Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 8: Forging a New Social Contract

For the past several weeks, I have endeavored to provide a guided tour to the history of higher education in America, and its connection to the national economy. It has been a bumpy ride.

Expectations for higher education have waxed and waned over the years, as higher education policy and practices on the one hand, and economic aspirations and requirements on the other hand, have been thrown out of equilibrium because they were changing at very different rates. But there is no question that we are, today, at a moment of serious disequilibrium.

In Part 6 of this series of essays, I spoke to the issue of what needed to change in our higher education infrastructure. Part 7 focused on why these changes were needed. Now, in Part 8, it’s time to address how these changes might occur.

In the absence of a dramatic rethinking of the role of higher education, there is no reason to believe that time is our friend, that things will improve on their own, or that patience, however difficult to sustain, will prove to be a virtue. To the contrary, the rate of social and economic change is accelerating, and our educational infrastructure is lagging behind and becoming increasingly out-of-date.

The problem worsens, even as we examine it.

In an ideal world, a national spokesperson would emerge — a presidential candidate who would inspire us with an achievable vision of a future that would lift all Americans, and unite us with a goal and a sense of purpose that would sustain us as we worked to rebuild our higher educational infrastructure. Such a vision would imagine strong partnerships of higher education institutions, corporate America, and state and federal governments, allied and laser-focused on the educational outcomes we have been discussing throughout this series of essays.

Perhaps we will see that visionary emerge in the coming years; perhaps not.

But we could increase our chances literally 50-fold if we held open the possibility that such a person might emerge as a gubernatorial candidate. The work I am describing could (and perhaps should) be done at the state level, as a proof of concept, before becoming a national call to arms.

Where would such a candidate begin? How might a conversation be initiated? Does it have to start with a visionary politician?

Well, no. In the absence of a rallying cry from a political candidate, quite a bit of work could be done in advance, to prepare the ground, as it were. There are two other entities that would, in any case, need to be a part of any proposed solution. They are the institutions of higher education themselves, and the businesses, industries, foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are, in their various ways, totally captive to the success or failure of the educational transformation about which I have been speaking.

Let’s consider some of the steps each group might take, as a way of getting some cards on the table, and as bait for an ambitious yet socially conscious political candidate:

Initiatives from Higher Education

It seems obvious to me that the process starts with higher education’s acceptance of its role in changing the status quo in the hope that, by so doing, opportunities can be created with business and industry on the one hand, and federal, state and foundation officials on the other, that will allow the educational change process to be nurtured and to accelerate.

  • Higher education writ large must embrace the ideal of doubling the number of adult Americans with a four-year degree as quickly as possible. Each institution should decide for itself the particular role it intends to play, but these intentions should be clearly articulated on the institution’s website for all to see. (Public institutions may find that if their responses to this challenge are too tepid, the states will issue their own directives, a possibility that itself should provide adequate motivation for them to be imaginative in what they propose.)

I note with interest that, at present, the total undergraduate enrollment of the eight Ivy League schools is less than 60,000 students. Moreover, of the 273,000 applications for admission to one or more of the Ivies last year, only 23,500 were sent letters of acceptance — well under one in 10.

With so much attention being given to the enrollment policies of these exalted institutions, focused especially on urging them to accept many more talented but low-income students, one wonders why they do not allow themselves to grow. Only two of the Ivies have more than 7,000 undergraduates — but public institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan, all of which are ranked nearly as high as the Ivies, have more than 30,000 undergraduates each.

So if there is no close connection between small size and high ranking, why do the Ivies ignore the growing demand for their services? [1] And if they are not willing to be part of the solution toward a better educated America, then why is it acceptable that Washington should continue the current tax policies that encourage them to grow their endowments but not their student bodies?

  • Increasing the number of traditional-age students admitted. Many institutions apparently believe it is in their interest to limit access (by offering only a modest number of acceptances), in order to enhance the perception that their quality as an institution is derived from their exclusivity. We should applaud institutions, such as Arizona State University, that have responded to growing demand by adding to their enrollments, rather than by increasing the number of denial letters.


  • A commitment to retaining and graduating students in far greater numbers. (Two good examples related to improved student success are Southern New Hampshire University [2] and Gateway Community and Technical College [3]). As I have argued earlier in these essays, admission without graduation is in no one’s interest. Campuses committed to working conscientiously and effectively to drive up retention and graduation rates will lower the risk that students and parents will take out loans but leave without a degree, and will also reduce the cost per degree awarded.


  • Adult students. I spoke at length in the previous essay about the failure of most of higher education to create meaningful opportunities for adults to complete their undergraduate degrees, or to obtain post-baccalaureate certificates or graduate degrees. The demand for these services will escalate dramatically in the coming years, and higher education is currently completely unprepared. Again, every institution should commit to articulating the role it will play in providing access for adults, and to advertise that role prominently on its website. (These are not simple matters to resolve. Despite a state commitment, Tennessee, for example, is falling behind its goal of having 55 percent of its adults with a degree or high-value certificate by 2025. [4] Worthy goals must be supported by a realistic plan to meet the goals.)


  • Related to the role institutions need to play in providing access for adult students is the opportunity they have to create long-term relationships in which their alumni return repeatedly to upgrade their skills. This idea of “return” does not need to be in person; much of adult education in the future will be largely online. But higher education institutions have historically spoken of being “learning communities” and of their commitment to “life-long learning.” Creating relationships with one’s own alumni, such that they think in terms of repeated episodes of focused learning throughout their working lives (and perhaps beyond, into their retirement years) represents both a need and an opportunity that higher education institutions must seize.


  • Cost issues: We must work to make the cost of a degree or certificate cheaper, and more effective and efficient. (A recent book provides an analysis of why college costs continue to rise.) [5] We must develop models and proofs of concept and sell these ideas to government and business. (There is no shortage of ideas. Think about the recent efforts to make certain public institutions tuition-free for qualifying students. [6] Various foundations have developed thought pieces for consideration by higher education institutions. [7]) We need to think about achieving specific competencies, not accumulating seat time. We need to use technology wherever it is reasonable to do so, recognizing that not everyone needs or expects the same thing. Our objective should be to meet students where they are and take them to where they need to go. (For example, California Governor Jerry Brown has provided $120 million in his 2019 proposed budget for a new online community college to help provide access to the millions of Californians who now cannot physically attend an existing college or university.) [8]

Initiatives from Business and Industry

  • There are already a handful of wonderfully creative programs that have been initiated by corporate America. One such is the program by Starbucks, in conjunction with Arizona State University, to create educational pathways leading to an undergraduate degree at minimal cost for Starbucks’ employees. [9] There is no reason why similar programs could not be initiated by other major employers, working with their local public and private institutions of higher education.


  • Internships: Many businesses and corporations (and NGOs) now offer internship opportunities for local students to receive college credit in return for an apprentice-type role within the organization. These positions sometimes lead to offers of permanent employment, inasmuch as the business and the intern can learn about each other within the safe confines of an internship. But this idea could be greatly expanded to look far more like the co-op model pioneered many years ago by Northeastern University, wherein students alternated semesters or years in class and at work, effectively putting themselves through school without incurring debt. Something akin to this model will be needed to ensure access to higher education for low-income students today.


  • Consortia: Chambers of Commerce should work with their business members, and their human resources offices, to identify particular skill sets needed by employees of various companies to advance in their careers, and to identify the employees themselves in order to create a critical mass of students that would justify a programmatic response by a local higher education institution. Something like this once happened for K-12 teachers, who individually were working at many different schools, but who collectively generated the numbers that prompted universities to respond, creating a pathway by which the teachers could earn their graduate degrees. The kind of work I am suggesting through the development of consortia mediated by chambers of commerce would not always need to be for academic credit, depending on the circumstances, but regardless, the design would prove economically feasible and beneficial for all parties.

Initiatives from Foundations and Government

  • There is no shortage of foundations vitally interested in enlarging and enhancing educational success, and collectively they have spent millions of dollars to develop examples of best practices — and yet the results to date have been less than earth-shaking. But the reason underlying the modest success shown to date is that generally there is no true and lasting partnership: The foundation grant is to a handful of well-meaning individuals at a particular institution, but the institution itself has made no commitment to change its business model. And once the grant funds are expended, things generally revert to the status quo.

The missing ingredient here is government.

Whether at the local, state or federal level, there needs to be far better coordination between and among the funders (foundations and government agencies) and the providers of product (the higher education institutions). As it is, government and foundations often find themselves serving as individual funding sources when they could be collaborating. (State elected officials also worry about the cost to students and their families of public institutions, and recently have been endeavoring to create a shared policy regarding tuition prices. [10] Even so, individual states continue to cut appropriations to their public colleges and universities. [11] There are concerns that the Trump administration is abandoning the long-standing partnership between the federal government and higher education. [12] But good ideas continue to be advanced by both external groups [13] and internal government committees. [14])

Both foundations and governmental agencies are in love with the idea of consortia of colleges and universities collaborating to maximize the scope and significance of the work that is being supported by the grant. Yet as we have seen, higher education institutions compete with each other in every conceivable way. Expecting them to get together voluntarily to develop a shared philosophy in order to qualify for a grant will ensure, at best, lowest-common-denominator thinking. True innovation is far more likely to come from an individual institution, and long-term success will come when the resulting model is copied by other institutions as a new “best practice.” Funding entities should focus more on competitive grants (colleges and universities understand competition), rather than seeking cooperation and collaboration as a first step.

Finally, foundations and governmental agencies should stop looking at their traditional partners, and broaden the scope of their search image. Bluntly, true innovation is far less likely to come from wealthy institutions that are today well buffered against the winds of change (such as the Ivies), and far more likely to arise within tuition-dependent institutions for which pragmatism overrules an oversubscription to ideology.

As Samuel Johnson famously said, “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Innovation will come from institutions that are now feeling threatened — and funders, be they foundations or government agencies, should ensure that both public and private institutions are eligible to compete for funds.


The connection between educational attainment and economic strength (at the level of both the person and society as a whole) is so strong, and of such long duration, that we are inclined to take it for granted. Historically, as it has proved socially necessary and desirable, the level of educational attainment has grown with changing societal needs, but in ways that sometimes make it difficult to determine which is the cause and which the response.

This chummy relationship is now in peril  — a fact we have been almost fatally slow to realize. America’s current economy is gravely threatened by an imbalance between the actual skills and abilities of our workforce, and the needs of business and industry.

A highly inefficient educational system — a pipeline with as many leaks as intact pipe — acceptable though it may have been in the past, now reveals its inadequacies in 21st-century America. We literally cannot afford to have so many people of working age with such a limited set of skills — and yet our educational system is not in any way designed to raise the achieved educational level of the American public in a short period of time.

Leaving aside the question of the adequacy or inadequacy of K-12 education in America, our highly disaggregated system of colleges and universities, responding far more robustly to their own internal perception of needs rather than to those expressed by the broader society, is still showing its inability to be what America needs it to be today. Absent any even more compelling reason, there should be no expectation on anyone’s part that somehow — magically — all will be well at some point in the near future.

Some — a few — individual campuses will respond in meaningful ways and will therefore survive as institutions, but the likelihood that enough campuses will adapt to meet current needs is sufficiently low that America will surely face an extended period of slow economic growth, and fall behind the economies of other countries that are growing far more rapidly. The long-term consequences to the viability of American democracy are hard to predict, but they will certainly be negative.

The problem is akin to the challenge of untying the famous Gordian knot: Where to begin? Although there are things that will almost certainly happen for the better at some colleges and universities, and on the part of some businesses, the magnitude of the problem requires the government to play a significant role. This is the kind of problem that government exists to resolve because it is just too large to be taken on effectively by other component of society.

In the years at the end of World War II, and despite a decade-long Great Depression, followed by a brutal and devastating war, America nevertheless found within itself the capacity to respond to the “can do” attitude of our national leaders at the time by imagining a far larger population of college students than had ever previously existed. In the complete absence of evidence, Americans believed that by investing huge numbers of tax dollars to build and expand hundreds of colleges and universities they would be creating a better world for their children, their neighbors and the country as a whole.

We desperately need someone to articulate a similar need today, whether at the state or federal level, and those of us in higher education must be ready to respond to that call. We desperately need a new Truman Commission. The future of higher education — the future of America — depends on our collective response to this crisis.

