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

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

The National Goal

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

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

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

Setting Policy Priorities

  1. Society’s Interests Must Prevail

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. College for Everyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Education vs Training

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

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

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

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

  1. Expanding the College Market

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Face-to-face vs. online

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

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

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

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

Repairing the Pipeline

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

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

How might we achieve that goal?

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

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

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

 Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 5: Can we reduce the number of students who leak from the pipeline?

The underlying thesis for this series of blog posts is that the best (and arguably the only) way to reinvigorate the American economy is to increase the percentage of adult Americans with a post-secondary degree or certificate. But as we noted in Parts 2 and 3, our educational system is akin to an obstacle course, with annual assessments during K-12 that determine if a given student is to be promoted to the next grade, and semiannual assessments in college to determine if a given student is to be awarded course credit for the courses in which he or she has enrolled. What happens to individuals who fail these assessments? Are they lost from the educational pipeline forever, or is there a way back into the system?

At the high school level, the most common route to a high school diploma for those who left the K-12 pipeline prematurely is the GED (General Educational Development) test. But the number of people who choose this route is relatively small.  In 2013, 540,000 adults passed their GED test (about 75 percent of those who took the test), but that was less than 2 percent of the almost 40 million American adults who now lack a high school diploma. The point is that young people who drop out before completing Grade 12 are at high risk of never receiving a high school diploma. Our current system of education does a much better job of weeding people out than of welcoming them back in. And, as we move increasingly into a knowledge-based economy, the economic costs to society of having so many adults without even a high school education are enormous — as they are, of course, to the individuals themselves.

The situation does not improve as we move to higher education. Our historic model of higher education — four years of full-time study, with students living in residence on or near the college campus — has been significantly modified over the years to accommodate changing societal needs. But the focus has been more on creating access to a more diverse population of students than on creating successful outcomes as measured by graduation rates.

For example, in the years after World War II, there was enormous investment by most states in building and expanding a system of state colleges. These were typically located in geographically diverse areas of the state to serve local populations, meaning that many students could be commuters, thereby saving the costs of being in residence on the campus. These colleges were not only more accessible geographically, but also academically: High school GPAs and test scores that might preclude acceptance at the state flagship university, or at many private colleges, were often sufficient for admission to a state college.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the states also invested heavily in community colleges — which, as the name implies, were located in almost every community of even modest size. Community colleges are typically “open admission,” meaning that anyone with a high school diploma (and, in some cases, even without a high school diploma) is welcome to enroll.

Community colleges typically serve three roles: They provide enrichment programs for the local community (these generally do not grant college credit); they provide associate of science degrees in practical fields ranging from auto mechanics to welding to nursing; and they provide associate of arts degrees for students who plan to transfer to a four-year school and complete their baccalaureates.

Some states (California and New York, for instance) organized their public institutions in a deliberately hierarchical manner. In California, students graduating in the top one-eighth of their high school class were eligible to apply to any of the 10 campuses of the University of California. If they graduated in the top one-third of their high school class, they could apply to any of the two dozen or so campuses in the California State University. All other students were welcomed at the more than 100 community college campuses scattered across the state. The state required campuses of the University of California and California State University systems to reserve seats in order to accommodate community college students who wished to transfer after receiving their associate of arts degrees.

This model of higher education works much better on paper than it does in the real world. There is a constant tension between cost and outcome: Tuition costs are kept low to encourage enrollment, but graduation rates are also low. Nationally, only about half of the students attending public four-year colleges and universities graduate from the campus at which they began their studies — and “half” is the measure six years after initial enrollment. The four-year graduation rate is substantially less, and the three-year graduation rate for the associate’s degree at a typical community college is often less than 20 percent.

It is interesting to contrast the use of scarce resources in medical treatment (“triage”) with the corresponding situation in higher education. “Triage” refers to the determination of who receives immediate medical attention in a natural disaster or on the battlefield. Those needing medical care are separated into three categories: patients likely to survive, whether or not they receive immediate attention; patients whose survival may depend on receiving immediate attention; and patients unlikely to survive, even with immediate attention. A triage assessment directs medical attention preferentially to the second category of patient, where medical care is likely to do the greatest good for the largest number of injured people.

Higher education does not follow the medical triage model, because the higher education model directs the most support to the strongest individuals — and the least support to those at greatest risk. In systems of public higher education, significantly more public dollars are spent per student at flagship universities than on students in state colleges, and even fewer public dollars are spent per student enrolled in community colleges. Apparently, the underlying theory is that state dollars, which are always limited, should preferentially be spent supporting the students that are the most likely to graduate, get good jobs and repay the state’s investment through their taxes (which will be higher, as a result of their having a college degree). Partly as a consequence of more money being spent on high-achieving students, the six-year graduation rate on the campuses of the University of California, for example, ranges between 66 percent and 91 percent, with most campuses in the 80-percent range. At the California State University campuses, the range is from 35 percent to 79 percent, with most campuses around 50 percent. The six-year graduation rate of students who begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school is 16 percent. (Of the students who say, at the time they start community college, that they intend to transfer to a four-year school, only 33 percent actually do so.)

