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.
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.
I have worked as a higher education instructor, researcher and administrator for more than four decades. Over that span, I’ve seen many presidential campaigns, and in almost every case, higher education has not been a plank in the platform of either of the major parties. Those of us in the groves of academe may have been ignored by presidential candidates in the past, but at least we knew that we would not be troubled by them.
Ah, for the good old days!
This year, higher education seems to be a part of every candidate’s agenda. (See, for example, “Punch Lines Versus Polish on Iowa Trail,” The New York Times, Jan. 1, 2016.) The Democratic candidates are focused on making college far more affordable – even tuition-free in the mind of at least one candidate. The Republican candidates are focused on affordability as well, but with much greater emphasis on the need for institutions to reduce their prices and/or the need for Washington to reduce federal financial aid – since some argue that it is the easy availability of federal grants and subsidized loans that permitted colleges to raise their prices so much in the first place (although there are few studies that support that contention, and many that refute it). Finally, at least one candidate is focused on “practical” education (“we need more welders and less [sic] philosophers,” “In GOP Debate, Rubio Again Criticizes Philosophy,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 11, 2015).
As the political primaries take place, with the inevitable coalescing behind a single candidate in each major party, it will be interesting to see how these various ideas play out: How will each of them be received by the American public, and which one will emerge as the most important?
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.”
For the past 18 months, I have made numerous posts wherein I have described my reactions to seeing the gradual disintegration of both the public and private models of higher education, in a manner akin to watching a slow-motion train wreck.
Well, the rate of disintegration is increasing. The slow-motion train wreck is speeding up. Consider five categories of evidence from the news media in recent weeks:
(1) The gap between the wealthy privates and everyone else is becoming a chasm.
My claim in my blog post of Oct. 15, 2013, that, in some respects, the wealthy colleges and universities seem more like investment companies that do a little teaching on the side now seems more prophetic than ever. Two recent articles make the case.
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.
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).
This is the third part of a conversation about what has gone wrong with public higher education. In Part 1, we considered some metrics that demonstrate the extent of the problem:
- Low graduation rates at most public universities and colleges;
- Insufficient funds to offer a quality educational experience;
- Rising levels of deferred maintenance of campus buildings and infrastructure;
- A focus on graduate education and research at the expense of serving the undergraduate population;
- Diversion of scarce instructional funds to support Division I athletics;
- A steep decline in affordability because of rapidly rising tuitions (public university tuition and fees have risen by more than 70 percent in just the past five years in Arizona, Georgia and Washington state – Morning Edition, National Public Radio, March 18, 2014).
Last week, I described in some detail how state support for public higher education first waxed, then waned, over the last 60 years. Much of the decline in state subsidies for the institutions’ operating costs stemmed from pressure on state budgets to meet the growing needs of other state-supported programs, and an inability (coupled, to be sure, with an unwillingness) to continue providing public institutions with the same percentage of the states’ overall budgets as seen previously.
However, it would be a mistake to conclude that all of the problems associated with public higher education derive from a decline in state financial support. It would also be a mistake to assume this decline is entirely the result of mean-spiritedness on the part of state legislatures and governors. Things are much more complicated than that, and in order to understand the situation today correctly, we must take a short trip back in time.
Of the 21 million students in higher education in America, nearly 75 percent are in public institutions, roughly equally divided between two-year and four-year campuses. Although the total number of students grew steadily until three years ago, the distribution in public versus private, and two-year versus four-year, has stayed relatively steady over the past decade.
What hasn’t stayed steady is the level of state financial support for public institutions, and the level of regard the public at large has for its state institutions. These two factors are related, as I will demonstrate shortly.
First, a few facts: