On Nov. 16, students at Roger Williams University organized what they referred to as “BlackOut” (pictured below) – a noontime demonstration in support of the students at the University of Missouri whose protests against the indifference of some senior administrators at the university to claims of racism on the campus led to the resignation of the system president and the campus chancellor.
RWU student leaders spoke and presented a proposed list of action steps they wanted to see taken by our campus and then invited me to speak. The prevailing mood at the demonstration was collaborative and civil – no “demands” were made, and no one’s resignation was sought. I was very proud of our students, and I told them that we would form a representative task force to develop a plan, with timelines and metrics, to address their entirely reasonable concerns. Then we returned to our offices and classrooms to resume the work of giving and receiving a university education. The local newspaper wrote a positive editorial about the event (“RWU students’ intelligent requests,” Bristol Phoenix, Nov. 19, 2015).
Last week, I provided an overview on a topic of vital importance: the highly uneven nature of America’s economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008. Corporate America and its shareholders are doing very well – but the great majority of wage earners are not. What accounts for this unevenness? Noted Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw is quoted as saying, “The best way to address rising inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment,” (The New York Times, “Income Inequality and the Ills Behind It,” July 30, 2014). Is this statement true? Or does the real answer lie elsewhere?
For the past three weeks, we have been considering one of the biggest problems facing the U.S. today: the astronomical increase in the price of public higher education that has seriously impacted access for an increasing number of students now in the K-12 pipeline, coupled with growing concerns by parents and prospective students that the quality of the undergraduate experience at these public institutions has fallen, despite the rise in price.
Now, in Part 4, we will consider some possible solutions – but a warning: these solutions are much easier to identify than they will be to implement. The question will be whether the public’s interest in a college education that is both affordable and high quality will prevail over a higher education establishment that wants the status quo (even as it continues to lobby for larger state appropriations).
Last week I complained about unreasonable expectations being placed on colleges and universities. I rather quickly assembled a list of 10 such issues (there are actually a few more), and I indicated that in Part 2 of this topic, I would offer an opinion about what higher education can (and should) do – and what is simply beyond our capacity to correct.
I’d like to start with three related issues that represent numbers 1, 2 and 7 in my list from last week:
More low-income students need to be admitted at top private schools;
The pipeline to college must be widened; and
It’s all about college completion rates.
On January 16, President Obama convened more than 100 higher education officials (most of whom were either the presidents of elite colleges or heads of community colleges or public university systems) to seek commitments on four areas of concern:
It’s an interesting time to be a university president. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t raise a new expectation of what universities can or should be doing. Often, this expectation comes in the form of criticism. Sometimes, it arrives as a recommendation about improving a process.
Taken collectively, the various tasks and expectations now being dropped on higher education administrators are often highly unrealistic, frequently mutually exclusive, and ultimately are doomed to fail.
It’s time for a little straight talk. Let me start by acknowledging two things.
First, higher education in the United States has, at least for the last 150 years, been more responsible than any other component of our society for the American success story – both as a country and as the ladder to individual prosperity and accomplishment. We should therefore be wary of radical changes to a proven track record.
Two recent studies on low-income, high-achieving high school students and the problems they face in gaining admission to elite private schools have attracted considerable attention in both the education and mainstream media.
The first, Expanding College Opportunities for High-Achieving, Low Income Students, by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Taylor (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, March 29, 2013) received attention from The New York Times (editorial on April 10, following an article by David Leonhardt on March 16 regarding an earlier study by Dr. Hoxby). The second Hoxby study found that customized information packets, costing about $6 each, sent to low-income, high-achieving students significantly increased the percentage of these students who applied to top-tier colleges. Inside Higher Ed covered this study on April 1, 2013.
The second study, Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind (Steven Burd, the New America Foundation, May 8, 2013), examined actual data from the 2010-11 academic year for thousands of public and private colleges to determine the average cost for Pell-eligible students at each college and university. The study found that two-thirds of the private institutions charged families earning less than $30,000 per year a net price of over $15,000 a year. As a consequence, the study called for federal action “to ensure that colleges continue to provide a gateway to opportunity.” The Chronicle of Higher Education covered this study on May 8, and The Boston Globe ran a lengthy story that related to the study on May 28.
These two studies are interesting bookends to the same issue: low-income students, even when they are high-achieving in high school, are much less likely to apply to elite schools, and even when they do, they often face insurmountable costs.