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.
One of the most persistent problems facing American higher education is how best to explain its importance and endearing value to the public.
The problem is that various perspectives shape the approach utilized. Higher education leadership – especially at research universities and liberal arts colleges – often speak to the need for America to produce an educated citizenry. It’s an ambitious but justifiable argument that once resonated well with the American public. It also appeals to higher education’s stakeholders, especially staff and faculty. But the failure to sharpen and expand this definition has diminished the almost exclusive claim that higher education once held on people’s perception of it.
The reasons for this erosion are complex and reflect the changing economic circumstances, consumer preferences, state and federal regulatory climate, and shifting demographics that carry different expectations and their own set of perceptions. It’s been a long time in coming.
Unfortunately, the incremental inertia that shapes higher education’s patterns of behavior, including timely response to emerging opinions in American society, hinders higher education’s ability to make a case for itself.
The “Swimsuit Edition” of College Rankings
For many years, the principal competition in higher education came from the rankings survey drawn up annually by US News and World Report. It’s a profitable endeavor for the magazine, drawing subjective, perception-driven analysis that many higher education colleagues derisively and somewhat accurately call the “swimsuit edition.” Heavily based on inputs, the numerical ratings change slowly year to year because they are based on reputation and selectivity.
The input-based approach sets tight parameters around the US News release. While Americans like competitive rankings, the failure of this survey to look at outputs inhibits its value to many families in a post-recession society, who are searching how best to educate their children in markedly different terms than a generation ago.
Measurable Outcomes More Attuned to What Families Want
Writing in the New York Times earlier this month, James B. Stewart looked at the evolution of the higher education ratings literature. He noted the wide variety of relatively new players in the rating game, citing PayScale, The Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce, The Economist, Forbes, and Money magazines. Each looks more at the outcomes largely eschewed by US News and by most colleges and universities. Mr. Stewart demonstrates convincingly that these measurable outcomes have value. They are more attuned to the metrics sought by most American families.
Stewart’s point is a telling one.
There is more consumer value among the newer rankings to knowing what your tuition dollars buy than in the claim to bragging rights made possible by a college’s good standing in the US News and World Report annual survey.
He further concludes that two recent efforts by The Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education (no relation to the newspaper) “did a creditable job blending a wide variety of factors, including outcomes and student engagement.”
There are lessons for America’s colleges and universities in Mr. Stewart’s report.
First, American higher education is moving closer to center stage visibility in the court of public opinion. Absent an ability to shape this opinion, higher education will be increasingly subject to it. Perhaps the best strategy is to find a way, therefore, to influence it more directly and with greater common purpose.
Second, the decades-old disagreements between high education officials and the editors of US News over issues like methodology is at best “navel gazing” if the goal is to make a positive impact on general perceptions. They are one thorn among many for which accommodation must be provided, but the center of the rankings debate has shifted away from US News.
Third, the new battleground is likely to be over outcome-based surveys. Outcomes shape consumer preference and the polling data and anecdotes from which (sadly) so much state and federal policy is developed. There is undeniably a “what’s in it for me” quality to this debate that is somewhat softened by the real and legitimate concerns over issues like employability and having “high meaning” to post graduate work.
There is a counter argument, of course. There have been well-intentioned efforts within higher education that attempt to answer consumer concerns to reflect the enormous diversity, differences in type and scale, and purposes of America’s decentralized system of higher education. These are positive efforts – sometimes defensive and politically calculated – but they represent a good start.
American Families Good Analysis, Not Another College Ranking
To support American higher education’s ability to shape its own destiny, it may be that what American families need is not more surveys but a clean, credible, and simple analysis based upon exiting data.
Higher education will need to move more willingly – and at times more gracefully – into deeper consideration of outputs.
The American consumer will also benefit from education about higher education, including its remarkable diversity, which moves well beyond questions that stop at how much money a graduate makes.
It’s simplistic and laughable to think that a college or university should be ranked on a numerical scale to determine quality. Do comprehensive metrics ultimately support such claims? It is reasonable, however, to imagine a consumer education system that addresses quality “going in” and “coming out.” It would be wise for American higher education to lead the charge before they are overwhelmed by the blizzard of new survey data.
Looking at a variety of public systems across the country, Mr. Marcus found that “the number of people employed by public university and college central system offices . . . has kept creeping up, ever since the start of the economic downturn and in spite of steep budget cuts, flat enrollment and heightened scrutiny of administrative bloat.” Mr. Marcus reports that this growth happened at a time when states have collectively cut their higher education spending by 18 percent. He also notes that some systems like Maine’s central office grew by 26 percent – despite an enrollment decline and budget cuts.
There is a silver lining according to Mr. Marcus, however, who suggests that “after years of promising to save money by streamlining operations, cutting duplicate staffs and maximizing purchasing power, some university systems have been forced by political pressure and economic realities to finally start doing it.”
In Maine, for example, Mr. Marcus found under a new “One University Initiative” in which the system consolidated the budget, legal, personnel, information technology, insurance, purchasing, and other departments from its seven campuses resulting “in a 37 percent decline in the number of administrators at the universities that will save about $6.1 million a year.”
The findings are modestly encouraging and hardly surprising. Elected officials are increasingly placing American colleges and universities – at all levels – under greater scrutiny especially at the state and federal levels.
There is, of course, an ongoing historic frustration in the higher education community when politicians – most of who are not skilled in finance and who have not run businesses of substantial scale – wade into the management of higher education.
