Community colleges are the entry point to higher education for millions of Americans, but, according to Inside Higher Education’s 2017 Survey of Community College Presidents, their leaders report significant enrollment challenges and precarious financial support.
Six in 10 of the 236 community college presidents reported a decline in enrollment over the past three years. Their response often was to add new programs, increase strategies to support student transfers, grow their marketing budgets, add new online programs, and freeze or cut tuition. Significantly, most looked first to program enhancements designed to boost enrollment rather than cuts to cover deficits and meet expenses.
Community college presidents report financial matters and enrollment management are top concerns.
The enrollment and financial difficulties faced by community college leaders reflect broader trends. Employment opportunities have increased with the improving economy, for example, causing some enrollment declines. Further, the tactics utilized to stabilize community college finances often reflect the approaches adopted elsewhere among four-year, graduate, and professional schools.
Community Colleges Often First Entry to Higher Education
But what’s most telling is that a uniform communications and marketing message has not yet taken hold to build a case for community colleges.
The plain fact is that community colleges are the defining point of access for most students in the American higher education system.
Well over forty percent of American college students have some educational experience in a community college. For most of these, it is their first college experience.
If community colleges provide primary access in a world of shifting demographics, persistent income inequality, and the failing college and business and financial models that are causing open consumer revolt over sticker prices, should enlightened local, state and federal policies reward community colleges more deliberately for the public good that they provide?
Isn’t it time for policymakers to set basic parameters in place to offer an agenda that sponsors access and better supports the institutions like community colleges which provide it?
Higher Education is Lifelong Learning Experience
For policymakers to make a difference, they must first see what educational consumers already understand – education is a life-long learning experience “from cradle through career” and beyond — that creates a pathway along which citizens travel.
Education remains the great safety valve in American society, assimilating new immigrant groups and providing Americans in general with their best hope to secure a sustainable place in the American middle class.
But the pathway goes beyond access. Getting students into the educational pipeline, as free tuition plans in states like New York and Rhode Island propose to do, is not enough. The likely effect will be to jam the pipeline and blame the students or the institutions when retention and graduation rates do not improve.
Regardless of how the financial pieces are put together, community colleges must have reliable sources of revenue to do their jobs, ensuring that accepted students not only attend but persist and graduate in reasonable time.
A realistic community college operating model is not likely to suggest that they be like four-year colleges, offering a full range of residential and non-academic programming. There is a good case for public/private partnerships in areas like housing, dining, and wellness facilities, however, to support students who need basic services. But any new money that flows into community colleges must assist students to move along the education pathway at reasonable cost.
Community colleges are different from residential four-year institutions. It’s part of the secret to their success. It’s also one important reason why they remain more affordable than most other types of postsecondary education.
In the future, it’s essential to better position community colleges within higher education where internal infighting often erupts over questions of process and prestige. Community colleges are not junior colleges nor are they four-year wannabe institutions. They are the primary access point for most Americans seeking to live out the American dream.
For policymakers, it’s time to take a step back to avoid the pitfalls and costs of populist strategies, band-aid solutions, and knee-jerk, reactive panaceas.
Changes in American higher education must be systemic and systematic. It begins by understanding higher education, how it works, and how and why the pieces fit together.
American higher education institutions must change their operating models, which are now built too heavily on tuition and government aid. Determining new pricing strategies requires imagination and new thinking, but it does not absolve local, state, and federal governments from some measure of continuing support.
Since GI Bill, Higher Education is a Right
American society decided with the GI Bill after World War II that education was a right and not a privilege. In the minds of most Americans, this debate is over.
It’s time to understand instead that a successful and robust higher education system — one that includes community colleges — must be decentralized and well funded to be a continuing safety value.
Education grows the middle class, supports a well-educated citizenry, and develops an employable workforce. It’s not a solution built on incremental funding increases that don’t address, access, choice, persistence, graduation rates, and employability.
But it is an urgent question. How do you build and fund a life-long education pathway that best serves American citizens?
Everyone knows that money plays a major role in students’ college enrollment decisions. How big a role?
According to a recent study by Royall & Co., the enrollment management and alumni fundraising arm of EAB, “almost one-fifth of students who were admitted to their top choice of college or university in 2016 but decided not to go there turned it down because of the cost of attendance.”
The study’s finding was echoed in my recent conversation with a well-heeled mother of a high school senior, who expressed sentiments I’ve heard repeatedly for more than 20 years. Her daughter wanted to attend an Ivy League institution that had accepted her. The mother preferred that her daughter accept a large merit award to a prestigious research university. It was a simple cost-benefit analysis by parents, who likely would not qualify for financial aid, seeking relief from high tuition sticker prices.
The Royall findings were fairly uniform with different SAT scores and minority groups. Royall’s managing director, Peter Farrell, concludes: “Something has happened more recently that’s accelerated change. It could be demographics. It could be what we’re seeing on the macroeconomic scale about low socioeconomic (status) families being pinched. I don’t know the actual causality of this change in sentiment, but the slope line of concern seems to be upticking.”
When viewed from other perspectives with different data, the conclusions are the same. The fact is that over 40 percent of the first-time college experiences of admitted students are in a community college.
How Colleges Market “Cost of Attendance” Matters
The obvious answer may be that the sticker prices – now approaching $70,000 at a handful of the selective private colleges and universities — are the culprit. In their interpretation, however, Royall argues that families are more fundamentally questioning the value proposition. Royall asserts that colleges must focus on both their marketing and aid strategy. It’s not so much the discount but the marketing and packaging of the cost of attendance.
“Cost of College” Result of Many Factors
The Royall study also highlights other problems in how Americans understand the cost of a college education. Much of the confusion emerges from a variety of factors including how colleges price themselves, what role state and federal aid play in cost of attendance calculations, the differences between need-based and merit financial aid, and the growing importance of merit aid among higher income families.
The consumer and political pressures over the level of indebtedness that stretch back to the days in which some states offered free college tuition further compounds this problem.
New York’s Free Tuition Plan Resonating Across Other States
It is especially relevant today as the progressive agenda in American politics moves forward with new free tuition plans. Governor Cuomo’s program to extend free tuition to New Yorkers whose families make $125,000 or less annually is last week’s dramatic example.
But the New York State approach will likely resonate elsewhere as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party seeks programs and strategies that will re-attach the American middle class by re-aligning the Party’s value proposition to popular middle class entitlements.
It’s gone beyond major policy shifts emerging from polling and anecdotes that have formed the basis of some education policy. The fact is that America has a growing student debt problem set against a backdrop of persistent and historically worsening income inequality.
It is equally uncertain that free tuition will do anything to build a seamless pathway for students to improve retention and graduation rates.
For families and independent students, it’s all very confusing. Neil Swidey’s feature in the Boston Globe was a sobering assessment of how students did not fully appreciate the ramifications of their grant and loan commitments.
America’s colleges and universities must bear significant responsibility for the confusion students and families face in determining costs and indebtedness. They are hotbeds of cultural inertia, embracing college aid and pricing strategies from the last century that no longer apply, however noble the original intention might have been.
The hard truth is that the pricing of tuition, fees, room and board has broken down. It’s an “all individuals for themselves” approach that conflates and confuses grants and loans without simple definitions and clear direction. It pits one educational institution against another.
It’s a hopeless educational quagmire because the range of state, federal, corporate, donor and college partners all operate under different rules that make it extraordinarily hard to calculate what and whether to save, where to go, and how to know when you have struck the best deal.
It’s time for common sense to win out in tuition pricing strategies. For families, it begins with a better sense of who’s on first base. For tuition-dependent institutions in an uncertain political environment, time is running out.
One of the great myths about American higher education is that all colleges are wealthy. If most Americans have an mental image of a college, it’s often a bucolic bricks-and-mortar residential facility separated by rolling green lawns, entered through an impressive if forbidding-looking gate, and populated by attractive students who drive fancy cars.
What they can’t see past the stately columns or newest facility highlighted by energetic tour guides is the level of deferred campus maintenance. They fail to comprehend the amount of debt or the inability for a college to sustain its existing campus footprint. They don’t see is that the average discount – the percentage of total gross tuition and fee revenue institutions give back to students as grant-based financial aid – is now 50 cents on the dollar at most colleges. And they seldom appreciate how reasonable staff and faculty compensation, including health and retiree benefits, the impact of technology, and the rising cost of government regulations and reports constrain most college operating and capital budgets.
On one level, a college is a business. But at the same time, it’s a heavily regulated business that produces – in business terms – a product that requires significant inputs of labor, capital, and technology.
College Revenue Streams Are Drying Up
The problem is that college and university sources of revenue are drying up. Consumers are voting with their feet as over half choose public- or locally-supported options like community colleges, for-profit providers, or certificate programs. The sticker price that “sticks” in the minds of these consumers is the widely-reported $70,000 annual price tag at the most selective colleges and universities.
At most colleges, it’s no longer possible to match revenue to expenses by setting tuition prices to meet annual operating needs.
College Endowments Are Not Magical Money Trees
But what about tapping into the endowment? In the minds of consumers and many public officials, an endowment is a kind of imaginary money tree from which additional needs are met.
The reality is that few colleges or universities have large enough endowments to produce significant revenue. In 2015, the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) and the Common Fund reported that the 94 institutions with endowments of $1 billion or higher control 75 percent of all endowments nationwide. If colleges typically draw down five percent on a rolling quarterly average, the amount available to most of the remaining 3,900 institutions surveyed is negligible at best.
The other potential sources of revenue are auxiliary services, like residential housing or athletics, or debt. Revenue from auxiliary services are essentially flat, with many colleges using residential housing to support their academic programs. Only one in eight colleges have sports programs that break even. And debt – often used indiscriminately and for the wrong reasons – is a particularly worrisome source of support. Many colleges are at the end of their debt capacity or find the amount capped by trustee action.