[1] “Top universities could take thousands more low-income students, study says,” Hechinger Report, May 2, 2017

[2] “Spotlight on Innovation: How Southern New Hampshire is Replacing Remedial Education with Just-in-Time Academic Assistance,” Academic Impressions, Jan. 11, 2018

[3] “Spotlight on Innovation: A New Take on Developmental Education and Gateway Community and Technical College,” Academic Impressions, Jan. 12, 2018

[4] “Tennessee colleges face achievement gaps and decreasing adult student enrollment,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 9, 2018

[5] “The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges and Universities,” Archibald and Feldman, Oxford University Press, 2017

[6] “Why Free College Tuition Is Spreading from Cities to States,” Huffington Post, Jan. 5, 2018

[7] “Making College Affordable,” Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, November 2017

[8] “Mixed Reviews for California’s Proposed Budget,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 11, 2018

[9] A Dec. 11, 2017, posting on the Starbucks website took note of the 1,000th graduate of this program which was initiated three years ago

[10] “State higher ed leaders call for better coordination on tuition,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 9, 2017

[11] “Iowa’s public universities facing another $5.1 million cut,” The Gazette, Jan. 11, 2018

[12] “There are no quick fixes for the failing American university,” Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2017

[13] “Necessary but insufficient: federal-state affordability partnerships must also incentivize completion,” Young Invincibles, November 2017

[14] “The college affordability crisis in America,” U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, November 2017

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 7: We Have the Skill — But Do We Have the Will?

For the past six weeks, these essays have been examining the relationship between our national economy and the level of educational attainment of our national workforce. But before we transition from what we need to change to how we can actually achieve our higher education goals — which are both to strengthen the national economy and to provide better-paying jobs for many more people — let’s review just why this issue is so important.

As I noted earlier in this series, the percentage of adult Americans with a four-year degree at the end of World War II was just 5 percent. That percentage had changed only marginally during the preceding 100 years, and if that same model had been kept in place, we would have expected only modest growth in the percentage of college graduates over the past 70 years.

Instead, the percentage of college graduates increased by a factor of six — but only because the federal government created a plan (combining the G.I. Bill with the report from Truman Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy) that was then jointly implemented by the federal and state governments working together. Government then did what only government can do: It took on a problem of immense size and changed the infrastructure of higher education in America. The result was the most prosperous era in the history of our country.

America needs to do this again. And recognizing the need to change the higher education infrastructure is the first step in fashioning a plan to achieve our goal for a dramatically different outcome.

Let’s look at current data, for both traditional age and adult learners, to learn why we need to do better. [1] There are several important reasons:

  1. Our Current Educational Outcomes Are Woefully Inadequate

Consider the transition from high school to college:

  • About 70 percent of high school graduates enter a two-year (25 percent) or four-year (44 percent) school in the fall semester following their graduation.
  • African-American students are more likely to start at two-year schools (39 percent) than are white students (33 percent).
  • Students from the top quartile of family income are significantly (78 percent) more likely to start college immediately after high school than are students from the bottom quartile of family income (46 percent).
  • College graduation rates vary considerably by race and economic level. The six-year graduation rate for white students is 62 percent, but only 45 percent for Hispanic students and 38 percent for African-American students.
  • The graduation rate for students from the top quartile of family income is 60 percent (across all races and ethnicities), but just 14 percent from students from the bottom quartile of family income.
  • Since many more low-income students receive inferior K-12 educations than do high-income students, it is useful to compare the graduation rates of those high- and low-income students who are, by virtue of standardized test scores, deemed ready for college-level work. Among these populations, academically strong high-income students have a 74 percent graduation rate, whereas academically strong low-income students have just a 41 percent graduation rate.
  • About 36 percent of white students are part-time, compared to 42 percent of students of color.
  • The six-year graduation rate for full-time students is 65 percent; for part-time students it is 18 percent. [2]

What these data tell us is that the current infrastructure of higher education in America works quite well for relatively affluent white students who attend college on a full-time basis. Conversely, that same infrastructure is shamefully inadequate for students who are of color, part-time and/or low-income.

Putting greater effort into increasing the number of graduates from affluent white families, however desirable in the abstract, will have much less impact on increasing the overall percentage of the adult American public with at least a four-year degree than would a focus on low-income and/or students of color.

  1. Increasing the Educational Level Increases Economic Strength

It is widely accepted that there is a strong (and growing) correlation between the level of educational attainment by an individual and his or her personal economic success. Economists have translated this statement into actual dollars, and it is generally agreed that the typical four-year college graduate has lifetime earnings that are hundreds of thousands — and quite possibly over a million — dollars more than the typical high school graduate [3], and that the gap in lifetime earnings has grown over time, not shrunk. This is certainly one reason, and perhaps the primary reason, why so many parents are so anxious for their children to attend and graduate from college.

But, to be entirely correct, the relationship between education and individual economic success is best interpreted as correlation, rather than cause and effect. A college degree does not guarantee economic success, any more than the lack of a college degree guarantees economic failure.

Moreover, the value of a college degree is in having completed the degree: Anything less than a full degree is of only limited economic value, and if the non-completer has borrowed money to attend college, and has student debt but no degree, he or she may well be worse off economically than if that person had never started college in the first place. (The student loan default rate on loans under $5,000, typical of a non-completer, is 31 percent, compared to a 17 percent default rate for loans over $100,000, a level of debt typical of someone with a graduate or professional degree. [4] The point is: Students who don’t complete their academic program often have no way to repay their loan, even when it is quite small.)

And that is why, in these essays, I have consistently stressed the need for colleges and universities to improve their students’ graduation rates dramatically.

But there probably has been too much attention placed on the economic value of a college degree to the individual, at the expense of considering what a high percentage of college graduates in a given geographic region or state means to the economy of that region or state.

Consider two examples:

  • Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the proportion of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree exceeds 40 percent in only three counties — Durham, Orange and Wake — the homes of Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State, respectively, as well as the Research Triangle. Of all the new jobs in North Carolina since 2008, 40 percent have occurred in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties (the latter is home to Charlotte, the state’s banking center). These counties are thriving while most other North Carolina counties are struggling because, as one observer noted, “employers don’t want to relocate without the promise of a skilled workforce.” In other words, success breeds success, and a well-educated workforce is a necessary prerequisite for economic success in a given geographic region. [5]
  • Of the 10 states with the highest level of educational attainment (bachelor’s degrees plus graduate and professional degrees), eight are also among the 10 states with the highest median per capita income. [6] If we improve college completion rates, we will enhance the economy of the state, the region and the nation.
  1. Doing Nothing Means Abandoning an Important Part of Higher Education’s Mission

The consequences of our failing to address today’s huge disparity between the skills needed by corporations and the actual skills possessed by the workforce is to open the door to two real possibilities:

  • About 30 years ago, traditional higher education failed to respond to the growing demand for adult education, leading to a proliferation of for-profit entities, many of which disproportionately drained federal support dollars while too often providing precious little of value to their students. In time, many of those for-profit schools crashed and burned, and taxpayers ended up bailing out students who had borrowed money, but who no longer had a school at which to continue their education. This could happen all over again, if traditional higher education proves its unwillingness once again to adjust its business model to include a parallel track for adult learners.
  • Even today, some businesses and corporations have grown tired of waiting for traditional higher education to respond, and have developed corporate training programs of their own, siphoning off students who would be, in the long term, better off earning a recognized degree from an accredited institution — but that would require the institutions to provide the students the means to do so. In short, traditional higher education seems unwilling to recognize both that it no longer has a monopoly and that new markets are opening to which it is failing to respond (or responding too slowly).
  1. The Level of Higher Education Affects Community Health and Wealth Inequality

It’s not only the economic well-being of the local community that is affected by the percentage of the working population with a college degree. Another matter entirely relates to health and longevity.

Since 2000, one-third of all manufacturing jobs in the United States — more than 5 million jobs, paying an average of almost $21 per hour — have been lost. Service jobs, paying about half as much, have increased (though not by 5 million). But the displacement of workers and the loss of income — especially on the part of white, non-college educated workers — has contributed to a rapid increase in mortality rates in those 50 to 54 years of age. [7] In less than 20 years, mortality rates for non-college educated white workers have almost tripled for both men and women, relative to the mortality rates of college-educated white workers. [8]

Education directed at the job market of the future, not the job market of the past, may literally save lives.

Finally, there is the issue of growing income and wealth inequality. [9] This is a hot-button topic for many people who are philosophically opposed to any notion of resource redistribution. But rather than arguing for splitting the economic pie more equitably, I would instead suggest growing the pie.

I have noted several times in this series of essays that wealth and income inequality have grown markedly over the past 40 years to the point that in 2014, the top 1 percent of the population had 39 percent of all of the wealth, whereas the bottom 90 percent had just 27 percent. (In 1978, the top 1 percent had about 22 percent, and the bottom 90 percent had almost 40 percent.) [10] In the years since 2009, 52 percent of all growth in real income has gone to the top 1 percent. [11]

There are multiple causes to this rapid and unwelcome shift in overall wealth and income distribution, principal among them being our tax code, but a major contributor has also been the loss of middle-class jobs, particularly in manufacturing, as I just noted.

The challenge that we are facing today is not so much that the nature of the job market is changing, but the rate at which that change is occurring. What we are seeing today in no sense replicates our nation’s earlier shift from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy — a shift that we measured in decades, if not centuries. Technology and a global marketplace means that entire professions now come and go within a few years. (At different times in the relatively recent past, there was great concern we would exhaust the labor market before meeting the demand for telephone operators and key punch operators, two job categories that today essentially no longer exist.)

But an educational system that is designed to respond slowly and passively to shifts in student interests will be spectacularly inadequate to respond in a timely fashion to the rate at which today’s job market is changing.

Moreover, the traditional model of higher education was that it was something you did once, for four years. Then you secured a job using the skills you had obtained as a student, and those skills kept you employed until you retired. Higher education has yet to catch up to the fact that growing numbers of people will repeatedly need infusions of new skills throughout their lifetimes, and that means we must redesign our higher education institutions to provide those educational opportunities we know our society will require.

Far from waiting to respond to shifting demand, we must be out in front, anticipating how best to prepare students for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past. [12] Ironically, the easiest and best place to start is not with traditional-age students and the hidebound system we now use to educate them, but with adult students, through the use of stackable certificates that do not require a wholesale remaking of the curriculum.

  1. The Problem Will Worsen While We Debate Our Next Steps

Our challenge is compounded by the fact that whatever answers we develop must reflect not the realities of today, but the realities of tomorrow. We have to think as hockey great Wayne Gretzky famously said: “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” While we are dithering, here are just some of the changes that will further disturb the higher education landscape:

