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.
On April 16 of this year, Moody’s Investors Services published a report entitled “Wealth Concentration Will Widen for U.S. Universities.” This report was the subject of articles on the same day in such major media outlets as the Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and BloombergBusiness.
The underlying tone of the Moody’s report was fundamentally positive, as was true of the media reports referenced above. Given Moody’s previous grim reports regarding the perceived financial weakness of much of American higher education (see an earlier blog post in this series, Moody’s Blues, Feb. 14, 2013) a positive report on a few enormously wealthy AAA-rated institutions was presumably welcomed by many readers and investors.
When did money become the yardstick by which universities measure themselves?
What prompts this question is a Sept. 24 article in The Boston Globe, reporting an increase in Harvard’s endowment during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, of 11.3 percent, to $32.7 billion – a gain in one year of roughly $3 billion. In the same article, the Globe mentioned that Harvard has also just announced a new capital campaign with a goal of $6.5 billion, to be completed by 2018.
When we tire from worrying about North Korea, Iran, fiscal cliffs and sequestering, we can sit back and luxuriate in the knowledge that our institutions of higher education are still doing their job of opening the door of opportunity to permit successive generations of students to achieve both educational and economic advancement. Regardless of the circumstances of their birth, or of the wealth of their families, talented and ambitious students rest secure in the knowledge that their efforts will be recognized and rewarded by top colleges and universities. Because of their enormous endowments, these institutions now more than ever have the capacity to be need-blind in the admissions process, meaning that students will be admitted without regard to their ability to pay.
Oops! Maybe it’s time to go back to thinking about nuclear weapons and cliffs. Several of the wealthiest campuses have recently announced that they are reducing their aid packages for needy students and are no longer offering need-blind admission.
Readers of this blog are aware of my none-too-subtle concerns with wealthy campuses that do not exemplify best practices: rather than use their wealth to lower their sticker prices and create greater affordability for more prospective students, they have done just the opposite – they have raised their tuition prices and increased their already obscene levels of per-student expenditures.
But it is more than just a few well-known campuses behaving badly. At a time when American families are only too aware that colleges have become less and less affordable, the underlying cause of this unaffordability is the skewed distribution of revenue to institutions of higher learning in general.
More than one-third of all undergraduates are enrolled in two-year colleges. Some are focused on a two-year degree, but many of them plan to transfer to a four-year school and earn their baccalaureate. This is the least expensive level of higher education, with annual tuition generally around $3,000 – and it is the low cost that has led to swelling enrollments in community colleges.
In my last post, I criticized wealthy campuses for focusing too much on the size of their endowments and the returns on their investments, and not enough on making their campuses financially accessible to more students. In this post, I will suggest why they strayed, and why it is important that they rediscover a more socially useful path.
It all begins with an analysis of mission and purpose. Private colleges were established in this country to meet the need of various religious denominations to prepare members of the clergy here in the colonies, rather than having to import them from Europe. A number of institutions still retain their religious affiliation, although very few of them limit their educational efforts to the preparation of clergy. However, most private colleges today have at best a distant relationship to a particular religious denomination, or have become entirely secular, and their educational programs have expanded dramatically to include all of the traditional arts and sciences, and very often professional programs as well.
In my previous post, I noted the diametrically opposed reactions of some colleges and universities to the public’s rising concerns regarding the cost of a college education, and the ballooning debt taken on by a growing number of students and their families.
The large majority of both public and private institutions are tweaking what I believe to be a broken model: they are seeking to increase financial aid while looking for ways of economizing, but, while well intentioned, these are at best temporary bandages on a severe wound. Moreover, these solutions are not sustainable, and, in their efforts to economize, these campuses risk being perceived as cutting the quality of their educational offerings.