It should not be surprising that a decision to spend more money on high-achieving students would result in higher graduation rates, but the question is whether society is receiving an adequate return on its investment in all segments of public higher education. Even allowing that most students in state colleges — let alone community colleges — have lower levels of academic achievement in high school than do students admitted to flagship publics, should a six-year graduation rate of around 50 percent be deemed adequate? And what about a three-year graduation for community college students of less than 20 percent?

These questions get us deeply into the politics underlying educational policy. Most Americans evidently prefer an “unfiltered” educational pipeline. That is, unlike higher education in many countries, there is no one set of exams that candidates must pass in order to gain entrance to university. We believe in second chances. We believe in “late bloomers.” We believe in a system that is accessible at almost any point in one’s life. But we apparently also think it appropriate that students who have not performed very well in high school should face significantly longer odds than students who have done well, in the sense that their path to a degree will be much less generously supported by state funds and, therefore, the likelihood of their graduating will be much lower.

Every year, at graduation ceremonies around the country, the media run stories of students who have faced the most incredible odds and overcome devastating circumstances but who have triumphed and graduated from college. We celebrate their success even as we quietly applaud a system of higher education that allowed them the opportunity to try. But for every such happy ending, there are dozens of prospective graduates who fell short of attaining a college degree. Low-income students growing up in poverty, and attending failing K-12 schools, are hard-pressed to complete high school, and, even if they do, find themselves typically with a level of academic preparation inadequate to succeed in college. And with poor academic preparation, the only college access they are likely to have is a community college where, rather than finding themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment, they struggle to attend on a part-time basis because they need at least a part-time job. They realize they are part of a culture where failure is the norm — and success the exception.

The mixed message is hard to ignore. If you are born poor, society punishes you with an educational system that, at every step, is intentionally inadequate to meet your needs. And if you do complete high school, your reward is more of the same: an intentionally inadequate community college experience where, again, you are expected to fail.

We should ask ourselves if it is moral to malnourish (in an academic sense) a student in K-12, and then say we’ll make it up to you by giving you a chance to do something (attending college) for which we have not prepared you to be successful? Isn’t that like teaching swimming by throwing people into the deep end of the pool and assuming that a few of them won’t drown? Why are we so accepting of the cynicism behind such a model? It is certainly not in the best interests of the students, and if our societal goal is to increase the number of adults with post-secondary credentials, that can only be done by enhancing the success of the students in the bottom half of the economic spectrum. So this model does not serve our country well, either.

But while acknowledging that changing this model will take some time, what do we do about the adults who have, for whatever reason, missed their opportunity to complete college when they were young and now see no realistic option open to them, given the responsibilities and time demands that adults typically face? Our current educational model doesn’t just serve them badly — it doesn’t serve them at all. For all intents and purposes, if you leave the post-secondary pipeline without a degree, you are lost forever.

Whenever we have undertaken massive education reform in the past, the first challenge was to overcome the widespread belief that the system prevailing at the time was as good as it could be, and certainly adequate for societal needs. Thus, in 1893, when a presidential panel of educators recommended eight years of primary school and four years of high school as a national goal to meet the growing educational needs of business and industry, only half of adult Americans had achieved that goal 50 years later.

Similarly, there was considerable opposition to the G.I. Bill after World War II on the part of some college presidents who were concerned that the inherent prestige of the college degree would be watered down if more people had one.  The opposition lost, and many more students entered college. But they found the bar had been raised, and graduating from college was far from assured.

We have continued with that mindset to this day: We expect the rigors of college to be more than many students can endure, and that the failure of half the class to graduate is evidence of high standards (or, less kindly, the inadequacy of the students either in terms of intellect or work ethic) — rather than evidence of poor teaching and inadequate academic support.

The point is: America can no longer afford (in any sense of the word) to have a system of higher education where so many students fail to graduate. Study after study has demonstrated that, with sufficient academic support, much greater percentages of students can graduate than has historically been the case. As a society, we have to stop placing all the blame on students, and recognize instead that the colleges themselves are complicit in the poor graduation rates found on many campuses.

The fundamental idea has to be that institutions of higher education exist to promote student academic success — not to weed out those deemed “unworthy.” Institutions with that progressive mindset exist today, at all levels, from community colleges through some of the most prestigious universities, where the students consistently outperform their peers at comparable institutions because of the commitment of the institution itself (and the faculty and staff of that institution) to focus on success.

Students and their families — and state and federal funding authorities — can and should expect a much more full-throated commitment to improved retention and graduation rates on the part of colleges and universities. For their part, the colleges and universities have to stop claiming that such improvements can only come at the expense of instituting a watered-down curriculum.