  • Federal Policy
    • Education Secretary Betsy DeVos [13] and President Trump himself, in his State of the Union address, [14] have encouraged both students and colleges to focus more on vocational training, and less on obtaining baccalaureate education. Encouraging high school graduates without plans to continue their education to think about vocational education is entirely proper, but encouraging students who now plan to obtain a four-year degree to obtain a vocational education instead will exacerbate our current shortage of workers educated at the bachelor’s level. [15],[16]
    • Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate Education Committee, is overseeing the rewriting of the Higher Education Act, and is promising significant changes. Among them is a reduction of federal oversight of for-profit institutions, a group that historically has used disproportionate amounts of federal student aid dollars, leaving fewer resources for students attending not-for-profit institutions. [17]
    • Alexander’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., echoed his concerns when she said that the current student aid system represented a “luxurious hammock in which students can repose” and “the trough at which universities feed.” [18] She added that there is “growing evidence that generous federal subsidies have driven tuition increases” — a canard that will not die despite repeated studies that don’t support such a conclusion. These views will not give comfort to those hoping for more federal assistance to produce more college graduates. As it now stands, the House bill is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to reduce total federal spending on education by $14.6 billion over 10 years. [19]
  • State Efforts
    • Several states have, [20] or hope to have [21], programs which in various ways waive tuition for some students at some community colleges and/or public universities. There are now more than 200 such programs and proposals across the country, [22] with more in the works. [23] All such programs will increase the competition for students for colleges in the private sector; New York is already proposing to eliminate a state program to assist private colleges, in order to augment the funds supporting the public institutions of the state. [24] These policies could have the effect both of fatally wounding some private colleges and of increasing demand at public institutions, requiring the construction of new facilities and the addition of new faculty and staff — all at taxpayer expense but without any net increase in the overall number of college students.
  • Corporations
    • Various corporations are expanding programs with community colleges to train technical workers [25]—and that’s laudable, but only if these workers add to, rather than subtract from, the current population of students seeking four-year degrees.
    • Some corporations are providing their employees access at various educational levels to for-profit companies (unlike Starbucks and its relationship with the not-for-profit Arizona State University), as a recruiting and retention incentive. But the quality of some of these programs is questionable. [26] Moreover, these are now students who will be unavailable for recruitment by traditional higher education institutions, placing further strain on their business model.
    • Yet other corporations are designing specific courses and educational programs to be delivered by traditional higher education institutions, or online providers, because higher education is currently “failing to keep pace with the changing needs of the economy.” [27] At least one large corporation is not even waiting for students to complete high school. Oracle has built a charter high school at its corporate headquarters. [28] This arrangement may serve Oracle well in its quest for excellently trained future employees; it remains to be seen whether it will be in the best long-term interests of the students. We can expect to see many more corporate interventions in the future, if we in traditional higher education continue our focus on the educational models of the past.
    • Corporations are raiding higher education institutions for training and education talent. [29] And when the raider is Amazon, and the goal is to “create a path-setting adaptive system for employee learning,” it may be worth considering whether Amazon will keep what they learn “in-house” or whether this is the first step toward “Amazon University.”
    • On the other hand, some corporations are expanding their current programs of educational support for their employees at traditional higher education institutions — an opportunity for such institutions to expand their overall enrollments. [30]
  • Credit Rating Agencies
    • Both Standard & Poor’s [31] and Moody’s [32] have reduced their rating for higher education in general to a “negative outlook,” the effect of which is expected to be higher interest costs on bonds issued for construction projects — an additional strain on already very tight campus budgets.
  • New Educational Models and Technology
    • Boot camps [33] are targeted at both college graduates (as an alternative to a graduate degree) and those with just a high school diploma, with an educational focus on computer coding, although they are expanding into other fields as well. A few traditional universities, such as Northeastern, have developed their own boot camps, but most are in new educational providers such as Flatiron (recently acquired by the work-space company WeWork) or 2U (now also a partner of WeWork). [34] Will these be a flash in the pan, as MOOCs were a few years ago, or a new model of education that competes directly with traditional colleges and universities? It’s too soon to tell.
    • The future role of technology in higher education is all but impossible to predict, beyond saying that it will be considerable. Just one example: YouTube did not exist 13 years ago, but now boasts 1 billion hours of content watched every day. [35] That is an average of 8 minutes, every day, for every one of the 7.5 billion people on the planet. How will we be spending our time 10 years from now? We can’t say, other than to assume it will be different than how we spend our time today—and the relationship of time spent web browsing to education will surely grow closer.
  • Strategic mergers of institutions — to leverage different skills and complementary interests, rather than to avoid imminent extinction — bear close watching, especially where the institutions involved are led by entrepreneurial thinkers. To that end, the recent merger between Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University may be of particular interest. [36] 

Consider this quote from a consultant of the merger: “The new focus of higher education must be learning agility, which includes adaptability, collaboration skills, and entrepreneurial outlook. It is a mindset that must precede the many skill sets that will be layered and shed over the longer arc of the career.” Might that accurately describe the role of higher education in the future?

  • Changing Social Structures
    • Finally, the nature of business interaction is changing rapidly. For decades, suppliers that were scattered all over the country shipped parts and materials to assembly sites, meaning that jobs existed in cities and towns of all sizes. But as we have moved from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge and service economy, where young educated people are choosing to live is changing. Digital products don’t have a supply chain and, increasingly, jobs are being centralized in “megacities,” where wages are rising disproportionately, at the expense of jobs in smaller cities and towns. [37] So on top of everything else, traditional colleges and universities may find their future inextricably linked with their location — and how they respond may determine if they even have a future.
  1.  We Must Be True to Our Democratic Ideals

There is one more reason why we must change the infrastructure of higher education, and it speaks to our governing philosophy as a country. It is easy to create a nexus between the virtues of a high level of educational attainment and the principles that underlie our democracy. Our aspirational goal as a nation, and one toward which we have struggled for more than two centuries, is focused on the ideals of justice, freedom and truth — and the liberty to pursue all three.

Our history as a nation, as I discussed in Part 4 of this series, included incremental steps that extended educational opportunities to more and more people to allow them to capitalize on their inherent abilities and thereby to strengthen our country and its economy. Even in times of war, visionaries such as Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Truman looked to the horizon in charting a course for creating the capacity to enhance the educational level attained by our people.

But the ideals that, at various times in our history, have motivated us to serve ourselves by serving others have also periodically withered and been replaced by goals that are far less ambitious — and far more self-serving and shortsighted.

For example, opportunities for immigrants, hard-won over many decades and several generations, ultimately enhanced not only the lives of the children and grandchildren of those immigrants but also the fabric of American society itself.

Yet what of today’s immigrants? What of those for whom past efforts were insufficient to move them out of poverty? Are we becoming inured to the presence of a permanent underclass, with successive generations forever destined to live in poverty, or on its edges? Why aren’t we trying harder to bring people on the margins into mainstream society by giving them the educational tools they need to be successful and independent? Surely we can see the value to ourselves in maximizing the number of people who are economically self-sufficient.

I think the answers to these questions are complex but resolvable. Rising levels of income and wealth inequality, to levels not seen since the days of the Robber Barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries, are leaving too many people economically marginalized, with barely the capacity to address their own day-to-day needs, let alone to worry about the long-term needs of others. And in the absence of a compelling vision for our nation’s future, articulated by our elected leaders, we become focused on the problems of today, not the possibilities of tomorrow.

It was not always this way.

Consider: Eisenhower championed the interstate highway system in 1956, knowing full well that he would never see its completion (which took 35 years). Kennedy promised to send astronauts to the moon, but even if he had served two full terms, the lead time of this project was such that it happened only after he would have been out of office.

Today, however, the political considerations behind particular initiatives give primary attention to whether the project can be completed before the next election. And the result is that our political priorities are focused on things that could happen today, or next week, but never on things that won’t happen for a decade.

In his recent book, “The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good,” [38] David Goldfield examines this point at length. He focuses on the generation of Americans immediately after World War II: the first “baby boomers.” Goldfield is particularly attentive to the work of Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson as presidents who “believed in the commonwealth ideal” — that federal legislation could result in a better and stronger nation by encouraging individual opportunity.

Intentionally or not, Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson were following the advice of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote, “The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.” [39] (Eisenhower, presumably not a fan of the liberal Keynes, was fond of quoting a similar sentiment from a source he found more acceptable — Abraham Lincoln — who said: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.”) [40]

The years immediately following World War II were a time of great optimism in America. Goldfield cites a Pew study that found, in the mid-1960s, almost 80 percent of Americans believed that government was good.

But by the 1980s, the pendulum had swung. President Reagan, for example, had a very different opinion about the role of government: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” [41] Similarly, in a 2001 radio interview, Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, famously said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” [42]

It is perhaps not surprising that, by 2015, fewer than 15 percent of Americans still believed that government was good. The problem is that if the primary role of government is to take on problems that are too large for individuals to solve on their own, in the absence of citizen support government will do nothing, and the largest problems facing society will not only remain unresolved, but they won’t even be addressed.

It is one thing to develop a vision for how higher education could end the economic crisis; it is quite another to imagine how collective public support might be mustered for government to take on a project of that magnitude in today’s political climate. How tragic to have a solution at hand, but to lack the political will to implement it!

Perhaps the problem is that we are still inclined to rely on a political infrastructure that has proven inadequate to solve some of the most important problems of our day. Perhaps instead of waiting for Washington to provide the answers, those answers should come from the grassroots, in the hope that, if they are compelling enough, they will be incorporated into the national conversation.

Next time: How do we achieve our higher education goals? It’s time to forge a new social contract.

[1] Except for the last bullet, all data are from the website of the National Center for Education Statistics

[2] “The Future of Undergraduate Education,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, November 2017

[3] “The Changing Business Model for Colleges and Universities,” Forbes, Feb. 6, 2018

[4] “When any debt (including college debt) is too much,” University Business, Dec. 18, 2017

[5] “The 2 North Carolinas,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 31, 2017

[6] U.S. Census Bureau, 2017

[7] “Higher Education: Your Life May Depend Upon It,” Academic Impressions, Sept. 19, 2017

[8] “A Dying Town,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 5, 2018

[9] There are many recent books that treat this subject at length. A particularly good example is Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street, Rana Foroohar, 2017, Crown Business, New York, 388 pp.

[10] “The Tax Bill That Inequality Created,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 2017

[11] “Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research, June 30, 2016

[12] This point is examined at length in “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Student for a World in Flux,” Cathy N. Davidson, Basic Books (2017)

[13] “DeVos says U.S. has emphasized four-year degrees at the expense of work-force training,” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 28, 2017

[14] “Trump calls for converting community colleges to vocational schools,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 2, 2018

[15] “Community colleges emphasize their missions beyond training and including transfer,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 5, 2018

[16] “Trump says community colleges should be called ‘vocational’ schools. Um, they aren’t the same thing,” The Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2018

[17] “Alexander White Paper Lays Out Framework for Higher Education Accountability,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 2, 2018

[18] “Taming the tuition tiger,” Washington Times, Jan. 22, 2018

[19] “CBO: House Bill Would Reduce Spending by $14.6B,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 7, 2018

[20] “Tennessee Gov. Wants 15 to Finish in Promise,” Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 1, 2018. New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island are among the other states with some form of tuition waiver.

[21] “’Pennsylvania Promise’ proposal could significantly reduce college tuition for 137K Pennsylvania students,” AASCU EdLines, Jan. 30, 2018

[22] “The Changing Business Model for Colleges and Universities,” Forbes, Feb. 6, 2018

[23] “A Serious Push for Free College in California,” The Nation, Feb. 7, 2018

[24] “Governor proposes cuts to private college financial aid,” Watertown Daily News, February 6, 2018

[25] “BMW seeks more humans to maintain Greer plant’s robots,” Greenville Online, Jan. 31, 2018

[26] “Restaurant Group, Pearson to Offer Free Education to Employees,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 23, 2018

[27] “Impatient with universities’ slow pace of change, employers go around them,” The Hechinger Report, Dec. 18, 2017

[28] “A Public High School of a Tech Giant’s Campus,” The New York Times, Dec. 4, 2017

[29] “Amazon’s high-profile hire from higher education: Candace Thille,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 29, 2018

[30] “Disney to give $1,000 bonuses to 125,000 employees and create a higher education program,” LA Times, Jan. 23, 2018

[31] “Outlook for Higher Ed Is Bleak, Ratings Agency Says,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 23, 2018

[32] “Moody’s warns that lackluster state support will strain university budgets,” Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2018

[33] “Boot-camp sector keeps growing while influencing higher education,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 31, 2018

[34] “New partnership between WeWork and 2U aims at lifelong learners,” Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 23, 2018

[35] “7 Ed Tech Trends to Watch in 2018,” Campus Technology, Jan. 11, 2018

[36] “The Revolution Has Started,” Innovator, Summer 2017

[37] “The Megacity, Untethered,” The New York Times, Dec. 24, 2017

[38] Bloomsbury Publishing, New York & London, 2017, 534 pp.

[39] “Essays in Persuasion,” Macmillan, 1931

[40] Goldfield, The Gifted Generation,” p. 5

[41] Inaugural address, January, 1981

[42] NPR’s Morning Edition, May 25, 2001

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 3: The Relationship between a College Education and a Well-Paying Job; Reconciling a Liberal Arts Education with the Needs of Employers

Historically, the universities of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the colleges of Colonial Age America, had almost nothing to do with preparing young men for the world of work. (There were almost no women in college until well into the 19th century). Rather, the universities served to introduce the next generation of society’s expected leaders to classic Greek and Roman writers and thinkers, and to sharpen their skills in grammar, logic and debate.

To be sure, some students became lawyers, doctors or theologians, but for the most part the traditional college or university education focused almost entirely on teaching people how to reason, analyze and communicate.

Things began to change after the Revolutionary War, with the establishment of the first public universities. But even these were relatively scarce until the Morrill Act of 1862 established land grant colleges that were specifically devoted to agriculture and engineering — applied fields in which the acquisition of certain skills and knowledge connected an area of study to a particular line of work.

No longer were college students limited to the sons of wealthy merchants and landowners. Some now prepared for jobs in industry (as the Industrial Age came into its own) — and some college students were women!

