Rebuilding the American economy

Part 2: The leaky pipeline

Imagine a viaduct that carries water from snow-capped mountains, across a broad and arid plain, finally ending in a city where it provides water for every conceivable purpose that a metropolitan area might have: drinking, washing, bathing, cooking, fire suppression, car washes, any number of manufacturing functions, plus irrigation of lawns, gardens, and golf courses. Along its journey the viaduct is tapped by many farms and a few small communities, resulting in a significant reduction in the volume of water delivered to the city. Let us further imagine that, with the growth of the city (or perhaps reduced snowfall in the mountains), there is no longer sufficient water to meet all its needs. What does the city do?

I am describing essentially what happened in the last few years (but not this year!) in many parts of California and other southwestern states. Obviously, the first step is conservation, and that involves setting priorities. Some functions — drinking water, for example — are more important than others, such as irrigating golf courses. But it is especially important to minimize the loss of water from leaks in the system, and from evaporation, and that means examining the integrity of the viaduct itself.

Suppose we think of the American educational system as somehow analogous to our viaduct. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it is still useful. In recent years, about 3.7 million children begin elementary school annually, and 83 percent of them (3.1 million) will receive a high school diploma. Of that 83 percent, 66 percent (2 million) enter higher education immediately: One-third attend community college, almost half go to a public four-year school, and about 20 percent enter a private, four-year, college or university.

At each step of the way, some students drop out without a diploma or certificate in hand. They are akin to leaks in the viaduct: They, like the water, don’t reach their intended destination and fail to realize their full potential. Moreover, the expected return on the investment that society has made in constructing the pipeline (be it an educational pipeline or a water pipeline) is diminished because the planned-for result (a degree, or a high volume of water from the tap) doesn’t happen. Educational dropouts are likely to struggle economically to provide for themselves and their families, and to be forced to rely on some part of the social safety net, at additional cost to society.

It all seems so obvious. All we need do is patch the leaks, and we get a greatly enhanced outcome (as measured by the number who complete vs. the number who drop out).  But if it were that easy, wouldn’t we have done the patching years ago? Surely this problem must have been on the radar screen for decades. Doesn’t that mean we must be doing about as well as could be expected?

There are three lines of inquiry that we must pursue in order to answer this question.

First, not all leaks in the pipeline have the same impact. Leaks that happen prior to high school graduation, for example, have a huge economic impact on those who drop out. Currently, it’s very difficult for dropouts to get back into the educational system, and their limited educational achievements all but guarantee devastatingly limited economic futures. Leaks later in the pipeline are less consequential, in an economic sense, because they occur after the student has achieved a greater level of educational attainment, and therefore has greater earning power. And at any given moment, some individuals whose educational progress was interrupted are renewing their studies, augmenting the number of students who enrolled directly after completing high school.

Second, not all leaks are the same size. The 17 percent high school incompletion rate is dwarfed by the university incompletion rate of about 40 percent, and is tiny in comparison to the community college incompletion rate of almost 80 percent.  (These figures are based on the percentage of those graduating within three years of beginning community college, and six years of beginning a four-year institution. Part-time students typically take longer, and therefore these incompletion rates will fall somewhat over time, as the part-time students complete their studies.)

Third, the students in these leaks do not represent a cross section of the entire student population. Disproportionately represented in the leaks are students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Students from families in the top quarter of family income, for example, are eight times more likely to earn a college diploma than are students from families in the bottom quarter of family income, in part because students who are poor are far less likely to enter college or even to complete high school. Moreover, this educational disparity based on family income is at least as great today as it was 40 years ago. We could make huge economic and societal gains in this country if all we did was to focus on closing the achievement gap of students of color and/or who are from impoverished families.

So it’s not at all hard to identify the location of the leaks.  But how do we repair the leaks—or is that even possible?

We will take up this question Part 3:  Focusing on Success.

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.

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:

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 4)

The Roger Williams University Story

Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” discussed the widespread notion that higher education’s purpose is, first and foremost, to prepare students for the workforce. Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” focused on the idea that higher education actually serves a multitude of purposes, preparation for a career being perhaps the most important, but far from the only, purpose. Part 3, “A New Hope,” considered the findings of a Gallup-Purdue study that correlated particular experiences and opportunities students had as undergraduates with a subsequent rich and fulfilling life – and surely “a great job and a great life” is something that all prospective students (and their parents) desire.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 3)

A New Hope

In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out the growing consensus, particularly among some prominent Republican governors, that the primary purpose of higher education is to prepare students to obtain a well-paying job after graduation. In Part 2, “Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly),” I noted the fragile balance struck by higher education faculty, regardless of whether their particular focus is in the liberal arts, in professional or applied fields, or in community college teaching, in support of the notion that higher education is a big tent, and there is room for several different purposes and outcomes for a college education. Different campuses have different missions; there is no single purpose that encompasses all of them.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 2)

Higher Education Strikes Back (Weakly)

In Part 1 of this series, “Attack of the Politicians,” I pointed out just how pervasive has become the branding of higher education by politicians and media pundits as being primarily – even exclusively – a mechanism for job preparation. And this idea is apparently not a passing fad. The idea that the value of college is to provide the training young people need to “get a good job” is being treated as a truism among a number of probable candidates for the Republican nomination for president in the 2016 election. In Part 1, I quoted Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a specific example.

Because the proposition that the purpose of higher education is job preparation is likely to become even more prominent in the coming months, it is important that we consider the origins and merits of this idea.

What Is the Purpose of Higher Education? (Part 1)

Attack of the Politicians

Recently, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who some consider a potential contender for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, has been in the news for comments he made when announcing his proposed state budget (The New York Times, Feb. 4 and Feb. 17, 2015; Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 5 and Feb. 16, 2015). In addition to calling for a $300 million, two-year cut in state appropriations to the University of Wisconsin system (a 13 percent reduction from its current appropriation), Gov. Walker also called for a change in the university’s mission statement, removing century-old language such as “search for truth,” and “improve the human condition,” and substituting instead “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

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 4)

Misdirecting Blame: Unwitting or Deliberate?

In the first of three parts of this series, I discussed the general topic of what has been called a “jobless recovery,” following the Great Recession of 2008. In parts two and three, I examined at length the culprits that have been implicated as being the cause of our weak economic recovery: an outmoded and, to date, unresponsive system of higher education; and income and wealth inequality.

Analyzing the root causes of this unusually poor economic recovery is important not merely to ensure that blame is correctly assigned. The real importance lies in our efforts to remedy the problem: If we are focused on the wrong cause, not only will our solution fail to revive the economy, but also the potential for harm in repairing something that wasn’t broken could be enormous – and, in the long run, further negatively impact the nation.