Fundraising Campaigns Aren’t Financial Panaceas
What is left is revenue from fundraising. Colleges will sometimes tie a presidential search to the reputation of prospective candidates as potential fundraisers. But the cold facts are that there may only be about 50 colleges and universities in America where fundraising is anything more than running in place.
The problem is that fundraising has become seen as a panacea to cure all ills that plays out like every college is a major research university with a significant, mature fundraising machine in place. To create momentum and garner visibility, most colleges favor a comprehensive campaign. Under this approach, colleges throw almost everything into the mix, including their annual fund, deferred gifts, and any specially cultivated donations. The college establishes targeted goals in specific categories. The president makes periodic reports at campaign events. The college offers updated reports within a specified time frame about how well the institution is doing to reach its stated goal.
Campaigns are expensive, and at times, counterproductive to the immediate goals that a college needs to meet. To assess the success of a comprehensive campaign, multiply the “all in” amount raised annually before the campaign started by the number of years of the campaign. When this number is subtracted from the announced comprehensive campaign goal, how much is needed to reach the announced campaign goal?
Does it really make sense for colleges to play like the big boys when what they are actually doing is re-characterizing money that they are already raising without the costs associated with a full-fledged campaign?
Targeted, Micro Campaigns are Alternatives to Comprehensive Campaigns
For colleges and universities that do not have the money, staff, and alumni and donor base to run a full-scale, multi-year comprehensive campaign, there may be better, more targeted approach. These institutions should consider putting most of their work into cultivating – that is, growing — the annual fund and deferred gifts.
To the extent that a college seeks the optics of a successful campaign, its leadership should think about micro-campaigns that address specific, identified, and fundable campus needs. College stakeholders can touch and feel these advances. The effect is the same, absent the bragging rights to an inflated comprehensive campaign goal.
One size – or approach – does not fit every college. Success in fundraising relies upon common sense and a clear understanding of what’s possible given the scale and resources available.
In post-industrial America, the roles played by large nonprofits – especially its hospitals and universities – power the economic engines in many regional economies. What would cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Boston look like without their large educational and medical research complexes? Would other cities, such as Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, and Washington, DC, be as vibrant without the diversification made possible by these important economic drivers?
The facts are clear. America may – or may not – regain some of its manufacturing capacity, although this re-growth is likely to be infused with a level of technology certain to assure that what develops is not likely to be your grandfather’s auto assembly line. America may develop energy policies that re-open coal mines even as newer, alternative sources of power move forward to increasingly dominate the energy landscape.
But the future of the American economy is to prepare and lead a global economy. The alternative is to be lost in a political quagmire that will lessen America’s impact and influence on the rest of the world.
Whether you like NAFTA or the Trans Pacific Partnership really doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is that the boat has long since sailed on whether we live and work in a global economy. The relevant questions are how will we be transformed by it? And, which countries will lead it?
Higher Education and Medical Research Are Economic Engines
The heart of the post-industrial economy arguably is the education and medical research complexes that fuel our regional economies. From these pulsing economic engines emerge spin-offs created by entrepreneurs who transform – and effectively recreate — the American economy. Together with small business, they shape the direction of American society, often from the ground up.
President Eisenhower once warned Americans about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. It was an important admonition that has continued relevance in a transforming America. Rules and protocols – matched by common sense and good will – must continue to shape the political, cultural, and economic relationships between politics and the economy.
Trump Administration Proposals’ Troubling Impact on Higher Ed
That’s why two of the Trump Administrations proposed policies, in particular, are deeply troubling. It doesn’t matter whether these policies are part of a first-year executive policy and budget request that is likely “dead on arrival.” They show a predisposition by the executive branch that speaks more to ideology than cost.
The first is the much discussed travel ban, part of a larger discussion about the role that immigrants have and will play in the history of the United States. The future of the travel ban will likely be settled by the courts, but there are some early trends that bear close scrutiny.
According to Inside Higher Education (IHE), “Four in ten colleges are seeing drops in applications from international students amid pervasive concerns that the political climate might keep them away.” For many years now, US colleges have benefited from steady increases in applications from international students. As students, they often pay full tuition and fees, providing a valuable revenue stream for these institutions.
Travel Ban Already Hurting International Applications
IHE’s Elizabeth Redden writes, “the highest reported declines involved applications from the Middle East. Thirty-nine percent of universities reported declines in undergraduate applications from the Middle East, while 31 percent reported declines in graduate applications. Fall enrollment numbers from the region will likely be hard hit by President Trump’s executive order.” Higher education officials find similar trends in China and India, which account for nearly half of the international students in the United States.
Do we really want international students to go elsewhere? Shouldn’t the next great innovations in America come from a global workforce educated here that stays here because Americans – whether native born or naturalized – create a climate that encourages and supports global innovation developed by the best and brightest from across the globe?
Trump Budget Proposal Will Stifle Innovation & Growth
The second problematic proposal, the Administration’s budget blueprint, compounds the first. In a statement on the proposed budget, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the American Association of Universities, was blunt: “This budget proposal would cripple American innovation and economic growth. The President’s FY18 budget proposes deep cuts to vital scientific research at the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, NASA, NOAA, and other critical scientific agencies.”
Coleman argues that the budget proposal “would lead to a U.S. innovation deficit, as it comes at a time when China and other economic competitors continue their investment surge in research and higher education. For decades, federal investments in these areas have paid enormous dividends in medical advancements, new technologies, and enhanced national security, and helped to produce high-wage American jobs and the most talented workforce in the world.”
If we accept the premise that America’s nonprofit education and medical centers power the economic engines that fuel the most promising contributors to American economic growth, does it make any sense to damage these global institutions, perhaps irreparably?
In the end, it’s not a “guns versus no butter” decision to favor military buildups over domestic discretionary spending. It’s about labor, capital, partnerships, and investment. At its most fundamental, “it’s the economy, stupid.” Let’s not muck it up.
Let’s set aside the obvious political concerns among presidents about the Trump Administration or the selection of the new U.S. Education Secretary that underscored many of the questions put to the presidents in the IHE survey, which was conducted in January and early February.
It’s really too soon to tell what the new policies will be toward higher education or what rollbacks of disliked Obama Administration programs and dictates are likely to occur. President Trump has paid scant attention to higher education during the election, the transition, and the first months of his tenure.
The higher education community will have a lot to say as positions and platforms become clearer. But these comments should be seasoned and informed after the fact and not anticipate the best hopes or worst fears before the first steps occur.
The findings that address the climate facing American higher education are the most fascinating.
Disconnect Between Academe and Much of American Society
Perhaps the most interesting finding is that the “2016 election exposed a disconnect between academe and much of American society.” Seventy percent of the presidents sense a growing level of anti-intellectualism in American life. Two-thirds of the presidents agreed that campus protests created optics that the American public interpreted as unfriendly to conservative views.
The presidents were especially concerned that the current political climate works against consensus views on science, including but not limited to areas like climate change.
A majority of the presidents agreed that higher education suffered badly in public perceptions, including in areas like campus diversity and inclusion. They believed that campus racial unrest “led many prospective students and families to think colleges are less welcoming of diverse populations than is really the case.”
Campus Leaders Frustrated with Media Focus on Wealthy, Elite Schools
These concerns extend to the heart of the higher education enterprise. Eighty-four percent believe, for example, that media attention to the rising levels of student debt makes a college education seem less affordable than it actually is. These presidents are also frustrated by the media obsession with a few institutions with large endowments that paints all colleges as wealthy when in fact most of them are not. The majority of presidents also agree that the construction of Taj Mahal-like facilities in rising competitive consumer wars contributes to these perceptions.
In addition, the presidents were concerned about the attitudinal gulf between their concentration on students as individuals who graduate as educated citizens and the “graduates as workforce” focus of most of American society.
Alison Kadlek, senior vice president and director of higher education and workforce engagement in higher education at Public Agenda, notes in the IHE survey release: “What we’re hearing is that the tight connection between education and socioeconomic mobility has been weakened for the public, and confidence in college as a certain path to economic security is waning….”
In other areas, there were signs of improving perceptions. Public college and university presidents were increasingly confident, for example, in the financial stability of their institutions. But among the uncertainties and anxieties faced, the one dominant feature remains a weakening public perception of American higher education.
Leaders Have Not Made Strong Enough Case for Value of Higher Education
One lesson seems obvious from the IHE’s survey. American higher education is not building a case that is sufficient – or, more troubling, even compelling — for the role it plays in American society.
Higher education leadership has failed to capture the narrative succinctly to explain the value proposition to American families and their children, politicians, business leaders, and the wider public.
The belief in the bedrock principle that higher education is the best path into the middle class seems increasingly at risk.
Leadership carries with it considerable risk. But if America’s colleges and universities lose control of their own narrative, they subject themselves to a broad-brush analysis that no longer resonates with key stakeholders, like the American families upon whom they depend for tuition and other means of support. Higher education also runs the risk of being painted less than comprehensively, defined instead by one issue or perception rather than the whole of its parts.
In a sense, the best solution is to violate the principle that all politics is local by thinking about how to craft perceptions beyond the college gates.
While it is heartening to articulate a series of high road value statements about the lasting importance of a college education that will always ring true, the message must also account for the realities that colleges and universities face in the 21st century.
In today’s climate, it may be as critical to stress how colleges and universities transform lives, meet workforce needs, and shape the development of American society as to rely on older arguments about educated citizens.
The goal is the same. It’s just that the language needs to be re-imagined and re-stated more clearly.
Many of us have long been proponents of “laboratory” initiatives in the humanities, social sciences, professional and graduate programs that translate academic learning into real world experience.