In 1870, Johns Hopkins University, established on the German model, introduced the idea that graduate education and research should be within the scope of what universities do. The resulting production of students at the graduate level provided the faculty needed to allow new colleges to be established, and to permit existing institutions to grow.

Even with these changes, however, most college students still majored in the liberal arts, and many colleges taught only the liberal arts (as some do to this day). Liberal arts colleges, and liberal arts faculty, continued to emphasize the non-economic purpose of higher education: to instill a love of learning, and a life of the mind, as one of society’s loftiest goals—and a goal that needed to be nurtured and protected.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it had occurred to business leaders that people who had attended college must be quite smart, and they began preferentially hiring college graduates. They hired them not necessarily for what they knew, but because they had demonstrated that they were bright and could learn and reason with ease. Businesses were content to train these young graduates in the specifics of what they needed to know to contribute to the business, recognizing that they learned quickly and were likely to stay with the company for their working lives.

Liberal arts faculty and liberal arts colleges looked askance at such blatant commercial use of the education they had provided to their students, but since neither the colleges nor the businesses asked anything more of the other, both were content to let matters run their course.

Increasing educational opportunity

With the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, and the work of the Truman Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy in 1946/47, the doors of colleges and universities were flung open to people from all walks of life. These new students from the working class were far more successful than many believed they would be, and higher education in America was forever changed. The percentage of adult Americans with a baccalaureate increased from 5 percent in 1945 to more than 30 percent today.

Growth in the economy allowed the ready absorption of newly minted college graduates into that economy, and growing numbers of college graduates in turn contributed to economic growth — a kind of virtuous circle, where supply and demand for college graduates stayed roughly in balance, even as the economy grew and the nation prospered.

What should be the focus of education?

But everything changed with the Great Recession that began in 2008.

Almost immediately, demand for newly minted college graduates plummeted, even as the production of graduates continued, throwing the balance between supply and demand out of equilibrium. Those few businesses that were hiring could limit their search to individuals not only with a college degree but also with relevant experience — something that the typical new college graduate did not possess.

Businesses promptly canceled their training programs for new employees because newly hired but experienced employees needed very little training. Almost overnight, new college graduates — especially in the liberal arts — found themselves with few job offers, and obliged to accept temporary or part-time jobs. The college graduate working as a coffee shop barista became the image etched in the minds of the parents of college-age young people everywhere, and they wondered aloud whether a college degree was still the ticket needed to join the middle class — or even whether a college degree was worth the price.

Conservative governors of several states openly challenged the notion that public (i.e., taxpayer-supported) institutions should engage in producing liberal arts graduates with no marketable skills (conveniently forgetting, of course, about the “soft skills” possessed by the typical liberal arts graduate, such as the ability to think, reason, synthesize, collaborate and communicate, among others). We need more STEM graduates! We need more graduates in the trades! Even President Obama questioned  the wisdom of students who elected to major in art history.

The liberal arts faculty pushed back hard. Hundreds of years of history were on their side. As I have noted, the traditional college education was never about preparing people for careers. Businesses chose to hire college graduates and then train them. Now, they were saying that businesses no longer wished (or needed) to shoulder the expenses of training, so the task of preparing students for the workplace must, by default, fall on the colleges.

In the intervening years, the job market has improved and more colleges have seen the virtue of students’ combining a liberal arts education with specific skills in one or more of the professional schools (and/or of gaining relevant experience while an undergraduate through internships or other examples of project-based learning). [1] So the tension between the wishes and expectations of the businesses and of the parents of college students on the one hand, and the liberal arts faculty on the other, has diminished — but not vanished.

Neither side has relinquished its position. We await only another recession for a resumption of hostilities.

In the meantime, here are two things to consider:

First, a powerful case can be made that the best reason for obtaining a college education today is because of the strong interrelationship among being well educated, getting a great job and living a great life. [2]

Thinking about a college education only in terms of how it prepares you for a job can cause you to undervalue the other factors in living a great life, as well as tempt you to try to “time” the market — that is, to choose a major based on the needs of the job market at the moment. The problem is that the job market is constantly changing and what is “hot” today might be ice cold tomorrow. Getting a good educational foundation on which additional education can be built as and when needed is the better strategy.

Second, lifetime earnings in different job sectors broadly overlap. Engineers generally have higher lifetime earnings that English majors, for example — but some English majors earn more than some engineers. The point is, median salary for a particular major does not tell you the range of salary for that major, nor does it predict the actual salary of any one individual. [3]

The takeaway is that college students should not abandon their commitment to an area of study that ignites their passions to make themselves into something they are not in hopes of a potentially bigger paycheck. Lifetime salaries by major are not chiseled in granite, and the future is too uncertain.

But failing to appreciate what employers are looking for in a new hire is an equally serious mistake. To repeat, the better response is to combine the strengths of professional study with the breadth that comes from the study of the liberal arts by balancing your major (primary interest) with a minor in a completely different area that extends your skill set. For example, majors in graphic design or dance may be very well served by taking a minor in marketing or management.

Graduates in professional fields tend to be hired quickly (assuming that their area is in demand when they graduate), whereas liberal arts graduates often drift from job to job for several years before getting on track. Liberal arts graduates with some defined professional skills, on the other hand, tend to get started on their careers more quickly, because those skills are attractive to employers — and their liberal arts skills allow them to be successful once hired, and to advance their careers.

Final point: The traditions of the academy should be respected, if only because their ultimate value is proven by virtue of their longevity. Only certain religions can claim a longer history than can the oldest of our universities (in marked contrast to the relatively rapid turnover of businesses and corporations, for example).

But it’s true that, as our society evolves, certain factors that support our society must evolve along with it. Higher education today plays a very different (and arguably much more important) role in supporting and strengthening our society than it did four centuries ago. And we in higher education should not be so in love with our traditions and history that we blind ourselves to the need for us to adapt to current demands and expectations of our society. Our challenge is not to reject these demands outright but to respond to them even as we honor the values and traditions that are the basis of what we do.

Next time: How many Americans should have a college degree — and how (and by whom) is that question answered?

[1] “From Liberal Arts to Making a Living,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 22, 2017

[2] Great Jobs, Great Lives. Gallup Organization, 2015

[3] “Six Myths About Choosing a Major,” The New York Times Education Supplement, Nov. 5, 2017

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

Part 2: Massive Tax Cuts or More Educated Workers? Which Is the Better Choice for a Broken Economy?

In late December 2017, the House of Representatives and the Senate, urged on by President Trump, approved a dramatic restructuring of the tax code. The primary goal of this restructuring was to reduce the tax burden on corporations to allow them to retain more of their earnings in the expectation (or, more correctly, the hope) that with more dollars in corporate pockets, some of those dollars would be spent creating new jobs for additional workers and/or augmenting the wages of current workers.

Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, claims that the proposed tax reform is in reality a jobs bill [1] — and since everyone favors adding jobs, everyone should support the bill. (Ironically, the six largest U.S. banks collectively eliminated 8,000 jobs just before the tax bill passed, despite the fact that banks were among the industries most favored by the tax cuts.) [2]

Even though the tax bill will result in a $1.4 trillion loss in tax revenue over the coming decade, the gamble is that the growth in the number of jobs and job-related income (annual increases in GDP of 4 percent or more each year) will provide such a boost to the economy that the growth in overall tax revenue will make up for the lost $1.4 trillion. (Not factored into the expectation of large GDP increases, however, are the plans of the Federal Reserve Bank to continue to raise interest rates to prevent inflation and an overheated economy. The Fed and Congress are effectively pulling on the same economic rope — but in opposite directions.) [3]

We can analyze whether a tax cut was the best possible economic stimulus that Washington had available to it by looking at the assumptions that form the basis of the tax reform legislation:

  1. Corporations today lack the financial ability to add jobs or to pay their workers higher wages. The primary reason for the “bull” stock market of the last eight years is that corporate America has been doing very well, on the whole, and earnings have typically met or exceeded analysts’ projections — and when that happens, the price of a share of stock rises, making investors very happy, further driving up share price. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased from about 6,500 in March 2009 to over 26,000 today — quadrupling in just over eight years. Corporate America is strong, and the companies that survived the Great Recession are generally far more robust today than they were in 2008. Corporations already have all the money they need to hire more workers.


  1. But it’s still the case that, at 35 percent, corporate tax rates are too high, much higher than in most of the nations with which we compete, and a lower rate (21 percent) would make corporate America more competitive. While it is true that our posted corporate tax rate is high, what the corporations actually pay averages just under 19 percent. [4] Stories abound of how major corporations, especially those doing business internationally, establish headquarters in offshore tax havens where earnings can be retained without being subject to the U.S. tax code. Other strategies that push against the boundaries of the law have the cumulative effect of dramatically reducing the actual tax bill for these corporations. The point is: Using the posted tax rate as the argument, rather than the rate of tax actually paid, gives a misleading impression of the tax burden American corporations really face. A reduction in the posted rate should have been accompanied by a comprehensive reform of the various techniques and loopholes now used by corporations to avoid paying anything close to the posted tax rate.


  1. But what about all those new jobs that will be created? The underlying assumption of the tax bill is that a dramatic reduction in taxes will allow corporate America to hire many more employees and pay them well, but as I noted earlier this outcome is more correctly characterized as a hope than an expectation. We have been hearing for some time that corporate America cannot find skilled and experienced workers. The demand for workers exists now, but the supply of those workers is insufficient to meet that demand [5]. Giving corporations more money to hire more employees won’t work if the prospective employees don’t exist. Moreover, for corporations, their workforce represents an expense — and corporations are very cost-conscious. Every dollar not spent on salaries is a dollar that can be put into stock dividends, or used for corporate stock buybacks, a strategy that increases the price per share — both outcomes that are much appreciated by shareholders. (Increases in share price also help corporate leaders meet the provisions of their employment contracts, resulting in their being granted bigger bonuses.) Of course, in theory they could just give their workers that money, as a sign of corporate benevolence. Unfortunately, when the interests of the workers are pitted against the interests of the owners, the owners almost always win — and the migration of money from labor to capital over the past three decades has been a primary contributor to the growth America has seen in income inequality. In short, the idea that corporate tax reduction will result in higher wages or more jobs is fanciful, and not supported by any evidence.

So is there an alternative approach to enhancing the economy?

As we noted in Part 1 of this series of essays, there is a huge imbalance in the job market — and it is expected to continue and possibly worsen — between the collective skills and abilities actually possessed today by American workers, and the skills and abilities employers say they need for the jobs they currently have available. A recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce [6] showed that, of all the jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession, fully 73 percent required at least a bachelor’s degree — twice the actual percentage of college graduates now in the workforce. Consequently, huge numbers of people are eligible only for the small number of jobs that require limited skills, and since those jobs are not abundant, employers see no need to pay generously — and that’s why the inflation-adjusted income of people in the bottom quintile of family income has actually declined in recent years.

Conversely, there is abundant demand — and often a shortage in supply — for many jobs requiring specialized skills, which is why the inflation-adjusted income of people in the top quintile of family income has increased significantly as the Great Recession has faded into memory.

The solution seems obvious: More people need more education to rebalance supply and demand between workers and employers.

A greater supply of skilled workers — workers prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday — will allow corporate America to grow their businesses, and that, in turn, will enhance the American economy even as it improves median income. Similarly, fewer people seeking low-skill jobs will put pressure on employers to increase salary levels for those positions, in order to attract and keep these workers. That outcome will also improve median income and possibly bring some of the workers who have sidelined themselves, convinced they could never find a decent job, back into the job market, an outcome that would benefit everyone.

How might that outcome be achieved?

A report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences [7] offers an intriguing possibility. The report provides two models stemming from a proposed federal investment designed to improve college graduation rates. The optimistic model assumes that an increase in higher education spending to 125 percent of current levels would raise current graduation rates by about 50 percent. The pessimistic model assumes that spending might have to be at 150 percent of current levels to achieve that outcome.

The models are complex, and the report runs for 35 pages. But in sum, an investment that is less than the $1.4 trillion cost of the tax cut, spread over the next 20 years, would begin to show net positive revenues around 2042, and these numbers would become increasingly positive thereafter. By 2046, the share of the adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree would rise from 32 percent to 46 percent; unemployment rates would fall by another half percent; earnings would increase by more than 3 percent; and the gross domestic product would be 2.5 percent higher than if we did nothing at all.

Sadly, this alternative economic stimulus was never considered in Washington. The tax cut would happen immediately, while the higher education investment would require a much longer time horizon — well outside the election-cycle thinking that seems to determine almost all of Washington’s actions.

