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.

Higher Education and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 3)

Is the purpose of college to get a good job or to have a great life?

In the first two parts of this series, I addressed some of the ideas regarding higher education that are being promoted by various candidates for president of the United States. In Part 1, I examined the wisdom and folly of eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities. In Part 2, I raised the inconvenient question of what problem the solution of free tuition is intended to solve – and what unintended consequences might result from such a policy. Now, in Part 3, I want to consider yet another factor that explains why there is such divergence of opinions regarding higher education on the part of our presidential candidates.

Higher Ed and Presidential Campaigns: Incompatible Bedfellows? (Part 2)

Before we choose a solution, let’s identify the problem

In my last post, I considered at some length the pros and cons of tuition-free public higher education, as advocated by some candidates now campaigning to be the next president of our country. After all, the reasoning goes, free tuition has been a long-standing policy in the K-12 sector; why not higher education? Different candidates vary with respect to how generous they are prepared to be, with one advocating a means test and at least a token investment by the students and their families, whereas another wants simply to do away with tuition at public colleges for everyone.

Unfortunately, the candidates are not discussing what particular problem their policy is intended to solve. Surely, in order to be effective, solutions have to derive from a collective agreement on, and understanding of, what problem the solution is intended to remedy – and our presidential candidates appear to have skipped this step.

The presidential election is almost a year away, so we still have time to think more about the problem we want to address before we fall in love with a particular solution.

Tuition-Free Community Colleges and the Law of Unintended Consequences

A detailed look at President Obama's plan

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

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

A Democratic White House, a Republican Congress, and Higher Education: Now What?

Higher education on the national agenda

As President Obama begins the final two years of his second term, and as the next Congress takes office with both houses controlled by the Republicans, what might we expect to see coming out of Washington that will change the landscape for higher education?

College Rating Plan

In August 2013, the Obama White House announced a plan to create a rating system for colleges and universities. In the face of considerable opposition from many higher education organizations and individual campuses regarding the wisdom of any such plan, and the criteria to be used for rating campuses, the timeline for its release has been repeatedly extended.

Do Colleges Enhance or Impede Social Mobility?

And who cares what the answer is?

There is no shortage of commentary regarding the problems of higher education. Too often, however, the wrong people are in the conversation. It’s a waste of time to attempt to convince people of the righteousness of your position if the people to whom you are speaking already agree with you – and if your arguments aren’t precise, you can actually do your cause damage by providing the other side with free ammunition.

By way of example, Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, has recently written a book with the provocative title of Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. Essays drawn from the book appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on March 7, The New York Times on March 1, and a news article on the book was in the Epoch Times on March 31.

‘College Education Is Underpriced.’ Really?

A closer look at the rationale that supports one professor’s contention

Yep, that’s the title of an op-ed in Forbes on Sept. 12, 2013. (Actually, the full title is, “There’s No College Tuition ‘Bubble’: College Education Is Underpriced.”)

Well, that contention came as a bit of shock to me, writing as I have been for many months about runaway sticker prices, and how colleges and universities need to address the issue before the federal government does it for them. What gives?

The author, Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Georgia, is a believer in the free market system and a self-described libertarian. Let’s see how his reasoning holds up.

A Modern Fable

Or… how low-income, high-achieving students can gain admission to elite colleges

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.

A Modest Proposal

To boost Pell Grants and address economic inequity, why not tax income earned via investment of college endowment funds?

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.