These initiatives serve a variety of purposes. They make critical inquiry more pragmatic. Most colleges and universities build their academic program on the traditions of the liberal arts. It’s an education that provides a broad and encompassing view of the world. The best liberal arts programs teach students to think not by memorizing but by better integrating what they learn into a comprehensive understanding of an issue. They graduate with an ability to write, articulate their positions, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.
As an employer, would you rather have an engineer trained in the liberal arts or one trained more narrowly as an engineer without these additional skills?
Arguably, both have similar technical skill sets. But in the first case, the liberal arts engineer also enters the workforce with a capacity to move beyond the narrow technical training to contribute earlier and more meaningfully to his employer. Put in other terms, an engineer trained in the liberal arts is the more logical hire, if the quality of the engineering training is roughly equivalent.
In a sense, it’s the softness of traditional arguments supporting the liberal arts that obfuscates the case for an educational foundation based upon the liberal arts, in whatever field.
The historic argument – which I continue to believe and advocate as a former college and university president – is that the liberal arts create both educated citizens and train graduates for life.
It’s a good political argument but insufficiently pragmatic to address the needs of prospective applicants and their future employers.
College Career Services Are Changing to Meet Marketplace Demands
Market demands change with new workforce demands each day. To offset this shift, colleges and universities have enhanced their liberal arts foundation by expanding the scope and range of their career counseling centers. For undergraduates, they offer more robust internships and externships, technical help in application writing, and increased connections to alumni and parents who are in a position to assist them with employment.
The better career centers also move beyond the “easy sell” degrees like business, management, and engineering. They invigorate the job market prospects for humanists, social scientists, and others for whom career centers are insufficient counselors.
Filling Gaps in Pathway from College to Employment
Yet there is an important gap in creating a seamless pathway between education and employment. Some students need to fill in their time outside the classroom with completing their academic projects. Others must work to meet expenses – especially independent adult students who often have outside responsibilities that place additional pressure on them. The result is that many students have limited ability to access some of the newer “real world” initiatives; despite the broadening effect these experiences have to improve their entry into the labor market.
Northeastern’s Experiential Network: Short-Term, Real Life Collaborations
To answer this problem, Northeastern University in Boston created the Experiential Network (XN). In this program, graduate and professional students work virtually with a sponsoring business or non-profit organization on a short-term project over a six-week period. Students and sponsors work closely to produce deliverables for their employers to inform critical business decisions.
Dr. Charles Kilfoye, senior director of XN, reports: “Employers believe that there is a skills gap in which students must be acculturated to the shifting demands of the job market.” He argues that many adult learners cannot devote more time or interrupt their full-time work schedules to participate in other Northeastern offerings like the co-op program, so they benefit enormously from these more flexible, limited term collaborations.
There are numerous advantages for students who participate:
The XN Network allows students to apply classroom theory to practice in a collaborative setting.
As part of the selection process, students grow their professional networks since they choose where they will interview and work. Each student gets between three and five matches from which to choose.
For many employers, these graduate and professional students often demonstrate maturity that more traditional undergraduates lack.
These projects also align with an academic course, worked through Northeastern’s XN offices. Their students devote about 35 hours over the six weeks to their project. Dr. Kilfoye suggests that Northeastern anticipates market trends and effectively “‘future proofs’ its students by keeping pace with what’s happening in the broader world.”
To ensure success, each project has formative and summative surveys as well as a mid-term review. Students are placed in a wide range of venues that also allows them to think more broadly about how their degrees relate to the shifting demands of the job market.
Student Rupali Agrawal, a graduate student earning an MS in Project Management, said of his XN experience:
“Being a full-time student and executing an XN project takes you out of your comfort zone, and gives you the opportunity to learn professional skill sets. It prepared me to face professional responsibilities.
Learning professional communication etiquette through my Experiential Network project was one of the most valuable things I learned. As an international student, the way we communicate in my country is different from communication here in the United States. Being able to learn these skills before entering the professional world is very valuable.
The beauty of doing an XN project is that it’s an opportunity for students to get practical work experience, delivered right to students.”
One of the most unfortunate results of the overheated political rhetoric that consumed the presidential election, transition, and early days of the Trump presidency has been the unwillingness of either side to see the opportunity for reasoned intellectual debate with those with whom they disagree and perhaps don’t even respect.
Protesters Force Speaker from Middlebury College Campus
The most recent example took place last week at Middlebury College where conservative author and activist, Charles Murray, faced a hostile crowd that forced his speech to be relocated to another site. According to the New York Times, “When Mr. Murray rose to speak, he was shouted down by most of the more than 400 students packed into the room…. Many turned their backs to him and chanted slogans like ‘racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!’”
Police were able to clear the crowd after considerable effort. A professor accompanying Mr. Murray was injured by protestors as she was escorting him from campus.
Bill Burger, Middlebury’s vice president for communications and marketing, reported that they were “physically and violently confronted by a group of protestors [who] violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on and trying to prevent it from leaving campus.”
Charles Murray co-authored The Bell Curve in which he held that there are biological differences in intelligence between racial groups. Murray’s opponents argued effectively that this was bad science and widely discredited. They reasoned that Middlebury’s campus should not host a discussion on topics where one side’s opinion was intellectually unsound and rhetorically weak, only further reinforcing some of the worst biases in American social and cultural history.
A New Litmus Test for “Informed Discussion”?
In doing so, Middlebury’s protestors established a litmus test for informed discussion. Their actions played into the hands of their opponents – especially on a political level – who use their own litmus test to brand debate on college campuses as narrowly ideological, heavily biased, and part of a larger propaganda effort to indoctrinate American students in left-leaning policies and positions.
On one level, Americans can admire the passion that has brought us to the positions that Americans hold on either extreme.
On the other hand, there is a case to be made for more seasoning, maturity, and balance in how America’s colleges and universities foster and encourage political debate about science or any issue on their campuses.
Further, there is real danger in playing out the cards in the wrong sequence.
America’s colleges and universities must remain the place where we nurture the best ideas to protect, incubate and develop new ones.
Some fresh ideas will not stand competing research or the test of time. But it shouldn’t stop anyone from expressing them, providing that the expression is civil.
Colleges Must Practice What They Preach About Tolerance
American higher education must avoid being stamped by their detractors as the intolerant home of limited free speech whose campus communities fail to practice what they preach about tolerance. Why hand the opposite extreme a political weapon with which they will bludgeon you, whether you identify on the left or right politically? Either higher education advocates tolerance or it does not.
Tipping Point in Intellectual Debate
In these days of growing intolerance, we have reached a tipping point in intellectual debate. The U.S. college campus symbolizes what we cherish most about global ideals that transcend even American core values (to the extent that these exist).
American higher education cannot lose its lead as the home of creative inquiry, even when the ideas occasionally have little merit in the eyes of many.
The next months are likely to produce even more heated rhetoric and bigger street protests across college campuses and throughout the country on a variety of proposals that illuminate this growing spirit of intolerance. For those in higher education, demonstrations like the one at Middlebury weaken the moral higher ground that will be necessary to hold positions that will resonate with the American public. At the very least, the guiding spirit must be Dr. King’s non-violent approach to promote an activist agenda.
Upholding Tolerance Requires Leadership
Standing up for tolerance will also require courageous leadership. In this regard, there was a very hopeful moment that emerged from Middlebury’s uproar. Laurie L. Patton, Middlebury’s president, issued a strong moral statement, demonstrating the value of a president who has the courage and maturity to lead a campus.
“Last night we failed to live up to our core values. But I remain hopeful,” wrote Patton. “Last evening, several students, faculty, and staff representing a large spectrum of political perspectives remained in Wilson Hall to discuss the events and to talk about building bridges. Their ability to reach across differences in a rigorous but respectful way was a stark contrast to the events that preceded it. I firmly believe these are the Middlebury values that we have lived so long and that we must strive to embody in the future.”
Teachable moments about tolerance come to us in numerous ways. Let’s hope that the dialogue occurs, and a lesson, long since learned at Middlebury, is now remembered.
It’s enlightening to watch what issues surface when the subject of the faculty arises. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose experience in higher education is minimal, offered her first substantive comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week when she called out faculty for silencing free speech: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
Let’s be clear. There is a case to be made that college campus communities need to be more open to viewpoint diversity, especially with speakers and groups with whom many might disagree. College communities must be careful to permit those qualified to address them and be willing to understand and respect different opinions. A wide variety of opinions are likely found on almost every college campus among students, faculty, staff, and trustees. Campus dialogue should present a full spectrum of their different opinions.
But are culture war politics really the best opening topic through which a new Education Secretary can begin a constructive conversation about higher education, given the deep, dividing, and disruptive issues facing college campuses today?
Don’t Paint All Faculty with Broad Brush
Some within higher education might argue that the most troubling aspect of Secretary DeVos’s comments was not her point about free speech, but rather the broad grouping of all academic staff into a single “faculty” category. It is especially dangerous to include adjunct faculty in any assumptions about faculty.
Adjunct faculty face looming employment issues, challenges that highlight the deep and significant financial plight faced by most colleges and universities. Follow the money – or the lack of it.
It would be wiser and more productive for the Education Secretary to open a dialogue about higher education with her in the role of critical thought partner with a seat at the head of the table.
Adjunct Conditions of Employment Highlight Larger Financial Issues
In fact, the great crisis emerging on many college campuses is not what the adjunct faculty teaches but the conditions of their employment and what impact their employment has on quality teaching. Kevin Birmingham, a Harvard writing instructor, laid this point bare in his speech accepting the Truman Capote Literary Award last fall. Reprinted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, his remarks, “The Great Shame of Our Profession” offer a sober assessment of the state of adjunct faculty, especially as their costs are weighed against other rising expenses borne by a campus.