But if the American people had been given a choice for improving the American economy between a gamble that reducing the corporate tax burden might, through corporate largesse, find its way into the pockets of workers and indirectly create more jobs — or directly investing in higher education institutions to increase their capacity and create more of the workers corporate America says it needs, thereby empowering the workers themselves — I would have supported choice No. 2.

Corporations or people? A gamble or an investment? Why can’t we do a better job as a nation of making the right choice? Why won’t our political leaders even give us a choice?

Next time: The role of higher education in preparing America’s workforce.

[1] “Anti-tax advocate defends GOP cuts,” Providence Journal, November 11, 2017

[2] “Big U.S. banks slashed 8,000 more jobs before tax-cut windfall,” Providence Business News, January 18, 2018

[3] “Fed Expects Tax Cut to Give Economy ‘a Modest Lift,’” The New York Times, December 14, 2017

[4] “The Right Way to Cut Corporate Taxes,” The New York Times, November 13, 2017

[5] “In Trump Country, College Is a Leaky Lifeboat,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 3, 2017

[6] “America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots” 2016

[7] “The Economic Impact of Increasing College Completion” 2017

Can Higher Education Solve America’s Economic Crisis?

(And if It Can, Then Why Does America Still Have an Economic Crisis?)

Many of America’s most serious problems are linked to the state of its economy. Consider: income inequality has been increasing for the past three decades; too many of today’s jobs pay far less than did the jobs that disappeared during the Great Recession; most family incomes are flat or declining, leading to a sense of economic deprivation that promotes depression, family strife, and alcohol and drug abuse. The stridency and deep political divisions we have seen in recent years owe, at least in part, to the seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion regarding the right path forward for our nation, specifically whether that path should consist of more, or fewer, hands-on programs by the federal government aimed at strengthening the economy.

The thesis underlying this collection of eight essays is that our country’s economic problems are solvable, that the malaise in which we find ourselves today need not be permanent, and that the driver of the new economy, the change agent that we need to employ, is higher education — but not higher education as we have traditionally known it. Rather, we need to think about creating public-private partnerships on a far larger scale, with institutions of higher education working with business, industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the one hand, and local, state, and federal governments on the other, to develop shared expectations of outcomes in which all of the partners are winners. The highly disaggregated and inequitable system of higher education practices we have today, wobbling precariously on a flimsy base of tradition and complacency, must be replaced with something far more integrated, one grounded on a solid foundation of evidence, and with a clear and realizable purpose.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Part 1: 

What Are the Factors Creating Our Economic Crisis? Analyzing Opposing Opinions and Reconciling Contradictory Conclusions

Is America still in crisis economically? Or have we now recovered from the hangover of the Great Recession?

In a world where contrary information is promptly labeled as “alternative facts” or “fake news,” it is difficult to identify a common data set on which all can agree — and, absent such an agreement, it is impossible to answer those questions, let alone to develop a consensus path forward. But at least some of the confusion can be eliminated by a careful analysis of what is being said. The old adage of the blind men describing an elephant is useful to us here.

Employment is up/workforce participation is down

Both statements are true.

In 2016, the United States added 2.2 million new jobs, and 1.4 million additional jobs were added in the first eight months of 2017.[1] The unemployment rate has fallen markedly over the last eight years, and now stands at 4.1 percent, the lowest rate of unemployment since 2001[2]. But the percentage of people of working age who are actually employed has fallen dramatically since the Great Recession, and this drop is especially acute for those with no college degree. Among men aged 25 – 54, 94.5 per cent were employed in 1980, but only 88.5 percent are employed today.[3] This is one of the lowest percentages among economically developed countries. The comparable figure in Japan today, for example, is 95.5 percent. So we have the apparent paradox of a low level of unemployment coupled with a historically low percentage of employed people.

And the problem is not just that there are many more people of employment age who are not working today, as compared to 2008. One-third of these non-working people are receiving disability payments, and an equal number are estimated to be using prescription pain medications, most of which are opioids.[4] The absence of a job detracts significantly from the quality of life for these people, and burdens society with Medicaid and welfare costs much higher than they were a decade or two ago — and the inability of prospective workers to pass drug tests keeps them unemployed[5].

Incomes are rising/incomes are stagnant

Both statements are true.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, median individual income peaked in 1973. Median family income, because women continued to join the workforce, did not peak until 1997—but since then, the percentage of women in the workforce has declined, as increasing numbers of women of working age have left the workforce to care for aging family members.[6]  In the last two years, the median family income has increased by 3.2 percent, to $59,059, but is still 2.4 percent lower than in 1999, and 1.6 percent lower than in 2007.[7]

But it is also true that median income does not capture the full story. Incomes have actually fallen for much of the workforce — notably, those toward the bottom of the income scale — even as they have risen, often dramatically, for those near the top of the scale. For example, over the past decade, and measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, median household income has fallen by $571 for families in the bottom quintile of income, and risen by $13,479 for families in the top quintile.[8] Moreover, the traditional bell curve of incomes, in which most workers were near the middle of the range, has inverted such that incomes are clustered toward the ends of the curve, with far fewer workers in the mid-range.

So some workers have seen a significant increase in earnings in recent years, even as others have waited in vain for salary increases, or have been forced to accept jobs paying significantly less than their pre-Great Recession jobs.

Whether incomes are seen as improving or not is very much an individual perspective.

The economy is barely growing/the economy continues to improve

National economic growth is measured quarterly, and is always subject to subsequent revision as more comprehensive data later become available. Thus, it is not unusual to see a particular figure announced (to widespread gloom or fanfare, depending on the number), only to see that figure adjusted upward or downward months later.

The point is, making statements about the state of the economy based on the latest quarterly number is risky and ultimately not particularly helpful. (For example, quarterly increases over the past eight quarters have ranged from 0.2 percent to 3.1 percent.[9]) On the other hand, historic data over many quarters reveal a much more useful picture of how well the economy has been doing. As measured in that way, the growth of the American economy over the past decade has been tepid at best (only five of the 52 quarters in the past 13 years grew at 4 percent or better[10]), and growth has not yet returned to levels typically seen following the end of a recession.

The takeaway is that our economy has fundamentally changed since the Great Recession of 2008, because the nature of the jobs available has changed. Low-skill, service jobs have proliferated, but they pay poorly. (For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 4-million new jobs in health care over the next decade, and more than 400,000 of those jobs will be for home health aides — but the median salary of home health aides, a job requiring only a high school diploma, is just $22,600.[11]) Certain well-paying high-skill jobs will continue to be abundant — but millions of mid-level jobs in the trades and especially in manufacturing have disappeared, and are not coming back.

The economy is divided into haves and have-nots — and there are far too many of the latter for our economy to be called “robust.” Too many Americans are living at or near poverty levels, a circumstance that should not be acceptable to anyone who cares about the quality of life of the American people. For these unemployed or underemployed members of our society, the economy is still very much in crisis. Our collective challenge is to prepare workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow, rather than waiting in vain for yesterday’s jobs to return.

America needs a change in the status quo, in terms of educational attainment levels, and Americans cannot assume that our current educational models are up for the task. (If they were, we wouldn’t be still having the problem of far too many marginally employed people.) And all Americans must collectively own this responsibility, rather than idly standing by, waiting for someone else to assume it for us.

How might this task best be accomplished? Next week: Tax cuts or education stimulus?

[1] “Incomes Jump, Adding Twist To Tax Battle,” The New York Times, September 13, 2017

[2] “Yellen’s Legacy: Progress, But a Sense of a Job Unfinished,” The New York Times, November 3, 2017

[3] “Labor Shortage Gives Workers an Edge,” The New York Times, September 20, 2017

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Workers Needed, but Drug Testing Takes a Toll,” The New York Times, July 25, 2017

[6] “The Weight of Elder Care on Women,” The New York Times, December 20, 2017

[7] “Incomes Jump, Adding Twist to Tax Battle,” The New York Times, September 13, 2017

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Economy’s 3% Spurt Emboldens Tax Cut Supports (and Critics),” The New York Times, October 28, 2017

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind,” The Hechinger Report, October 31, 2017



Is the Role of Higher Education to be Inclusive or Exclusive?

(Extended version of my essay in The Providence Journal, Aug. 10, 2017)

The United States is on a collision course with disaster. Unless we change our current model of higher education, our country will never have the educated workforce it needs to support and grow its economy.

A 2016 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, of the 11.6 million new jobs created since the beginning of the Great Recession, 8.3 million (73 percent) required a four-year degree — powerful evidence that we are continuing the transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Yet a 2017 report from the Lumina Foundation showed that only about 32 percent of American adults have a four-year or graduate degree — a percentage that has changed little in the past decade. In the absence of a sufficient supply of college graduates, how can American business and industry grow? And if American business and industry does not grow, how can the American economy expand?

Don’t assume that the law of supply and demand will take care of this problem. That’s not the appropriate model when it comes to higher education because, overwhelmingly, individual institutions of higher education are focused more on maintaining, and if possible enhancing, their own reputation than they are on producing more graduates. In other words, their obsession with quality (often equated with ranking) eclipses society’s need for quantity — a statement supported by findings from a just-released New America survey of 1,600 American adults (“Varying Degrees”).

This obsession manifests itself in two distinct ways, both of which hurt the American economy. First, almost all four-year colleges and universities seek to admit the very best high school graduates they are able to recruit — with “best” being those with the highest GPAs and test scores, ideally from high schools with reputations for being strong academically. Because the publications that rank colleges and universities use, as one criterion, the percentage of college freshmen at a given college who are in the top 10 percent, or 25 percent, of their high school graduating class, these are the students most in demand. But if the American economy needs 70 percent of its workers with a four-year degree, which are the colleges willing to take students from the bottom half of their high school class? The answer is that these students have few college options and, for the most part, those options are unattractive. Colleges prove their worth and enhance their reputations by being exclusive — not inclusive.

Second, the emphasis on “quality” creates a grading system that ensures some number of college students must fall short of an instructor’s expectations, and falling short in enough courses causes the student to leave without graduating. The four-year graduation rate of less selective colleges is often below 20 percent — just one in five receives the degree on time, and the six-year graduation rate is commonly below 40 percent.

How can this model be changed to meet today’s societal needs? Here are three answers:

  1. Colleges and universities must dramatically increase their graduation rates. It is unconscionable that there are institutions graduating less than 20 percent of the freshmen they admitted four years earlier. These low graduation rates are a national disgrace, and the American public should demand better. As a nation, we literally cannot afford to have half of each entering class of students failing to graduate within six years (“half” being the national average graduation rate across all higher education sectors). What other business or industry could survive if half of its input never made it out the door as marketable product?

Too many institutions of higher education continue to miss the point of their mandate. A college education should not be seen as the civilian equivalent of Army Ranger School, where a majority of would-be Rangers are expected to wash out. Colleges choose who they admit — and by choosing in this way, they establish what might be seen as a quasi-contractual relationship with their students to do everything in their power to help them achieve their educational aims. Instead, too many institutions still act more as judges than as advocates; more as inquisitors than mentors; more as auditors than as teachers. And when students fall short of expectations, the conclusion is that they are poor learners, not that the institution is doing a poor job of teaching.

The response to these criticisms is, of course, predictable. “Gasp! You would have us lower our standards of quality in order to give students outcomes they neither earned nor deserve!” To which I respond: Nonsense! We can provide far more guidance and assistance to students without in any way compromising the expectations we have of what and how they learn. We can enliven in-class and out-of-class instruction to make learning far more interesting. We can move away from counting the hours a student must spend in a classroom to earn three credits, and move towards a direct assessment of the learning outcomes we have for the course. These changes are all within our reach and ability, yet for the most part we ignore them — because there is not yet sufficient pressure and expectation for us to change the standard model.

Suppose the regional accreditors (or the federal government) set an outcome standard of, say, 75 percent graduation in four years of all full-time students (those taking 15 or more credits each semester). Institutions failing to meet that standard would be placed on probation by their accreditors or lose some portion of federal funding. Does anyone seriously believe that we would not immediately see far greater attention being paid to successful student learning? Why should it take the threat of penalties to motivate colleges and universities to do a better job of graduating their students?

  1. Lower income students must be given significantly greater opportunity and support. Institutions of higher learning do a respectable job with students from the top quarter of family income, many of whom have college-educated parents, and almost all of whom are the product of quite good K-12 school systems. About 77 percent of students in this income bracket will ultimately earn a four-year degree.