The cost of failure is too high for the individual — and too high for society. Colleges and universities need to step up and take responsibility for meeting students at least half way in supporting and encouraging their success in graduating. Plugging the leaks in the educational pipeline is in everyone’s interest.

And, finally, we need to create effective on-ramps for adults without a college degree who want and need to complete their studies. Returning them to the traditional classroom built to serve 18-year-olds is neither practical nor sufficient, especially when other pathways can be constructed if we have the will to do so.

We’ll consider the specifics of these pathways and other ways of remediating our current system of higher education in Part 6: Transforming the 20th Century university to meet the needs of 21st Century America.

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 4: Is higher education fulfilling its purpose?

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

Purpose from the Standpoint of the Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purpose from the standpoint of the college

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purpose from the standpoint of society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 1: Optimists vs. pessimists

 

We have just weathered the most bitter and divisive presidential campaign in decades, featuring two fundamentally different views of the future of the American economy.

To Hillary Clinton, today’s economy predicted a bright future for the large majority of Americans. After an unusually brutal recession, unemployment rates had returned to near-normal levels, and family incomes had finally begun to rise. From Secretary Clinton’s perspective, more work needed to be done, but the country was basically on the right track.

Mr. Trump had a far more dystopian outlook. America’s best days were behind it, unless we somehow “made America great again” by pushing back against globalization, reinstating international trade barriers and recreating the well-paying blue-collar jobs that had allowed the remarkable growth of the middle class in the decades following the end of World War II. He ridiculed Secretary Clinton’s view that the country was on the right track and dwelled on the loss of manufacturing and mining jobs lost to outsourcing and unnecessary concerns regarding the environment, respectively.

In the end, Mr. Trump won the electoral college handily (even though he lost the popular vote), and he is now the president. There has been no shortage of explanations about why the polls — the great majority of which predicted that Secretary Clinton would win — were so spectacularly wrong.

It is fair to assume that many factors contributed to Mr. Trump’s victory. Even minor changes in one or two of these factors might have led to a different result. But the danger in such analyses is that we might miss — or at least greatly underestimate — the significance of one hugely important factor: the role that the perception of individual voters’ own economic success (or lack thereof) played in determining how they voted.

Mr. Trump won 26 of the 30 states with the lowest average family incomes. He won more than 2,600 counties that collectively generate 36 percent of the country’s economy. Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, won higher income states but fewer than 500 counties — and yet these counties collectively generate 64 percent of the nation’s economic activity.

An analyst from the Brookings Institution noted that “the Democratic base [was aligned] more to the more concentrated modern economy, but [with] a lot of votes and anger to be had in the rest of the country.”

In other words, the areas of the country (and the people in those areas) that had successfully transitioned to become the workplaces and workforce of today’s economy were prospering, and therefore were more likely to support the political status quo, whereas those most affected by the loss of 5 million manufacturing jobs in the past decade were struggling economically and therefore were more inclined to vote for a new direction for the country.

So James Carville’s famous dictum from the 1992 presidential campaign — “It’s the economy, stupid” — was true again this year.

Or is it quite that simple? Is the economy the lowest common denominator, or is there something that is even more fundamental? I submit that the economy is just a reflection of the true core. I think that the true core is the level of educational attainment of individuals in a particular community or region. If the counties of each state were ranked by average family income, the rank order would very closely correlate to the percentage of adults in each county with a four-year degree — that is, the more educated the population, the wealthier the county.

The earnings premium of a college degree relative to a high school diploma has long been recognized, so it should not be surprising that counties with many highly educated adults have higher family incomes than do those with relatively few college graduates. But emphasizing the link between economic prosperity and educational attainment is important for the most practical of reasons: It illuminates the easiest pathway forward for enhancing the economic well-being of families and of the country as a whole.

During the recent presidential campaign, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton proposed dealing with income inequality primarily by increasing taxes on the very rich. Not for the first time, this proved to be a politically unpopular solution. Many people of average means do not wish to redistribute income in this way.  They do not blame the rich for being rich. Rather, they aspire to be rich (or at least richer) themselves. They believe in growing the economic pie, not in re-slicing a pie of constant size to make the slices more even.

Growing America’s economic pie means augmenting the average educational level of its people. As we continue to transform from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, there will be an increasing premium on educational attainment. No amount of rejiggering the tax system can overcome that stark reality.

So the question is: How does our country ensure that we are once again growing the middle class? Is it by trying to recreate the well-paying blue collar jobs of the past? I believe the answer is: By ensuring that the richest country on earth becomes once again the world leader in the percentage of adults with college degrees or other post-secondary certifications. But how do we achieve that outcome?

In Part 2, we will analyze and evaluate the educational pipeline, from kindergarten to the college diploma.

The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

What are the threats?

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

What should we do in response?

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

Has academe been complicit in the situation we face?

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

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

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

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

Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.

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.