Mr. Birmingham notes the growth and dispersion of adjunct faculty: “From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled,” with many teaching classes at multiple institutions. Indeed, a 2014 Congressional study that found that “89 percent of adjuncts work at one or more institution; 13 percent work at four or more.”
As Birmingham noted, the 2014 study and others highlight the low wages and low-income status of many adjunct faculty:
Median pay per course is $2700.
Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line.
Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.
His analysis is sharply critical of why institutions flood their disciplines with unemployable PhD’s and how the tenure process is structured, offering a pessimistic outlook on the state of his profession.
Adjunct Pay is One of Many Chess Pieces in College Budget Game
Mr. Birmingham’s argument illuminates the plight of adjunct faculty, but it also demonstrates how universities make ends meet. The cost of labor is the largest single expense driver in most college budgets. If a college operates under an older, creaking financial model – and most do — its operating budget effectively illustrates how administrators move the chess pieces across the board.
The cold fact is that colleges and universities are subject to ever increasing fixed costs in areas like technology and declining revenues because of debt load, growing financial aid discounts, flat auxiliary revenues, and weak fundraising, forcing them into eternal comprehensive campaigns. It is hardly surprising that administrators, including deans, look to adjunct faculty to cut costs. It’s a toxic financial mess.
Yet Mr. Birmingham’s argument exposes the problem. Graduate revenue pays the bills and permits universities to cut costs through effective use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty often staff new programs initiatives, including online education that further increase profits.
Moving the budgetary chess pieces around permits educators to avoid internal political risk, compensate tenured or tenure-track faculty, and kick the can down the road for the foreseeable future.
The problem is that there is a natural shelf life to this approach, one that is now reaching its expiration date. It’s not a political question like free speech, tenure, or academic freedom. It’s about how we can end the practice of using adjuncts to support the educational status quo, including cutting labor costs through the use of adjuncts to support tenured faculty and full-time administrative staff.
Politicians — including but not only Secretary DeVos — who pay attention to polling assume that student debt and high tuition sticker prices are the cost drivers upon which they should focus. There may be others, beginning with a need to modernize operating models and how we finance them.
The federal government can play an important and helpful role in thinking about how to finance higher education by looking at what is driving costs. But its first actions as a thought partner shouldn’t be narrowly ideological by design.
Thirty years ago, we all understood what the term “culture wars” meant. It was about Mapplethorpe vs. Helms and teaching old, dead, white men vs. revisionist and black history. There were lines. Whichever side you were on, you knew where you stood.
The battle lines changed and have morphed into something quite different today. As the first efforts by the Trump Administration to enact an immigration ban sputtered in chaos, confusion and a “must see TV” legal battle, the implications of the fight over how to provide national security have become clear. So, too, did the historical precedents that informed this newest battle.
It turns out that the new culture wars are also social, economic, and political in nature.
The new battle lines are between visions of American society that are industrial vs. post-industrial in outlook, design, and practice.
Historical Perspectives on Economic Battle Lines
What’s most interesting is that these new lines mirror the pitched battles over industrialization in the early 19th century, especially in England, as machinery replaced manpower in textile production, especially weaving. The warriors then were craftsmen, rooted in an agricultural society, who saw their traditions and way of life threatened by the mechanization of their livelihoods.
The protesters – the Luddites – were English textile workers and independent craftsmen who destroyed weaving machinery to protest the mechanization of textile production. They were fearful that years spent learning their craft were wasted and that unskilled workers would take their place. Eventually, the military suppressed the Luddite movement. England became the world’s leading industrial power throughout much of the 19th century.
Two hundred years later, the parallels persist as America moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Workers in the manufacturing sector have seen their jobs disappear and wages stagnate as income inequality has continued to rise for over twenty years, despite some recent upticks. The presumed culprit is cheaper overseas labor, principally identified as Mexican and Chinese. The Luddites of 19th century industrial England have become the “America first” nationalists of 21st century America.
Globalization and National Security Concerns Interwoven
Symbolized by the debate over renegotiating NAFTA and abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership, it has become a battle to stem the tide over “free trade” globalization cloaked in concerns about national security. Internally, the battle lines are also cultural, on issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and refugees, and Supreme Court picks. The philosophies behind these competing claims are decoded into a broader national debate about “American values.”
For the moment, the effect is to split the country almost uniformly, depending upon the crisis de jour. Practically, there is a political dimension with the red and blue states recast, within limits, as “nationalists” and “globalists,” respectively. The problem with the rhetoric today is that people will get hurt. It’s probably where the large crowds protesting immigration policies can do the most good, however, especially if they can humanize the negative impact of “America first” policies.
“Eds and Meds” are Economic Engines
There is another danger, already recognized in cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco. These are the “eds and meds” capitals of the country whose economies are in each case bigger than those of most countries with which America competes. They are the booming economic engines of the US economy. It’s why the Silicon Valley’s biggest technology players have joined together to speak against the immigration ban.
The stakes are high. How American higher education plays its hand could set the United States on a path that will shape its ability to compete.
To this end, it’s important to have clear strategic goals in mind. Here are some first thoughts:
Higher Education Must Choose Battles Wisely
Build a strategy out of the initial tactical responses that have occurred in response to the early policy initiatives of the Trump administration. Protests are fine – critical, in fact – but choose the battles wisely. America’s leading educators should speak out on policies that affect higher education, linking what they say to social, cultural, and political concerns about American values. Their campuses must be prepared to support them, particularly if they focus on the issues and stay out of the politics.
Higher Ed Must Be Broadly Inclusive
America’s colleges and universities must remove what can sometimes be seen as legitimate criticism and become more tolerant of ideas, including those with which they and their college communities disagree. They must practice what they preach on how best to be broadly inclusive.
Higher Ed Must be Leader in Post-Industrial Economy
“It’s the economy stupid.” American workers list job security as their principal worry. In a world in which “do no damage” should be a primary operating principle, it is dangerous for the American economy to power down, for example, because of knee-jerk immigration policies. We need the best and the brightest with us. But we also need a Manhattan Project version of a Tennessee Valley Authority initiative to move the Rust Belt mindset forward.
The goal is a growing economy to build a robust middle class across the country. America signaled that globalization would undergird the world economy when Bill Clinton signed on to NAFTA.
The trick now will be for leaders – including those who run American colleges and universities – to help America prepare to lead a post-industrial economy.
It will require sane, reasoned debate. Let us begin.
St. Joseph’s president, Robert Pastoor, argued that the College would need about $100 million to be feasible, with an immediate infusion of $20 million needed before the end of June. He stated: “Despite our best efforts, we were not able to escape the financial challenges that many tuition-dependent smaller universities have faced in the past several years.”
Financial Challenges, Decades in the Making, Were Insurmountable
Mr. Pastoor cited extensive debt, fears the College would permanently lose accreditation, depreciated facilities, and pressure from auditors that would limit access to student loans as the reasons for the Board of Trustees’ decision. Last November, an accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, placed St. Joseph’s on probation through 2018 citing concerns over “resources, planning and institutional effectiveness.”
There are many lessons to be learned from the financial failure of St. Joseph’s College. There are also strong views about the failure of the Board and administrators to demonstrate transparency even if the signs were there after the accreditation actions last November. The finger pointing will likely begin, especially directed to the Board of Trustees, but there’s undoubtedly plenty of blame to go around. The cold fact is that no one expects a college to close even when the signs point to it.
Much of the reporting on the closure focused on the sense of loss felt by students and alumni, who invested their sense of self – psychologically and emotionally – in the place. Students are now scrambling to find a way to complete their education affordably. Alumni feel strongly about their alma mater and wonder if their degrees will continue to hold value.
Impact of College’s Closure on Local Community Cannot Be Ignored
The story of loss that is more often ignored, however, is the impact the closing of a college has on its community. In college communities affected by closures, the economic impact of a college’s business operations suddenly becomes important. In the case of St. Joseph’s, the College employed more than 200 individuals, making it a major employer in a town of 6,000 people in a largely agricultural region. These soon-to-be former employees will face limited options as they begin to think about future employment.
There are also secondary effects on a community when larger employers like St. Joseph’s close. The college is the town’s third largest utility customer after the local hospital and the school district, spending $640,000 last year, according to its Mayor. The ripple effect on local businesses will spread across the region as the employment base shrinks and 900 students spend their consumer dollars elsewhere.
As Melissa Shultz, a local businesswoman and lifelong resident lamented to a Chicago Tribune reporter: “I just don’t want this to become a ghost town.”
The loss to a community is comparable to an auto plant shutting down or a mine closure except for an important distinction. The business of higher education is a public good whose benefits extend well beyond employment. America’s colleges – of whatever size – prepare citizens for the workforce. They are also among the principal economic engines in their region. They bring visitors to Main Street, anchor the quality of life, and provide continuous stable employment in a way that the much touted reopening of the Carrier plant in Indianapolis cannot do.
America can continue to let its Rust Belt deteriorate as demographic shifts depopulate its rural stretches. Or, policy makers can see the impact that inattention has had well beyond the slogans and the politics of nationalism that will delay but not stop globalization. That boat sailed before this century began.
Instead, what is most needed is a kind of Tennessee Valley Authority approach to re-imagining the towns that America’s post-industrial economy will otherwise leave behind.
The closing of St. Joseph’s College is a warning shot to America about the loss of bedrock institutions that defined entire towns.
It was like a death in the family. The solution to solving the problems of the Rust Belt is not simply to find more manufacturing jobs for unemployed workers in new Toyota plants.
Last week, National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) and Commonfund released their report on the endowment performance of the 805 colleges and universities who responded to their survey. The outlook was fairly dismal and sheds light on the precarious foundation on which American higher education’s financial model is based.