However, colleges and universities have had much less success with students from the bottom quarter of family income, only 9 percent of whom will earn a four-year degree. If the United States is to see a significant increase in the percentage of adults with a four-year degree, we must work to make students from the bottom quarter of family income more successful.

Creating greater access and better educational outcomes for low-income students is not an insurmountable problem; we’re just choosing not to address it.

Many of these students did not attend high quality K-12 schools; most will be first-generation college students; they may or may not receive moral support from their families; they are generally unfamiliar with how colleges operate, and often feel out-of-place trying to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. By providing them with educational “coaches” — individuals dedicated to helping them in every facet of their lives — a few institutions have seen dramatic increases in retention and graduation. This model should be the norm, not the exception.

And we have to stop punishing people just for being poor. Low-income families tend to live in areas where the K-12 school system is often terrible; where the neighborhood is often dangerous; where families routinely confront food and housing insecurity, and move frequently, often disrupting the children’s education. Then, when the children finish high school, too often their only educational option is a community college, where funding on a per-student basis is far lower than at state colleges and universities, to say nothing of most non-profit private institutions. And we wonder why low-income students are one-eighth as likely to earn a four-year degree as are high-income students, who overwhelmingly attend colleges and universities that are far better funded on a per-student basis?

Why does our society find it in any way acceptable to provide the most financial support for those who need it least (students from the top quarter of family incomes), and to provide the least financial support for those who need it most (students from the bottom quarter of family incomes)?

  1. A new educational model is needed for working adults who require additional skills, or who want to complete their undergraduate degree. There are literally millions of American adults who have more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. Virtually all of them would be economically better off with a four-year degree, and surveys find that about 75 percent of them would very much like to have a four-year degree. But the opportunity to do so is just not available.

The traditional model for a college degree requires four years of full-time study, typically in residence. This model is all but useless for a working adult who cannot give up employment to attend college, and whose time is limited by job and family responsibilities. Not-for-profit higher education has been painfully slow to respond to this need, a fact that provided the opportunity for for-profit institutions to enter the market and develop what can most charitably be described as a “mixed” record.

America’s need for a far better-educated workforce cannot be met simply by enrolling more high school graduates. We must also develop new methodologies to serve working adults, who neither need nor want a “seat time” education (that is, one based on the input of how many hours a person spends in a lecture hall to earn a college credit). Rather, they need to earn credits based on the output of academic competencies achieved. This model is moving with glacial slowness in the world of traditional higher education; change has to happen far more quickly, in order that the educational needs of millions of adult Americans can be met, and in order that we can create the larger pool of college-educated workers that our economy so desperately needs.

Accomplishing even one of these three changes will be challenging. Achieving all three may seem impossible. Yet while there is a real sense of urgency on the part of both the American public and the American economy, it is not necessary that all of higher education responds overnight. It is enough that some institutions, public or private, decide that there are certain actions that they can take that will address these three changes. And they can do so while still protecting their ranking:

  • Programs for adults can be developed in such a way that they will not interfere with the current college ranking system, which is based on measures relating only to first-time, full-time freshmen.
  • Working to increase graduation rates will help an institution’s ranking, because graduation rate is an important criterion in the ranking process.
  • Creating access for low-income students, on the other hand, may affect an institution’s ranking (because these students generally score lower on standardized tests and on high school GPA), but these institutions will have to ask themselves whether they exist solely for the purpose of establishing a high ranking for themselves, or whether their more fundamental purpose is to meet the needs American society has of them.

As even a few institutions respond to one or more of these needs, they will demonstrate that so much of what we think of as being fundamental and ingrained in higher education is, in fact, a product of the model we are using — and that model can be changed. Indeed, it must be changed, if America’s economic strength is not to be undermined in the coming decades by an educationally ill-prepared workforce. Higher education needs to hold itself accountable in ensuring that this gloomy forecast does not actually occur. And the first step in being accountable is to adopt inclusivity — not exclusivity — as higher education’s watchword.

A Recommendation to Jeff Bezos to Award Transformative Philanthropic Gifts to Colleges

(My essay in Inside Higher Ed, July 2017)

On June 15, The New York Times published an interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, in which he was asked about his philanthropic interests, now that his net worth exceeds an estimated $80 billion. His philanthropic giving to date has been modest by the standards of many other multibillionaires.

Bezos responded, “If you have any ideas, just reply to this tweet …”

Within a day, Bezos had received more than 18,000 replies. No doubt the flood of tweets will continue unabated for days to come. Yet it’s very difficult to compress a good idea into the 140-character limit of a tweet.

With that in mind, I offer my own suggestion.

Dear Mr. Bezos,

You indicated to The New York Times that, when it comes to philanthropy, you are interested in making investments that are “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” I have a suggestion that I think would do just that. But first, let me set the table for you.

In 1992, Henry M. Rowan Jr., an industrialist living in southern New Jersey, did something literally unprecedented: he gave $100 million, virtually all of which was unrestricted, to a local public institution, Glassboro State College. He had no particular history with that institution, but it was the only four-year college near his business offices. It was, at the time, the largest gift ever given to a public institution — and Glassboro State College then had an endowment of less than $1 million. In recognition of this gift (and not, as some people have speculated, because it was a condition of the gift), Glassboro State College changed its name to Rowan University.

Rowan was rolling the dice with an enormous bet. He was betting that a gift of this size could be transformational for Glassboro State. He was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that institution was soliciting a major gift from him. But he decided that MIT was already so rich that even $100 million would do little to effect a transformation there, and he wanted his gift to have an impact.

Rowan’s gift was paid in installments over 10 years, and I had the good fortune to be hired as president of Rowan University in 1998 to move the university “to the next level” — a concept that was not specifically defined but was assumed to mean making the university better, stronger and more recognized.

The gift was intended to be an endowment, with some of the investment earnings available for spending every year. But the sheer size of the gift allowed us to leverage it in the market for purposes of borrowing funds to improve the campus. We built engineering, science and education buildings. We renovated many of the existing buildings and improved landscaping. We constructed a town house complex to increase student housing. We acquired 600 acres of land near the campus for future expansion and the construction of a technology park.

Over a 10-year period, working with the town of Glassboro, we constructed campus-related buildings (residence halls, a hotel, a bookstore and a parking garage) on city-owned land adjacent to the campus, and to benefit the town, we orchestrated a public-private partnership to ensure the new buildings would be taxable at normal rates. Most of them included shops and restaurants on the ground floors, as a way of attracting the local populace to the area.

The campus grew in size and reputation, and shortly before I left in 2011, we built the first new medical school in New Jersey in 40 years. The work continues under my successor, with an intention of growing the student body from 8,000 in 1998 to 25,000 by 2025. (It’s more than 17,000 today.)

Rowan died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see his legacy in full bloom. His gift was every bit as transformational as he had hoped. He was a tough businessman, but when he spoke of the university that bore his name, his eyes filled with tears, and on more than one occasion he told me, “That was the best money I ever spent.”

Some cynics speculated at the outset that the university would never receive another gift, since any gift would pale in comparison to Rowan’s gift. To the contrary, philanthropists reasoned that a university that could attract a gift of $100 million must certainly be worth their much smaller investments, and over the subsequent decade, we received more than a dozen gifts of $1 million or more, with one gift of $10 million. Success breeds success — and large philanthropic investments attract other philanthropic investments.

The Rowan story is gradually becoming better known. For instance, it was featured in a Malcolm Gladwell podcast last year as an example of how philanthropists should be investing in colleges where their gifts will have meaning and impact, as opposed merely to swelling the bank vaults of well-known institutions that are already fabulously wealthy.

So, Mr. Bezos, here is my suggestion for a philanthropic investment.

  • Transform 10 colleges or universities each year for 10 years by awarding them an unrestricted endowment gift of $100 million. That’s $1 billion annually for 10 years.
  • Any public or private four-year, nonprofit institution with an endowment of less than $100 million would be eligible to apply.
  • An anonymous panel of experts whom you select would review the applications each year and select the 10 that promise to be the most transformational, affect the largest number of students and have the greatest societal impact. The specific criteria for evaluation would be yours to state, and those criteria may well change over the 10-year history of the plan.
  • As a condition of the gift, each recipient institution would be obliged to prepare an annual report, for 10 years, documenting their success (or failure) in achieving the goals they stated in their initial proposal. Those reports would be public, so that everyone could see the ways in which the colleges and universities were being transformed by virtue of winning a Bezos grant.

Mr. Bezos, this proposal, if funded, will positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of students every year — forever. But more important, if something like this does not happen, our country will continue to see a major shortfall of college graduates relative to our economic needs, and that shortfall will occur largely among would-be first-generation students, many of whom are members of ethnic and racial minorities.

There are many worthy philanthropic investments that you might make. But the economic future of our country depends on doubling the percentage of American adults with a four-year degree. A study last year by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce showed than 73 percent of all jobs created since the Great Recession required at least a baccalaureate, and only 36 percent of adult Americans currently have that level of education. The current system of higher education will never get us to where we need to be, but philanthropists such as you can show us the way.


Donald J. Farish, president
Roger Williams University

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.


  • 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 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 18to 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.

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 6: Transforming the 20th-century university to meet the needs of 21st-century America

In this series of blog posts, we have examined the strengths and weaknesses of the American system of education — especially higher education — and its purpose from the perspective of the student, the individual campus and the nation. Today’s collection of colleges and universities represent the culmination of the largely uncoordinated growth of institutional, state and federal initiatives at various points in our country’s history, unfettered by any overarching national educational policy. The absence of a higher education policy is both a primary strength (it has created competition among colleges, and competition promotes quality) and a primary weakness (most colleges and universities overemphasize their own interests, and, as we have seen, those interests are not generally congruent with the broader interests of individual students or society at large).

As measured by the economic strength of the United States, we are obliged to conclude that this model has historically served our nation well—but, as other nations have dramatically increased their investments in higher education, it is far from assured that our higher education model is well suited to preserving our nation’s strong economy in the future.  Prior posts in this series have addressed this problem in detail.  Now it is time to consider the changes that are overdue, if we are to retain our country’s economic hegemony — to say nothing of the need to rebuild the socioeconomic ladder if ambitious and hard-working low-income students are to escape poverty.

The National Goal

As the United States continues its economic evolution from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy, the country requires a workforce with the level of education that meets the needs of today’s job market. Although not all futurists agree, prevailing wisdom is that between 60 percent and 70 percent of jobs in the future will require post-secondary education — that is, a high-quality certificate or an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree. In 2008, President Obama set a goal of having 60 percent of American adults with post-secondary education by 2026, and the Lumina Foundation concurred. Regrettably, as a nation we are stuck at about 45 percent, and virtually no progress toward the 60 percent target occurred during the Obama era.

In short, the current model of post-secondary education has not proven responsive to meeting the changing educational needs of the country. A new model is needed — just as in 1893, when a presidential commission called for a national goal of universal high school graduation, and again following World War II, when the G.I. Bill opened the doors of higher education to those who had historically been denied access.

What changes are needed for at least 60 percent of American adults to acquire post-secondary education? I believe several things must happen simultaneously, since no single change will be adequate to meet the 60 percent target.

Setting Policy Priorities

  1. Society’s Interests Must Prevail

In Part 4, we considered the competing priorities of students, society and the institutions — and the unsatisfactory result when these conflict. Since increasing the supply of post-secondary graduates requires significant financial investment, and since neither students (and their families) nor the institutions have the financial capacity to change the status quo, we are obliged to turn to society (that is, state and federal sources) for funding. However, in order to secure funding, the interests of society must take priority over the interests of the individual student or institution.

By today’s standards, that proposition may sound dramatic, or even radical, but it is important to recognize the long history of governmental involvement in higher education, beginning with the establishment and funding of the first state institutions in 1790, and the initiation of federal funding with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1863. The GI Bill of 1943, the Truman Commission of 1946, the creation of the National Science Foundation (the source of many university research grants) in 1950 and the introduction of Pell Grants in 1965 all represented additional governmental investments in higher education, and each had the express purpose of strengthening the national economy by expanding educational opportunity at the bachelor’s and graduate levels.

In order to garner public support for increased state and federal spending on higher education, it will be important to characterize this funding as an investment and not as an expense. Given the facts, this argument should be easy to make. In his or her lifetime, the average college graduate pays approximately $200,000 more in income taxes than the average high school graduate — an amount far in excess of the current or future level of per-student governmental investment. Investing in higher education pays off for society. Increasing the amount of that investment will increase the amount of national “profit” (in the form of additional income taxes).

So, while it is true that a better educated workforce is:

  • more informed on public policy matters;
  • far less likely to rely on the social safety net;
  • healthier and less likely to be incarcerated;
  • more publicly spirited;
  • on purely economic grounds, a strong case can be made that larger, not smaller, state and federal investments in higher education are both necessary and desirable.

But it is not appropriate for society to dictate specific educational outcomes, such as by choosing and preferentially funding the majors and subjects from which students must select. Beyond the fact that any society needs artists, musicians, philosophers and journalists to provide balance to a nation strongly inclined to favor wealth accumulation over truth and beauty, the $200,000 in additional taxes paid by college graduates over their working lifetimes already accounts for the fact that some of these graduates are in the fields we just listed. Trying to entice (or direct) them to become computer scientists or engineers, where the financial payoff to society is greater, is both unnecessary and unworkable. A free society must surely include the freedom to pursue one’s passion — even if that passion is sometimes not highly rewarded financially.

  1. College for Everyone?

Some people who ardently support public transit do so not because they intend to use it. Rather, they hope that other people will use it, so that the roads are less crowded when they drive their cars. Similarly, some people argue that college shouldn’t be everyone’s goal.  After all, we need tradespeople as much as we ever have — but that should be the goal for other people’s children: My kids are going to college.

This is a difficult debate.  On the one hand, we value a society in which people are free to pursue their dreams, and if that means going to college, well, so be it. On the other hand, not everyone is well served by college, either because they lack the interest or ability to succeed, or because they are better served by a different career path.

But do young people of high school age really know what they want? What is in their long-term interests? Should they be asked — or required — to make a decision while still in high school that would forever determine the trajectory of their working lives?

The default position at which our nation seems to have arrived is that everyone should be educationally prepared for college so that their options are not foreclosed prematurely, and going to college to “find oneself,” to “find one’s passion” or just to postpone looking for a job immediately after high school is entirely acceptable.

The problem is, in an educational system that draws heavily from the public purse, it is both expensive and wasteful to allow — even encourage — young people to founder in college, as they attempt to find a purpose and a direction for their lives. That’s why many educators recommend a gap year between high school and college, or even advocate for a year or two of public service before college, to ensure that young people entering college do so with a clear purpose and commitment.

But advocating a gap year, or a year or two of public service, doesn’t resolve the underlying problem — that there are two irreconcilable perceptions regarding college access. Some people note with concern that our current model of higher education is wasteful and inefficient because it is too accessible to students who lack either the educational preparation or the personal commitment to succeed, and these critics use low graduation rates as proof of the wisdom of their perspective.

Others, however, point out that our current model discriminates against low-income students, students for whom English is a second language, and students of color, noting that all three groups are seriously underrepresented among college graduates. Far from limiting access to only the best prepared and committed students, they argue that the challenge is to expand access to more students from groups that have not historically succeeded in college.  Indeed, they point out, if this is not done, we have no arithmetical possibility of reaching the 60 percent target.

My own view is that the solution does not center as much on expanding or restricting access, but on creating a culture of success, where the expectation and goal is that the overwhelming majority of students persist and graduate (see Part 5 in this series). I’ll talk about how to achieve this outcome later in this blog post.

  1. Education vs Training

Members of the faculty may differ on many topics, but they typically hold one view in common: The role of college is to educate, not to train. By that, they mean college is a place where students don’t just learn factual information, although acquisition of such information certainly occurs. Rather, college is a place where students learn how to think, to communicate effectively, to assess the quality of the information they encounter, to prepare analyses and arguments, to extrapolate their understanding when faced with novel situations, to be nimble and adaptable, to work well with others, and so forth. These are the hallmarks of study in the liberal arts, and they are traits and abilities looked for and expected by employers. Much social growth and intellectual and emotional development takes place between the ages of 18 and 22, and spending those years at a residential college is generally of profound value to people as they begin their professional lives. They may have learned the fundamentals of accounting or engineering or architecture, but without the academic foundation of the liberal arts, they are not truly educated.

So for many faculty members, this comprehensive idea of education not only defines what college is intended to do, but also what a bachelor’s degree represents. Anything much different from what I have just described does not measure up to the “traditional” standard, and therefore is not equivalent. Consequently, new models of education are often viewed with suspicion and are rarely welcomed by the academy.

The problem is that this perspective conflates two quite different aspects of a traditional undergraduate degree taken in residence: information acquisition and intellectual understanding on the one hand, and social and emotional growth on the other. Ideally, both occur at colleges today. Both are needed for success in a career and in life. And four years seems to be about the right amount of time to spend.

But, surely, we should not expect that an educational model developed for recent high school graduates would meet the needs of working adults equally well. Yet, that is typically all we have to offer to working adults who decide to start (or complete) their bachelor’s degree. Rather than a one-size-fits-all educational model, suppose we were to design a model specifically for non-traditional students, such as working adults. How would it look?

  1. Expanding the College Market

There are 27 million Americans who started college but didn’t finish, but there are remarkably few avenues open to them to complete their studies because institutions of higher education are focused on the recent high school graduate — not the working adult without an undergraduate degree. We cannot reach the nation’s educational goals by focusing just on improving the K-12 pipeline. We must also find ways of educationally qualifying working adults.

One of the things we must recognize is that a traditional college experience — in residence, full-time, dutifully sitting in the classroom 15 or 20 hours a week — is not only a terrible design for working adults, but it is also unnecessary. Much of what happens to traditional-age students while they are enrolled in college has independently happened to people who did not attend (or who did not finish) college. What is missing in their education is more factual in nature and less developmental. They do not require the social and psychological nurturing of most teenagers or lessons in time management. They can instead focus on the acquisition and use of information.

Those more limited needs permit an educational design that is both simpler and faster. Using competency-based metrics, rather than seat time (see Part 3), courses can be face-to-face or on-line (or blended) to allow students to move at their own pace, yet still acquire the level of learning reached by traditional residential baccalaureate students. This model of adult education is inching its way forward ever so slowly, having been delayed by concerns from regional accreditors and the U. S. Department of Education that it may not be sufficiently rigorous. But it is now in place at a few accredited institutions. The number of participating institutions needs to expand dramatically, if we are to serve the huge number of individuals who both seek and need the opportunity to acquire a college education.

Yet we shouldn’t limit our thinking just to traditional degrees. Very often what working adults need is the acquisition, or enhancement, of specific skills and abilities, as a consequence of the ever-changing job market. Colleges and universities can very easily develop certificates or badges in defined areas — blocks of three courses, typically — that can stand alone or be stacked in such a way that they could eventually be converted into an undergraduate or graduate degree.

We can no longer think of a college education as a one-time vaccination against ignorance that lasts for a lifetime. In the rapidly changing world of 21st-century America, we will need occasional booster shots to keep our skills current for today’s marketplace. Traditional institutions of higher education will either step up to deliver these booster shots or stand by while non-traditional providers start taking over our industry.

  1. Face-to-face vs. online

There is a widespread belief that the answer to expanding college access is through the internet. Everything can be put online, and all would-be college students can acquire a degree at their own speed — for a lot less than the cost of traditional colleges.

There is no question that some students would thrive in such an environment, but most traditional-age students would not. Imagine this situation: Your 18-year-old son walks into your living room and says, “Mom and Dad, I’m going to my room to take my college degree. See you in four years.” You just know this isn’t going to end well — and it will probably end before lunch.

Two things: First, most teenagers need far more structure in their learning environment than can be provided through a series of online courses. Second, this model raises again the distinction between education and training: It is very difficult to simulate the social environment of a residential college and the constant interaction with others in an online world.

Alternatively, online is often far more preferable and effective for adult learners than is a residential learning environment. As I argued earlier in this post, the absence of educational models designed to meet the needs of adult learners is a huge handicap in attaining our national goal of 60 percent of American adults with a college degree. It would be highly ironic if we abandoned a residential, face-to-face model of education for traditional-age students in order to force them into an online world, when what we need to do is build that online world for the adult learners who now are unable to access the educational model for traditional-age students.

Repairing the Pipeline

At present, about 83 percent of high schoolers graduate, and 66 percent of those start college (public or private, two-year or four-year) the following academic year. However, in some states, less than 5 percent of community college students complete their studies in two years, and, nationally, less than half of the students in public universities graduate in four years. These numbers are grounds for outrage. One wonders why the tax- and tuition-paying public isn’t running around with their hair on fire. We will never meet our national educational goals with so many students failing to complete their degrees.

To be sure, many students are part-time because they need to have a job while in college, but nationally 38 percent of community college students attend full-time. How, then, to explain such low graduation rates? Some number of part-time students do eventually complete their studies, attesting to their tenacity. But a delayed graduation keeps them out of the college-educated job market for an extended time, resulting in a reduction in both their income, and the taxes they pay, over their working lifetimes. Successfully moving more students through the educational pipeline, and in a more timely manner, is critical for both the individual and the country.

How might we achieve that goal?

  • Increase financial support: Our national goal should be to ensure that all students have adequate financial resources to permit them to be full-time. This would require a significant increase in the Pell Grant program by:
    • Enhancing the individual awards and adjusting them yearly for inflation.
    • Increasing eligibility to include more families.
    • In calculating the size of individual awards, factoring in living costs, not just educational costs, to address the current need that students often have to work while in school.

But wouldn’t such a program be prohibitively expensive? I could be flip and say “Not in comparison to the budget of the Department of Defense, and surely strengthening our economy is at least as important to our nation’s future as creating a new generation of nuclear weapons.” But let me be more practical. Here are several suggestions:

  • Phase in the increase costs over several years.
  • To maintain their eligibility for Pell Grants, require students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and to complete the appropriate number of academic credits annually to keep them on pace for a timely graduation.
  • Require students to have some “skin in the game,” on the order of $5,000 for an associate’s degree or $10,000 for a bachelor’s degree, with federal student loans available for students without the necessary personal or family resources.
  • Eliminate the tax exemption on investment income earned by university endowments, and dedicate those funds to paying for an expansion of Pell Grants.
  • Rethink the institutional purpose and the role of faculty and staff: As I said in Parts 3 and 5 of this series of blog posts, institutions offer a mixed message to students regarding their level of commitment to student success.  Some campuses regularly exceed the anticipated graduation percentage, predicted on the basis of student quality at entrance (high school GPA and test scores), whereas other campuses regularly fall short. These institutional differences in outcome result from the presence or absence of both student assistance programs and positive faculty attitudes to the students in their courses. We know enough about student learning, about the academic and psychological needs of students, and about best educational practices to recognize that there is absolutely no reason why families should be so tolerant of sub-optimal graduation rates that now give pause to many students and families as they contemplate the wisdom, and cost, of attending college. The financial consequences to the student, the family and the nation of a failure to complete the degree are simply too great to be accepted as inevitable. We must:
    • Hold campuses accountable for achieving graduation rates that reflect the relative academic quality of the student body, or lose eligibility for federal funding.
    • Hold campuses accountable for providing ways in which students can receive the level of support, inside and outside the classroom, that enhances students’ academic success, including augmenting the staffs of the Counseling Center, the Advising Center, the Tutorial Center, and other similar offices.
    • Make widely available the best practices of campuses that have high rates of retention and graduation.
    • Require the acceptance of academic credits transferred from any accredited institution by the receiving institution. Too many transfer students are currently required to repeat coursework at their new institution that they have already successfully completed at their previous institution.
    • Encourage more four-year institutions to create their own two-year college to allow less well prepared students access to a developmental program designed to merge with the regularly admitted students in the junior year. Most four-year institutions are so concerned about preserving their academic reputation that they seek to limit access only to students who are indisputably ready for college—and that is a formula to preserve the status quo, not one that will expand access or create progress toward our national goal of 60 percent of Americans with post-secondary education. We cannot reach the 60 percent goal by focusing exclusively on students in the top 25 percent of their graduating class. As long as that goal is seen as someone else’s responsibility, we are effectively encouraging colleges to think only about what they want, rather than addressing what American society needs today.
    • Not accept the cynical response that increasing graduation rates can only be done by lowering academic standards.
  • Recapture those who have leaked from the pipeline: Regardless of how effective the efforts are to retain students until they graduate, a significant number will leave without having completed their studies, for a variety of reasons. Are they doomed to go through life with “some college,” but no degree, and to deal daily with the economic consequences of never having finished? Today, the answer to that question is effectively “yes.” But, as I have argued earlier in this post, that is only because traditional higher education has all but ignored them and their needs. New educational models, focused on the acquisition and assessment of competencies rather than the amassing of hours of seat time, and using online education rather than face-to-face instruction, can be effective in assisting these students in completing their degrees, and qualifying for the jobs and salaries available only to college graduates — with significant economic benefit to themselves and their families, and to the country as a whole.