Endowment Returns Fall to Average Return of -1.9%
According to the report, net return on endowments has continued to decline for the second year, returning on average -1.9% in fiscal 2016. The returns dropped the 10-year average annual returns to 5 percent, down from 6.3 percent in the previous fiscal year. Last year’s average return lowered the five-year average rate to 5.4 percent, down from 9.8 percent a year ago.
Both numbers are lower than the 7.4 percent median annual return that most colleges and universities believe are necessary to maintain their purchasing power – supporting “student financial aid, research, and other vital programs” — over time.
College and University Expenses Increase Even As Endowment Returns Fall
As endowment returns fall, expenses on college and university campuses continue to rise. It is not surprising, therefore, that most respondents reported increasing the money that they spent from their endowments, boosting spending at an average of eight percent which took most colleges above the rate of inflation.
There are a couple of ways to look at this anemic endowment growth. Colleges and universities hold endowments over the long-term. If endowment performance is cyclical, then historical trends suggest that the problem will self-correct over time. The second possibility is more troubling.
The plain facts are that the world has become a less comfortable place with rules and protocols that are uncertain. While some aspects of the market continue to do well, general global and national volatility and growing income inequality – among numerous other factors — may affect the complexity that impacts endowment earnings.
Should the courts decide against lifting the immigration ban, the impact on labor and enrollment in college and university settings alone could be dramatic and disruptive.
Further, most colleges and universities do not have the $34.5 billion in endowment that Harvard enjoys, even when Harvard has also slashed the number of its employees in its endowment office.
Colleges and Universities with Smaller Endowments at Greater Risk
Small institutions are particularly at risk, noted John G. Walda, NACUBO’s president and CEO, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed: “…if we have another couple of years of stagnant returns…they’re going to have to seriously consider cutting back on the amount of dollars that are spent at their institutions….” The question that logically arises is from where will this money come?
Can Schools Make Up Endowment Losses with Debt?
One possibility is that colleges and universities with some level of endowments could borrow to cover lean times, especially to replace depreciated facilities or build new ones. Yet the picture on institutional debt was not particularly encouraging either.
Almost 75 percent of the colleges and universities surveyed carried long-term debt. Among these institutions, the average total debt was $230.2 million as of June 30, 2016, up from $219.1 million in the previous fiscal year. Median debt also rose to $61.5 million from $58.2 million. Two-thirds of those surveyed reported decreasing their overall debt; however, indicating a reluctance to make new investments in areas like infrastructure.
Raising Tuition or Fees is Risky Proposition in Current Climate
Another source of income is, of course, the comprehensive fee that consists of revenue generated by tuition, fees, room and board. Political and consumer voices make large tuition spikes impractical and even dangerous.
It is unlikely that many colleges will package comprehensive fee increases much above the rate of inflation, presuming that they are competently managed institutions. Next year’s tuition numbers will begin to be posted after board meetings over the next few months.
Cold Truth: Higher Ed’s Financial Model is Unsustainable
American higher education must face up to the cold truth that it is operating on an unsustainable financial model, one developed in an era of different demographics, political and consumer concerns, and funding options that originated in the post-Vietnam era of rapid enrollment growth.
The world has changed even if the way that we imagine college and university finances has not.
But there is a more pressing, immediate question for American higher education to address. Some Congressional leaders are working to link endowment spending to student scholarship and debt levels, the danger of which is aptly demonstrated by the fiscal 2016 endowment returns.
Consumers who vote with their feet to reject the historic value proposition of high sticker priced four-year colleges will also affect this brave new world. And the Trump Administration is casting a heightened level of uncertainty with its first actions on immigration and the possible appointment of special groups to look at “higher education reforms.”
We live in interesting times. Now is the time to prepare for them.
There is plenty of data suggesting that education, particularly a college or university degree, leads to higher incomes. Less is known about the impact of higher education — and specific schools — on socioeconomic mobility, that is, moving from one “rung” of the income ladder to another.
A new study by The Equality of Opportunity Project sheds valuable light on this question: Which colleges in America contribute the most to helping students climb the income ladder?
Many Elite Colleges Have Chosen Affordability Over Access
Researchers found that poor students who attend top (i.e. selective or elite) colleges do about as well in terms of income as their rich classmates, but many fewer lower income students attend these institutions. According to a New York Timesarticle on the study, “at 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League – Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown – more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.”
Further, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than half attend any college at all.”
As Danny Yagan, one of the study authors, noted, “Free tuition only helps if you can get in.”
There are a number of interesting reflections on higher education policy that emerge from the interpretation of this data. The New York Times reports, “These patterns are important because previous research has found that there are many highly qualified lower-income students who did not attend selective colleges—and because the low- and middle-income students who do attend top colleges fare almost as well as rich students.”
Put a different way, “lower-income students end up earning almost as much on average as affluent students who attend the same college.”
The New York Times also concluded, “most Americans remain on a similar place on the income distribution graph from their late 30s through the end of their careers.”
College Mobility Rate Measures Graduates Movement Up Income Ladder
The researchers in the new study also developed a new data point — a college’s mobility rate – which combines a college’s share of students from lower-income families with its success in moving them into a higher permanent level on an income earning’s chart. A disparate collection of mainly mid-tier public colleges, including California State University – Los Angeles and the City University of New York System — and not the Ivies — have the best college mobility rates.
Of course, any number of factors can come into play to affect these conclusions. Most Ivies are mid-sized institutions, for example, so the impact that they have on national rates reflects the aggregate number of students that they contribute to the national findings.
Still, the findings raise important policy questions as American higher education continues to evolve and re-invent itself. For example:
Do elite colleges have a special mission to educate broadly across all income levels as the justification for their continuing status as non-profits?
If so, should they be held any more or less accountable for their ability to do so given their sticker prices, the size of their endowments, and their published statements on institutional mission?
What is more important: affordability or access?
It is widely accepted that public colleges typically educate the most first-generation students and those from the lowest socioeconomic class. In the race for students, do public and private colleges and universities really educate different students by income level or is the pool of applicants from which they select similar in 2017?
Is there differentiation by income between public and private “flagship” research universities or between the research universities and four-year predominantly undergraduate institutions?
Do non-elite institutions serve students from lower socioeconomic classes successfully?
If so, given the level of preparedness affecting the social, familial, cultural, psychological, and financial challenges that these students face, should different standards apply to admission, retention, and graduation rates across colleges and universities?
In fact, should a college’s accountability be measured more fairly against the challenges that the college faces when working with students who require more attention than similar students at highly selective colleges?
Is it the money that matters most in the “free” college tuition plans now being proposed, when retention and graduation rates do not support greater student success if only the financial barriers are lessened?
Is a partial solution to design policies that better reflect institutional missions, intentions, and projected outcomes?
Should state and federal governments set education, including higher education, as a much higher priority in planning and funding cycles given rising income inequality in America?
For the past several years, consumer and political polling have relied on high tuition sticker prices, rising debt, and anecdotal personal stories to shift the blame of higher education’s failures on to America’s colleges and universities.
There is plenty of blame to go around with a good share of it borne by higher education. But politicians and their policy planners must also accept their own failures to read the research, understand and anticipate the demographic shifts, and assess the impact of technology on American society.
There is a persistent and growing problem with income inequality in the United States.
Rather than police American higher education, perhaps our political, social and economic leadership should find a way to partner with colleges and universities on developing solutions. It begins by doing the homework necessary to ask the right questions.
News reports last week that President Trump’s first budget may eliminate support for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has alarmed many of humanities supporters and scholars. But the de-funding of the NEH – or the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — should alarm every American who has used a library, visited a museum, attended a college or university, watched public television, or listened to a public radio station.
Much of the blueprint for elimination seems to be coming from the conservative Heritage Foundation. These cuts are largely symbolic budget-cutting efforts since last year’s combined funding for the NEH, NEA, and CPB totaled 0.02 percent of the federal budget.
The Washington Post put the amount in context noting, “Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.”
The NEH funds programs in areas that include education for school teachers and college faculty, preservation to maintain critical collections of our common American heritage, and public programs that reach large audiences, often through the media. Additionally, the agency funds research of literary and historical significance, challenge grants to improve humanities funding nationally, and work in the digital humanities to link new technology to the humanities.
The core argument to continue support for the NEH is, of course, that humanities enrich personal and civic life. They are the “keepers of the flame” that allow us to remember and celebrate who we are and imagine where we are heading as a nation. It’s a good argument – likely the best argument – but it won’t save the NEH from elimination in the current political climate.
STATE HUMANITIES COUNCILS HAVE BROAD, GRASSROOTS IMPACT
In the upcoming battle, if there is one, perhaps the most important counterpunch will be the role played by federal and state partnerships, represented by the 56 state humanities councils across America.
State humanities councils’ programs impact and change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Added into the mix are the large regional and national audiences reached by public programs, including impressive national efforts to promote scholarship and learning. The NEH – in the most practical terms – touches all of us through its programs.
I had the privilege of serving as a program officer for the state humanities programs in the Midwest and Western U.S in the 1980s. Thousands of Americans – overwhelmingly rural in my service region – benefited from innumerable, high quality programs, made possible through NEH support. The most dramatic, in some respects, was Chautauqua.
Organizers modeled the Chautauqua program to replicate an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua was “the most American thing in America.”
I came to Brookings and Pierre in South Dakota unsure and a bit skeptical of what I would find. But what happened during these visits forever changed my perspective of what the humanities does for America.
Our Chautauqua events began with raising a big tent, a distinctly new experience for this Eastern-bred, city-raised, not-especially-handy-with-tools guy. The whole town pitched in to ready the Chautauqua site for a week-long reading and discussion of the works of Thomas Jefferson.