Our current model of higher education has been adapted and augmented since the Colonial era to meet the changing needs of the local and national economies, but its evolution is no longer keeping pace with the current rate of social change. Specifically, our model reveals itself to be completely inadequate to meet the needs of business and industry that increasingly require many more employees with post-secondary education. Unless we find a solution to this problem, we face the prospects of being overtaken by countries and regions with a stronger system of higher education, and, as a consequence, with economies that are growing faster than is our own.

Several things must change at the same time to address this need for a higher level of educational attainment for more Americans. We must:

  • Increase the educational skill level of high school graduates. Too many of them are not academically prepared to take college-level courses.
  • Focus on a far greater level of college success than we see at present. College should not be the equivalent of a weeding-out process where the weakest and least affluent are eliminated — and in huge numbers. We must rethink our system so that the large majority of students succeed — and do so in a timely fashion.
  • Find ways of recapturing those who prematurely leak out of the educational pipeline, for whatever reason, through the creation of “intake pipes” for working adults who want a college degree, but cannot access a model designed for full-time traditional-age students.
  • Think of education as something that happens periodically over a lifetime, rather than as a defined period of time that, for most individuals, ends with a bachelor’s degree. Colleges should develop certificates and badges, designed for specific populations to meet specific needs, and typically delivered online, to meet the ever-changing needs of working America.

We are facing a painful paradox: The employers of America are asking for many more college-educated employees, even as many colleges are struggling to fill their classrooms, owing to the continuing decline in the number of high school graduates. Yet there are literally millions of working adults seeking to start or complete their undergraduate degree, or other program, but who have no place to go. Do the traditional colleges and universities of America have the will to respond to meet this new and growing need by developing programs to serve working adults, or by accepting less qualified students (with the understanding that they would also be accepting the responsibility to support and graduate them)? Or will the traditional colleges cling to the current model, perhaps tinkering a bit around the edges, and watch each other die off?

Our tagline at Roger Williams University is “a private university serving the public good.” If we are to be true to that commitment, we have no choice but to be in the front row of the vanguard of American universities that dedicate themselves to expanding college access to working adults and to those high school graduates who today are too often excluded.

Rebuilding the American Economy

Part 5: Can we reduce the number of students who leak from the pipeline?

The underlying thesis for this series of blog posts is that the best (and arguably the only) way to reinvigorate the American economy is to increase the percentage of adult Americans with a post-secondary degree or certificate. But as we noted in Parts 2 and 3, our educational system is akin to an obstacle course, with annual assessments during K-12 that determine if a given student is to be promoted to the next grade, and semiannual assessments in college to determine if a given student is to be awarded course credit for the courses in which he or she has enrolled. What happens to individuals who fail these assessments? Are they lost from the educational pipeline forever, or is there a way back into the system?

At the high school level, the most common route to a high school diploma for those who left the K-12 pipeline prematurely is the GED (General Educational Development) test. But the number of people who choose this route is relatively small.  In 2013, 540,000 adults passed their GED test (about 75 percent of those who took the test), but that was less than 2 percent of the almost 40 million American adults who now lack a high school diploma. The point is that young people who drop out before completing Grade 12 are at high risk of never receiving a high school diploma. Our current system of education does a much better job of weeding people out than of welcoming them back in. And, as we move increasingly into a knowledge-based economy, the economic costs to society of having so many adults without even a high school education are enormous — as they are, of course, to the individuals themselves.

The situation does not improve as we move to higher education. Our historic model of higher education — four years of full-time study, with students living in residence on or near the college campus — has been significantly modified over the years to accommodate changing societal needs. But the focus has been more on creating access to a more diverse population of students than on creating successful outcomes as measured by graduation rates.

For example, in the years after World War II, there was enormous investment by most states in building and expanding a system of state colleges. These were typically located in geographically diverse areas of the state to serve local populations, meaning that many students could be commuters, thereby saving the costs of being in residence on the campus. These colleges were not only more accessible geographically, but also academically: High school GPAs and test scores that might preclude acceptance at the state flagship university, or at many private colleges, were often sufficient for admission to a state college.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the states also invested heavily in community colleges — which, as the name implies, were located in almost every community of even modest size. Community colleges are typically “open admission,” meaning that anyone with a high school diploma (and, in some cases, even without a high school diploma) is welcome to enroll.

Community colleges typically serve three roles: They provide enrichment programs for the local community (these generally do not grant college credit); they provide associate of science degrees in practical fields ranging from auto mechanics to welding to nursing; and they provide associate of arts degrees for students who plan to transfer to a four-year school and complete their baccalaureates.

Some states (California and New York, for instance) organized their public institutions in a deliberately hierarchical manner. In California, students graduating in the top one-eighth of their high school class were eligible to apply to any of the 10 campuses of the University of California. If they graduated in the top one-third of their high school class, they could apply to any of the two dozen or so campuses in the California State University. All other students were welcomed at the more than 100 community college campuses scattered across the state. The state required campuses of the University of California and California State University systems to reserve seats in order to accommodate community college students who wished to transfer after receiving their associate of arts degrees.

This model of higher education works much better on paper than it does in the real world. There is a constant tension between cost and outcome: Tuition costs are kept low to encourage enrollment, but graduation rates are also low. Nationally, only about half of the students attending public four-year colleges and universities graduate from the campus at which they began their studies — and “half” is the measure six years after initial enrollment. The four-year graduation rate is substantially less, and the three-year graduation rate for the associate’s degree at a typical community college is often less than 20 percent.

It is interesting to contrast the use of scarce resources in medical treatment (“triage”) with the corresponding situation in higher education. “Triage” refers to the determination of who receives immediate medical attention in a natural disaster or on the battlefield. Those needing medical care are separated into three categories: patients likely to survive, whether or not they receive immediate attention; patients whose survival may depend on receiving immediate attention; and patients unlikely to survive, even with immediate attention. A triage assessment directs medical attention preferentially to the second category of patient, where medical care is likely to do the greatest good for the largest number of injured people.

Higher education does not follow the medical triage model, because the higher education model directs the most support to the strongest individuals — and the least support to those at greatest risk. In systems of public higher education, significantly more public dollars are spent per student at flagship universities than on students in state colleges, and even fewer public dollars are spent per student enrolled in community colleges. Apparently, the underlying theory is that state dollars, which are always limited, should preferentially be spent supporting the students that are the most likely to graduate, get good jobs and repay the state’s investment through their taxes (which will be higher, as a result of their having a college degree). Partly as a consequence of more money being spent on high-achieving students, the six-year graduation rate on the campuses of the University of California, for example, ranges between 66 percent and 91 percent, with most campuses in the 80-percent range. At the California State University campuses, the range is from 35 percent to 79 percent, with most campuses around 50 percent. The six-year graduation rate of students who begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school is 16 percent. (Of the students who say, at the time they start community college, that they intend to transfer to a four-year school, only 33 percent actually do so.)

It should not be surprising that a decision to spend more money on high-achieving students would result in higher graduation rates, but the question is whether society is receiving an adequate return on its investment in all segments of public higher education. Even allowing that most students in state colleges — let alone community colleges — have lower levels of academic achievement in high school than do students admitted to flagship publics, should a six-year graduation rate of around 50 percent be deemed adequate? And what about a three-year graduation for community college students of less than 20 percent?

These questions get us deeply into the politics underlying educational policy. Most Americans evidently prefer an “unfiltered” educational pipeline. That is, unlike higher education in many countries, there is no one set of exams that candidates must pass in order to gain entrance to university. We believe in second chances. We believe in “late bloomers.” We believe in a system that is accessible at almost any point in one’s life. But we apparently also think it appropriate that students who have not performed very well in high school should face significantly longer odds than students who have done well, in the sense that their path to a degree will be much less generously supported by state funds and, therefore, the likelihood of their graduating will be much lower.

Every year, at graduation ceremonies around the country, the media run stories of students who have faced the most incredible odds and overcome devastating circumstances but who have triumphed and graduated from college. We celebrate their success even as we quietly applaud a system of higher education that allowed them the opportunity to try. But for every such happy ending, there are dozens of prospective graduates who fell short of attaining a college degree. Low-income students growing up in poverty, and attending failing K-12 schools, are hard-pressed to complete high school, and, even if they do, find themselves typically with a level of academic preparation inadequate to succeed in college. And with poor academic preparation, the only college access they are likely to have is a community college where, rather than finding themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment, they struggle to attend on a part-time basis because they need at least a part-time job. They realize they are part of a culture where failure is the norm — and success the exception.

The mixed message is hard to ignore. If you are born poor, society punishes you with an educational system that, at every step, is intentionally inadequate to meet your needs. And if you do complete high school, your reward is more of the same: an intentionally inadequate community college experience where, again, you are expected to fail.

We should ask ourselves if it is moral to malnourish (in an academic sense) a student in K-12, and then say we’ll make it up to you by giving you a chance to do something (attending college) for which we have not prepared you to be successful? Isn’t that like teaching swimming by throwing people into the deep end of the pool and assuming that a few of them won’t drown? Why are we so accepting of the cynicism behind such a model? It is certainly not in the best interests of the students, and if our societal goal is to increase the number of adults with post-secondary credentials, that can only be done by enhancing the success of the students in the bottom half of the economic spectrum. So this model does not serve our country well, either.

But while acknowledging that changing this model will take some time, what do we do about the adults who have, for whatever reason, missed their opportunity to complete college when they were young and now see no realistic option open to them, given the responsibilities and time demands that adults typically face? Our current educational model doesn’t just serve them badly — it doesn’t serve them at all. For all intents and purposes, if you leave the post-secondary pipeline without a degree, you are lost forever.

Whenever we have undertaken massive education reform in the past, the first challenge was to overcome the widespread belief that the system prevailing at the time was as good as it could be, and certainly adequate for societal needs. Thus, in 1893, when a presidential panel of educators recommended eight years of primary school and four years of high school as a national goal to meet the growing educational needs of business and industry, only half of adult Americans had achieved that goal 50 years later.

Similarly, there was considerable opposition to the G.I. Bill after World War II on the part of some college presidents who were concerned that the inherent prestige of the college degree would be watered down if more people had one.  The opposition lost, and many more students entered college. But they found the bar had been raised, and graduating from college was far from assured.

We have continued with that mindset to this day: We expect the rigors of college to be more than many students can endure, and that the failure of half the class to graduate is evidence of high standards (or, less kindly, the inadequacy of the students either in terms of intellect or work ethic) — rather than evidence of poor teaching and inadequate academic support.

The point is: America can no longer afford (in any sense of the word) to have a system of higher education where so many students fail to graduate. Study after study has demonstrated that, with sufficient academic support, much greater percentages of students can graduate than has historically been the case. As a society, we have to stop placing all the blame on students, and recognize instead that the colleges themselves are complicit in the poor graduation rates found on many campuses.

The fundamental idea has to be that institutions of higher education exist to promote student academic success — not to weed out those deemed “unworthy.” Institutions with that progressive mindset exist today, at all levels, from community colleges through some of the most prestigious universities, where the students consistently outperform their peers at comparable institutions because of the commitment of the institution itself (and the faculty and staff of that institution) to focus on success.

Students and their families — and state and federal funding authorities — can and should expect a much more full-throated commitment to improved retention and graduation rates on the part of colleges and universities. For their part, the colleges and universities have to stop claiming that such improvements can only come at the expense of instituting a watered-down curriculum.

The cost of failure is too high for the individual — and too high for society. Colleges and universities need to step up and take responsibility for meeting students at least half way in supporting and encouraging their success in graduating. Plugging the leaks in the educational pipeline is in everyone’s interest.

And, finally, we need to create effective on-ramps for adults without a college degree who want and need to complete their studies. Returning them to the traditional classroom built to serve 18-year-olds is neither practical nor sufficient, especially when other pathways can be constructed if we have the will to do so.

We’ll consider the specifics of these pathways and other ways of remediating our current system of higher education in Part 6: Transforming the 20th Century university to meet the needs of 21st Century America.