The NEH and its local affiliate provided the books, organized discussion sessions, and rounded up the entertainment. A young Rhodes Scholar, Clay Jenkinson, performing as Jefferson, responded to audience questions as the Founding Father and American icon would have.
Who were the people that jammed into the Chautauqua event each night? They were local residents and farmers who had driven their families 60 miles in some cases to learn more about Thomas Jefferson. It was a transformative moment for them – and for me – defining how I would think, write, and talk about the humanities over the next 30 years.
The Chautauqua movement was a serious, thoughtful, and insightful analysis about our country’s founders. It provides an example of the context for how best to support the NEH.
MAKING THE CASE TO SUPPORT THE HUMANITIES
Constituents in every state – voters, in the eyes of politicians – must make the case for the NEH – and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — directly. Politicians attempting to eliminate these agencies cannot be allowed to do so because of ideology or as a rounding error correction in an attempt to achieve deficit reduction.
Just as all politics is local, so too is the NEH. The NEH must be argued as a local issue because it supports the quality of life for American voters at home, regionally, and nationally. Its programs, largely mainstream, cannot be passed off as urban, bicoastal, and elitist.
NEH IMPACT IS PERSONAL AND LOCAL
The NEH’s programs impact people locally and personally. Those who support the humanities must not allow our fellow Americans to believe that the issue is just political dickering that doesn’t touch their lives.
For over 50 years, the NEH has encouraged Americans to think more deeply about American society – how it has developed and where it has headed. The NEH isn’t a bureaucratic chit but a statement of who we are as a nation.
Now is the time for library groups, Chautauqua participants, and cowboy poets across America to step forward as benefactors and voters to make the case for what they have learned and, thanks to the NEH, how their lives have been enriched through the humanities.
There is a basic, fundamental truth about the American college or university operating model: It doesn’t work.
In the second half of the 20th century, America’s colleges and universities moved toward a similar operating model, depending upon their size, purpose, and funding source. Some scaled up to the research powerhouses that we know today. A few have even become something resembling complex real estate holding companies and investment banks. Most also serve as the “eds and meds” economic engines that power the state and regional economies in which they are located.
On the public side, local jurisdictions and state governments played historic roles in offering subsidies matched by federal student grants and loans. These colleges became the first choice institutions selected by first generation college students, although the selective flagships blurred the family income line as they established programs like honors colleges. Their large, well-connected alumni networks also presented new reasons for wealthy students to attend them.
“Comprehensive Fee” is Staple of Financial Model
But most colleges and universities built their funding off the “comprehensive fee” – tuition, fees, room and board — that remained the staple of the college financial model. States cut back on institutional and student subsidies, demographics shifted, and growing economic inequality fed the fears of American consumers in the Great Recession. Many families chose alternatives like community colleges.
Tuition-driven four-year colleges faced an uphill climb to meet their expenses.
Desperate Search for Stable Revenue Sources
For a while, it was possible to move around the chess pieces in an increasingly desperate search for stable revenue. To do so, colleges and universities turned to graduate and continuing education programs as well as online education to shore up tuition numbers when their net tuition revenue flat-lined. Additionally, they used revenue from fully depreciated college housing to support academic programs. It worked well for a time, but the fix was temporary at best.
The level at which boards of trustees set the annual comprehensive fee became a potentially explosive trigger by the end of the Great Recession as politicians and consumers began to protest high tuition sticker prices.
This year, the sticker price at some well-respected non-Ivy institutions, for example, has reached $70,000 annually. It is an unsustainable number on college and university campuses where deep tuition discounting has become the norm.
Further, fixed labor costs, including retirement and health care, and growing technology and facilities demands severely limit remaining discretionary dollars.
What options are available to shore up a college’s operating model? There are few left that can have any real impact on a college’s bottom line.
Revenue from Auxiliary Services & Fundraising Not Sustainable
Auxiliary revenues — bookstores, residence halls, conference centers, parking lots, and technology – are essentially flat and can only marginally affect college revenue. Further, at all but a few dozen places, capital campaigns allow institutions targeted relief, but capital campaigns generally are not the comprehensive solution that they are misunderstood to be.
Even more ominously, quick improvements in facilities and technology enhancements undertaken by increasing college borrowing only force institutions to reach their debt capacity with no viable alternatives as debt repayments constrain their operating budgets. Boards can hide the problem by relying on credit lines over rough periods and quasi-endowment draw-downs, if possible, but eventually these options also dry up.
Absent substantial new program revenue, a number of colleges have looked at efficiencies internally and through shared services.
It’s hard, of course, to create internal efficiencies in a conservative campus climate where needs have typically been met by setting the tuition price to whatever revenue number matched expenditures that year.
Cutting Labor Costs is “Third Rail” of Higher Ed Budgets
But most colleges have taken a number of important steps to control costs. It’s hard to spread the pain around when discretionary cutting does not affect the fixed costs in a budget, especially labor. Cutting labor costs is a kind of “third rail” option that requires slow and deliberate community discourse.
Redefinition and Re-imagination of Solutions Needed
It may be that the best solution is one that mixes equal parts of redefinition and re-imagination. Some of the recent reporting by Lawrence Biemiller in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, for example, suggests that colleges redefine themselves more as a kind of community asset – a learning community for the region. It suggests the need to forge new relationships with the local community as Antioch College has done in Ohio, offering memberships at its Wellness Center, for example.
A second opportunity is to re-imagine underutilized assets, especially non-core, non-academic real estate. The larger question is whether a college can continue to make capital expenditures on residence halls and conference and athletic facilities. Institutions can set up attractive lease-back arrangements or even sell or lease depreciated residence halls to developers with private investment capital to improve and even manage them.
Colleges and universities do not need to own the building to run a meaningful, strategic, college-directed student life program.
Debt should be reserved to improve the academic program, utilizing financial partnerships to address other non-academic needs wherever possible. Most colleges cannot maintain their current footprint and meet their future anticipated facilities needs.
The solution may be to recast how these institutions think about the assets they already have. In this fiscal, consumer, and political climate, it’s clear that something will need to change soon.
It may be an effort to continue Bernie Sander’s legacy by re-introducing the “free college” movement. It may also be a way to recast the Democratic Party in its “return to the working class defender” role. Or, it may be that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is staking his claim to be one of the new crop of Democratic contenders after the end of the Bush and Clinton American political dynasties.
Whatever the reason, Gov. Cuomo’s proposals on making college affordable and halting student debt will be watched closely.
Gov. Cuomo proposed last week to offer free tuition at New York’s large, comprehensive statewide university systems. Significantly, it would be the first program to expand the free college tuition promise from two to four years. Currently, Tennessee and Oregon have two-year options available.
Cuomo’s plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, would provide free college tuition at New York’s public two- and four-year institutions to students whose families make up to $125,000 a year. Gov. Cuomo will phase in the program over three years, ending in 2019. It’s meant to provide immediate relief and establish a track record – all before the 2020 campaign.
Students will need to be enrolled full-time to participate in the Excelsior Scholarship. It will also be a “last dollar” strategy after existing state and federal grants have been applied to tuition costs. Cuomo’s office estimated that about 80 percent of New Yorkers make less than $125,000 per annum and about 940,000 of them have college-eligible dependents.
$163 Million Cost is Fraction of New York’s $10+ Billion Higher Ed Budget
The program is projected to cost $163 million annually once the state completes its phase in. New York already has an existing Tuition Assistance Program that provides about $1 billion in support. When capital projects and additional services are factored in, New York spent about $10.7 billion on higher education in 2016.
Governor Cuomo deserves praise as an activist and innovator by offering a potential remedy to rising tuition costs and high levels of student debt. Some critics point out that many lower-income students already qualify for enough aid to cover tuition costs. They note his proposal does not cover the full cost of attendance beyond tuition. Additionally, about one-third of the students attend the CUNY and SUNY systems part-time and would likely not be eligible to participate in the program.
As you might imagine, skeptical Republicans want to look at the cost of this new entitlement program.
In a sense, it’s a little like the opening salvos on the Affordable Care Act. Like access to health care, there is strong public support to address college debt. The federal government has already invested billions in grants and loans extended to millions of Americans through popular existing programs like the Pell grant.
Set against this national backdrop, New York represents an excellent test case. With two huge state university systems in place as the foundation of a comprehensive higher education platform, New York is also the home to the country’s largest collection of private colleges and universities. Many of these private colleges serve their local communities admitting predominantly New York State residents. They share the same admissions market with their public neighbors.
What Impact Will Excelsior Scholarship Have on Private Colleges?
The first and most obvious question is what will happen to New York when its statewide admissions recruiting is thrown into chaos and disarray when Mr. Cuomo’s proposal disproportionately tilts the scales toward public sector institutions?
Since the less well-endowed private colleges are heavily tuition dependent, what impact will the migration of large numbers of students to public colleges and universities have on the viability and durability of local private institutions?
It is unreasonable to assume that increasing the college going rates will have a net neutral effect on the size of private college admission classes after the state government intervenes to price out private colleges from the competition for incoming students.
Can New York’s Public Higher Ed Handle Influx of Students?
Further, can the community college and upper division public college and university systems handle the projected influx of students given their current faculty and staff levels, programmatic base, and facilities infrastructure? Is it fair to have the state government expect them to do so? If not, what is the real “all in” cost of Mr. Cuomo’s proposal?
Third, does the admission of larger numbers into the public sector pipeline translate into worsening persistence and graduation rates as the numbers are not matched by corresponding spending increases, including in counseling and support services that are critical to making expanding public sector opportunities viable? There is considerable danger in having government argue in complex higher education communities like New York that government-aligned institutions like CUNY and SUNY can be redeployed to solve problems like student debt and the college-going rate. Let me be clear here. They are part of the solution and their funding should reflect their enormous value to their localities, regions, and the state.
The history of New York suggests that the best solution is a thoughtful collaborative one that values education where it happens. The economic vitality of the state going forward will depend on it.
One of the striking features of the new presidential administration appears to be the difference between fact and perception. On most levels, it seems that optics matter more than words. It also seems that facts are an afterthought to the positions floated. Further, it looks like many positions shift regularly depending upon how the outcome is likely to play with the American public.
It’s not that outcomes don’t matter; in fact, they do. But words also matter in the end. And facts inform the words that are spoken. Facts are the foundation that opens the dialogue, builds the trust, and sets a policy on which interested parties can agree. Facts aren’t subjective and they can’t be taken too literally. Facts are just facts.
For the moment, those of us who think and write about higher education can’t be certain about what’s coming.
While President-elect Trump has named a Secretary of Education, there’s not really enough to go on yet to forecast an education strategy.
What will be the policies of the Trump Administration? Will they reflect traditional priorities established by Congressional Republicans? Are there likely to be new Executive Branch initiatives?
Is the combination of national higher education associations, policy institutes and think tanks, and campus-based higher education leadership part of the swamp that Mr. Trump promised to drain or are they a resource to which he can turn as an outsider seeking informed opinions?
President-elect Trump has a right to claim some time to set up his shop. We’ll know more soon. We can withhold our powder and wish him well until perceptions become proposals. But it’s a short grace period when the issues are so pressing, consumer dissatisfaction is increasing, and pre-election campaign positions potentially threaten how colleges operate.
Colleges are a microcosm of American society. Almost every action taken will have some effect on them. It’s important to watch and learn.
It is even more critical for state and federal legislators to understand how colleges work and the pressures that they face. The facts always matter.
A recent example demonstrates the danger of creating a quagmire in the so-called “Washington swamp.” US Representative Tom Reed (R-Corning, NY) has reported that he is confronting the college cost crisis and the student loan debt issue through a variety of proposals that he will sponsor and support.
For Congressman Reed, the effort is personal: “I have firsthand experience with this myself having $110,000 worth of student loan debt when I completed my studies . . . Now, with my own daughter being a freshman at the University of Buffalo, this is something I have dealt with personally.”
Congressman Reed is justified to worry about high college tuition sticker prices and rising student debt. He supports the expansion of the Perkins Loan Program and Pell grants, for example, to help families deal with these costs. But many of his proposals suggest that he is not especially well versed about higher education issues that go well beyond legitimate questions about high sticker prices before tuition discounts and where comprehensive student debt originates.
Most troubling are two proposals grouped under what Mr. Reed has developed as a “Vision for Students” platform. The proposed federal legislation has the unfortunate and pejorative title of “Reducing Excessive Debt and Unfair Costs of Education Act.” In this bill, Mr. Reed targets about 90 institutions that have over $1 billion in endowment funds. His proposal would mandate that these endowment funds reduce a student’s tuition by 25 percent. This mandate might be expanded to other institutions as well.
If these colleges and universities failed to provide tuition relief, they would become subject to hefty tax penalties. Further, Rep. Reed’s proposal would require college campuses to submit plans to keep their costs below the rate of inflation. Colleges that failed to comply could lose federal aid.
Let’s set aside the issue of why the federal government that fails to keep its own expenses below the rate of inflation, suffers from growing consumer discontent, and has not modernized its own infrastructure should pick out sectors of the American economy – in this case higher education – for special regulatory treatment.
Instead, let’s look at the facts. There is no particular reason that $1 billion should be a cap for Rep. Reed’s proposals. Colleges and universities differ by purpose, scale in size and operations, and student income levels. A $1 billion cap is meaningless.
Further, endowments are often a collection of donor-restricted funds and not an unrestricted pot of gold that colleges use as discretionary accounts.
Finally, a five percent drawdown annually on a rolling twelve-quarter average will not generate the revenue necessary to support a 25% cut in tuition at most institutions.
In addition, colleges and universities that raise tuition – or allow their tuition discounts to rise beyond the level where net tuition revenue no longer increases – will either adjust to marketplace dynamics, merge, or close. It’s one of those pesky inescapable facts that should guide progressive federal policy.
Higher education is a little like the patient who will not improve if the wrong medicine is prescribed. As a start, it might be better to sit down with higher education’s leadership to ask how higher education works, what efficiencies can be created, and how the state and federal governments can be helpful and knowledgeable partners in a shared need to ensure an educated workforce.
Writing in the New York Times last month, Laura Pappano offered a thoughtful analysis of the efforts by public colleges – principally public flagship universities – to find new sources of revenue, diversify their student bodies, and expand their national reputations. It’s an interesting trend that should be watched closely.
America’s colleges and universities have different funding sources. Historically, public systems relied most heavily upon direct state support. Drawing upon the research of Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Ms. Pappano notes: “Nearly thirty years ago, legislative appropriations provided 59 percent of core revenues at public four-year colleges. In 2013, the latest year available, states covered 27 percent on average.” Absent historic state support, America’s public colleges and universities have turned increasingly to alternative funding sources, tuition, fees, room, board, additional auxiliary enterprises, public private partnerships, endowment drawdown, and debt.
Out-of-State Recruitment Brings Revenue
As the article suggests, one approach is to think big and move recruitment goals beyond the state’s borders. Ms. Pappano profiled a number of public colleges and universities, including the University of Alabama, University of South Carolina, Miami University of Ohio, Rutgers University, Arizona State University, and the College of William and Mary, to demonstrate how these institutions used various recruiting strategies to expand their base of out-of-state students. The results speak for themselves. From 2010-2015, freshman applications at Arizona State rose 42%, at the University of South Carolina by 39%, and at Miami University of Ohio by 62%.
On the surface, the tactic seems like a good way to balance a university’s budget and replace a dwindling source of revenue from the state. And in fairness, public colleges and universities should not be blamed for seeking such a solution. In fact, it precisely mirrors the tactics used by private colleges and universities with regional and national reputations. It is an entrepreneurial and creative approach. Indeed, for the profiled institutions, expanded recruitment appears to be paying a handsome dividend.
We can set aside, for example, some of the approaches taken by flagship public universities to recruit out-of-state like using merit awards to crack into ZIP codes that in later years might produce additional students, many of these full pay. It’s not so much the tactic but the policy that comes into question. The policy reflects the new realities that public universities now face.
Regional Public Universities Have Less Recruiting Power
First, there is a growing disconnect between flagship publics and the regional public sector institutions. The latter do not have the reputation, alumni base, facilities, breadth of programs, personnel, and resources to mimic the public flagship’s admission recruiting beyond state boundaries.
In an era of stagnant or declining enrollment of traditional age students, the failure to make investments in the rest of the public system will only exacerbate the chasm between the public flagship research university and the other public colleges in the state.
The recent efforts by the University of Wisconsin to separate itself from the Wisconsin system suggest the level of acrimonious warfare that might break out.
Second, changing financial fortunes call into question the historic mission of public colleges and universities. There are at least two ways to think about this issue.
On the one hand, America established public colleges and universities as the “people’s schools,” training students for a variety of occupations – many of them critical to the economic wellbeing of the state. They consciously subsidized the tuition charged, thereby making it possible for generations of first-time college bound youth, including immigrants, to receive a college degree. On the other hand, flagship research universities also provide a public good by serving as powerful economic engines that can drive a state and even regional economy. This mandates that they acquire and retain the best talent that they can attract to the state.
Third, every action has a reaction. As the stronger public universities expand their admission recruiting efforts beyond state boundaries, the burden of educating a state’s workforce will fall increasingly on other colleges and universities, notably non-research public colleges, private colleges and universities, community colleges, for-profit institutions, and online educational providers.
Is the effect of out-of-state recruiting effectively to “flip” how a state educates it students, relying on groups like small, regional private colleges to meet the state’s workforce needs?
Finally, what is the cost of out-of-state recruitment? Should public tax dollars be used as merit grants to attract an out-of-state student? To maintain a quality flagship research operation, should public research universities put additional money into expanded programs and expensive research facilities to compete on a national level? If so, is the solution more debt, public-private partnership investment, or a new operating model built to sustain an evolving mission?
Sometimes short-term solutions can cause long-term headaches in higher education. One concern to watch is that public flagship universities might adopt a private higher education operating model that focuses on higher tuition, deep financial aid discounts, and growing debt to fund “turf” war academic and residential life facilities. It may mean in the end that they can win the battle but lose the war.
In that post, we examined how various magazines, journals, and other outlets grade American higher education in their version of what some call the higher education “swimsuit edition.” We noted that various perspectives often shape the approach utilized.
We argued that many ranking strategies are heavily based on inputs causing the numerical rankings to change slowly from year to year because they rely more heavily on reputation and selectivity.
Based on a study by James B. Stewart in the New York Times in October examining the evolution of the higher education literature on this topic, we concluded that Mr. Stewart demonstrated convincingly that measurable outcomes — more attuned to the metrics sought by most American families – have lasting value.
With the growth in popularity of outcomes-based rankings assessments, we offered the following thoughts:
American higher education is moving closer to center stage visibility in the court of public opinion
The decades-old disagreements between higher education officials and the editors of US News over issues like methodology is at best “navel gazing,” and
The new battleground is likely to be over outcomes-based surveys.
The most interesting response came from a highly respected, distinguished colleague, Dr. Alexander Astin, the Allan M. Carter Professor Emeritus and Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Many of us use Dr. Astin’s survey research in our work on student life in our own institutional planning as the basis for subsequent research.
Dr. Astin finds: “the pecking order of American higher education institutions that drives the annual ‘admissions madness’ in this country has little to do with rankings and ratings. It is, rather, part of our culture, part of our shared beliefs about which are the most ‘excellent’ institutions. These beliefs have remained largely unchanged for more than 50 years. What US News and others have been trying to do is simply to codify – put numbers on – these shared beliefs.”
Dr. Astin also notes that while there is considerable value to the “outputs” approach that is gaining ground, the cold fact is that no one has the data required to properly look at outputs. He uses research on earnings as an example.
Dr. Astin reports that decades of research on earnings suggest that it is not simply dependent on the level of a student’s ability when admitted as a freshman but on other factors, including career choice, major, parental occupation, degree aspirations, and social class, among others. Each carries its own set of biases.
Accounting for such bias, a researcher would need to calculate an “expected earnings” for each entering student to measure against their actual earnings. Astin suggests: “By aggregating these expected earnings and actual earnings figures for all students entering a particular college, you’re able to obtain a much more valid estimate of that college’s effect.” He further argues that earnings is only one potential output and must be grouped with other outcomes to assess the value of a college education.
Whatever the approach, Dr. Astin regrets the emphasis placed by federal and state officials as well as US News-type rankings on degree completion rates.
He reports that degree completion rates are largely dependent on the level of the academic preparation of entering freshmen. As such, they are an indirect measure of SAT/ACT scores making them in turn a reflection of shared cultural beliefs about the pecking order.
Put in other terms, students with high test scores prefer elite colleges because they – and their families – believe that these colleges are “the best.”
Dr. Astin’s comments are a cautionary tale for those who are interested in seeking broad, standardized measures of excellence and value. His words add a cultural, social, and psychological dimension to a “paint by numbers” approach. He does not reject the value of a blended approach to combine inputs and outputs in measuring quality. But he is correct to argue for a longitudinal approach that adds nuance and perspective to data on the value of higher education.
One fact is clear. The scattershot and prescriptive efforts now utilized are insufficient and a poor basis on which to develop sound public higher education policy.
MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts speculated recently about whether there was enough soap in America to wash off the mud splattered by the dirty, depressing, and uninspired efforts by both presidential candidates to win votes.
A week ago, we answered the question of who will lead us over the next four years. With this answer will also come a deeper dive into how the Supreme Court will function, which party will control the US House of Representatives and the Senate, and whether there is a path to common ground between the executive and legislative branches.
At the center of the debate will be the fundamental issue of how weakened and ill-defined political ideologies relate to one another. Gridlock is not the fault of a single individual but arises from an inability or unwillingness to seek consensus on issues on which two or more parties can agree. Will the moderates and progressives among the Democrats be able to develop a negotiated common ground? What is the future of the Republican Party? Indeed will the Republican Party as we know it historically continue to exist or is a fractious civil war now underway within it?
Higher Education has Sustained Collateral Damage
For the rest of us – including those working in higher education – there has been considerable collateral damage. Higher education joins a litany of other once sacrosanct, bedrock institutions upon which the promise of America is anchored. America’s colleges and universities produced educated citizens and a trained workforce. A college degree was a powerful symbol of access and choice creating mobility and translating an individual’s potential into a practical reality.
It’s one of the best aspects of American life.
Higher education was also a safety valve that created a pathway traveled by millions of Americans responding to shifting technology, demographics, and labor patterns. It moved the workforce into proximate parity with the shifting demands of an increasingly post-industrial labor force. It was a sacrifice that millions of American families made because the cost/benefit analysis was simple, clear, and direct.
In short, higher education was about aspirations – the promise of an individual made possible by a commitment from America. It always worked best for that “next” generation, especially when its mission broadened with the creation of community and technical colleges for those seeking workforce training but not a four-year degree. It has not been a steady, uninterrupted development, however, and higher education also hit some major bumps in the road.
Assault on Reputation of Higher Education
Perhaps the biggest crisis now facing American higher education is the assault on its reputation. The ideologues attack American colleges and universities as bastions of liberal entitlement. Consumers are in open revolt against high sticker price – confused as the cost of attendance – with the cost/benefit analysis producing less obvious benefits and families unwilling to make the level of sacrifice required. Politicians rely on anecdote and polling to develop plans – good and bad – often to regulate higher education institutions in the absence of new discretionary money.
It’s a mess that tarnishes the reputation of American colleges and universities.
It would be so much easier if higher education could collectively make the case for why American institutions like colleges and universities still function well within the American and global economies. Sadly, the approach must be more nuanced, aggressive in design, and play out over the long term, especially in light of the de-industrialization of large swaths of America.
It’s not enough to save the auto industry if the people, towns, and infrastructure don’t share in and demonstrate the success. It’s about feeling the pain of these regions while also re-shaping the potential that already exists.
Is There a Seat at the Table for American Higher Education?
It’s how the pieces fit together that make it possible to finish the puzzle. American higher education must have a seat at the table to contribute to rebuild the American economy. These must be based on a coordinated strategy rather than a scattered, laundry list of political tactics fed by state and federal tax dollars.
Higher education can still claim its bully pulpit to insist that we cannot create economic incentives without the proper context and a careful linkage to its educational infrastructure.
The facts are that America’s colleges and universities are educational enterprises. But they are also places of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial leadership. And perhaps most important in the 21st century, they are sustainable economic engines fueling the rekindling of local and regional economies.
It’s time to understand that the best way for higher education to reclaim its moral authority is to demonstrate by word and action what role it can play in local, regional and national partnerships linked together with clear purpose and design.
Rick Seltzer reported recently in Inside Higher Education on a complex decision by Princeton University to settle litigation with neighboring homeowners who argued that the University was a profit-making institution and therefore subject potentially to millions of additional dollars in taxes annually.
Arrangement Doesn’t Settle Issue of University’s Tax-Exemption Status
The arrangement created an uncertain future, neither affirming Princeton’s tax-exempt status nor forcing the University to admit that its tax-exempt property should be taxed. Princeton already pays taxes on some commercial properties and voluntarily keeps others on the tax rolls. Further, Princeton also makes voluntary contributions to local municipal government, including areas like police, trash collection, and the maintenance of private roads.
Princeton notes that it is the largest taxpayer in the Borough of Princeton, with an $11.1 million property tax bill. The lawyer representing the residents who sued argued, however, that Princeton’s payments should be closer to $30-$40 million annually, if the University were fully taxed.
It’s at this point where the residents’ argument against Princeton becomes more complicated.
They argue that Princeton operates a number of profitable commercial ventures in areas including, but not limited to, real estate rentals, for-profit hedge funds, office and hotel development, and commercial television, among other activities. They asserted: “since at least 2005 Princeton University has distributed approximately $150 million in profits to faculty…and continues to do so.”
Issue Strikes at Heart of How Research Universities Operate
The residents’ argument against Princeton takes the battle beyond the tax exemption of campus property and strikes at the very heart of how research universities operate.
Let’s examine this “point in time” moment that both Princeton and its disaffected neighbors face.
Tax Exemption Permits Higher Education to Flourish
Tax exemption is a kind of gold standard that has permitted a decentralized American higher education system to flourish. Tax exemption is granted because American colleges and universities perform a public good, creating both educated citizens and a capable and trained work force.
Private colleges and universities enjoy tax exemption because it relieves the government of educating more of its citizens through alternative, publicly-supported means.
Princeton sits at the top of the pecking order among colleges and universities in part because its endowment makes it possible to offer the type and quality of education that Princeton’s students enjoy. But the endowment – and related income earned annually elsewhere – relieves the state government of New Jersey of the cost of creating and sustaining the outstanding education made possible at Princeton and an unparalleled research facility at Princeton and in the surrounding towns.
Ask any town official without a Princeton if they would like to have one among them. Most would say “yes.”
The question of Princeton’s continued tax exemption is broader than the immediate needs of the Borough of Princeton, the property values that would not be created in its region without Princeton’s presence adding to the tax base there, or even the economic vitality of the state of New Jersey.
It is at its heart a question of what American society needs and values. Does Princeton work because law and economics have created something special that defines what will fuel America’s intellectual, economic, and global presence?
If so, Princeton would be well advised to make its case after a thorough review of what it does, how it explains itself, and how these explanations translate into action.
It’s easy to reject what an appropriate tax bill should be because it is impossible to define the value of academic buildings against which there are no comparable facilities in the for-profit world. What is critical is that Princeton continues to define its relationship carefully and cordially within its region.
To do so, Princeton must look closely – as it seems to be willing to do – at what services its stakeholders draw from the Borough to determine a base contribution that should be made. It must determine what properties are central to its educational enterprise – protect them – and be willing potentially to negotiate in a reasonable way on additional tax payments for non-core, non-academic facilities and programs. As it does so, it must also prepare an argument that supports academic research universities on how best to imagine which research activities might be taxable and which should not.
Town & Gown Are Both Stewards of Public Trust
Like the municipalities in which they reside, both sides must be careful stewards of public money and the public trust, now significantly eroding in the political quagmire and knee jerk social media responses undermining American institutional direction. It’s a silly and pointless argument otherwise. Both sides must define a “test of the reasonable” and put in mutually agreed safeguards to shift the argument toward productive engagement.
Details of Princeton Settlement Can Provide Lessons
It may be that Princeton bought time to let opinions settle and figure out how best to move forward. But at the end of the day, most of American higher education is not really like Princeton – not even remotely. The arguments made in this case are not replicable elsewhere. The differences in scale, institutional type, purpose, and endowment size between Princeton and most of higher education, whether public or private, is enormous.
There is a common lesson, however, to take from the Princeton settlement. America’s colleges and universities are educational enterprises and economic engines that anchor regional economies. Higher education officials should do everything possible to make the case for why that’s possible and why it matters to America.
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