It’s easy for higher education officials to point privately to great gaps in how the state and federal government runs and finances their own enterprises in terms of archaic, disruptive, and conflicting management practices and protocol across all levels of government.
The complaints are not often voiced publicly, of course, because colleges and universities depend on government partnerships to fund student and institutional aid.
The Incremental Inertia of Higher Education
But in the end that may not be the point. The argument still holds that America’s colleges and universities operate in a culture dominated by incremental inertia.
No place is more conservative in its management practices than a college or university campus.
Smaller campuses operate on a time-worn academic cycle which can inhibit transparent decision-making when the campus powers down in the summer and during academic breaks, effectively five months a year at many colleges.
Challenge of Shared Governance
Shared governance is also a problem. The key to good governance is transparency and communication. It’s critical because key stakeholders – trustees, administration and faculty – have important roles to play. It sometimes means that everything takes longer than it would in a corporate setting or in government regulated in the days before the overuse of the “continuing resolution” by an annual budget cycle.
Decentralization Can Make Cost-Cutting More Difficult
Another problem, depending upon the institutional setting, is decentralization. In a decentralized setting without strong administrative leadership, college and university divisions, departments, and programs are their own fiefdoms. It’s impossible to create a standard data protocol because of bad record keeping and the differences among divisions like enrollment, financial aid, alumni, and advancement, or so the argument goes.
At the opposite end, the college’s adherence to state and federal regulation, its need to commit to key residence life programs, including athletics, mental health and wellness counseling, diversity initiatives, and internship and career counseling programs, as well as support accreditors’ demands for tighter accountability standards can cause administrative bloat.
One impact of the Great Recession has also been to “beef up” enrollment and advancement operations – a practice that demonstrates their importance to bottom line revenue so critical in weak admission markets. Should these programs be scaled back?
On any level, an ongoing effort to streamline to create efficiencies and economies of scale is a good idea.
But the practical dimension of the problem is that the operational model doesn’t work anymore for American colleges and universities.
Higher education cannot reasonably address the question of cost until its leadership understands that cost is first about whether the older operational models continue to serve them well.
Some politicians make good college presidents, at least on paper. As Rick Seltzer reported in Inside Higher Education last week, the best of them possess many of the same skills as successful college and university presidents. They are typically well connected with outside stakeholders, enjoy good name recognition, and know how to fundraise, at least with certain groups of donors. Many of them have some knowledge of higher education – usually on a macro level – that sets them apart within a pool of potential candidates when presidencies open up.
Mr. Seltzer noted that the most recent American College President Study found that about two percent within a pool of candidates in presidential searches had at least some political experience at the local, state, or federal level in their previous positions.
Long Tradition, Bumpy Road
The most famous historical examples perhaps are Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower, who served as presidents of Princeton and Columbia, respectively. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the first rectors of the University of Virginia. There are also recent examples of politicians-turned-presidents whom many Americans perceive as successful, whatever their detractors say. University chancellors and presidents in Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California, and Oklahoma are among them.
It’s a long tradition that has also faced a bumpy road. The recent donnybrooks at Kennesaw State University and the University of West Florida provide concrete real-time case studies.
Let’s not get into the weeds on the merits of each case but look instead at the principles, process, and expectations placed upon politicians seeking a college presidency. In doing so, it’s easy to see why confrontations can occur over a selection and to suggest ways in which these controversies can be avoided. Further, let’s agree to treat the issues at public and private institutions similarly.
Presidential Search Process Must Be Thoughtful, Deliberate, and Balanced
In any pool, the best candidate on paper, following the interview process and after an analysis of what an institution needs, should win the position. It’s important to recognize, however, that it is not enough for the candidate to “shock and awe” during the search process except perhaps at needy institutions with weak search committees. That process must be thoughtful, deliberate, and balanced. It presumes that the search process is fair, the search committee is seasoned and balanced, and political and personal prejudices are put aside during the selection. It is sophomoric to suggest responsibly that the search can produce some cross between Superman and Clark Kent on a good day to find a perfect candidate.
Further, a good screening of candidates assumes that search committee members represent key stakeholder classes and that the institution’s system of shared governance works. It is the responsibility of the Board to be careful in its charge to the committee. With that charge, however, must come a mandate to create a balanced pool of traditional and non-traditional candidates.
Traditional candidates presumably understand how American higher education works. Non-traditional candidates offer insight and broad experience from their work outside the academy.
Occasionally, a search will even turn up candidates with experiences across several occupational and employment lines.
Don’t Assume Step Up is Easy for Senior Higher Ed Leaders
An emerging concern is the growing reluctance of senior higher education leadership to move into presidencies. Many provosts simply do not want the job. Further, the ongoing continuing education to support their role as president and the continuing education critical to ensure that they are well trained for it is episodic and spotty at best.
For many “provost presidents,” the presumption is that they know what they are doing. But serving as the chief academic officer is often quite distinct from what is required by their new duties. For others, there is simply a “deer with their eyes caught in the headlights” series of challenges to be faced in the first critical years of a presidency.
Many former provosts are extremely successful as presidents and serve with honor and distinction. But the job is more complex than being a ceremonial mayor disguised as a patriarchal father figure.
The non-traditional candidates in the pool are a much smaller group. The best case for them may well be that there increasingly appears to be a growing crisis in the American college presidency as demands, fueled by shifting expectations and attitudes, social media pronouncements, and economic pressures built upon a collapsing and unsustainable operating model, detract from the stature formerly considered part of the job.
Higher Ed Learning Curve, Especially Shared Governance, is Steep for Politicians
Non-traditional candidates can provide a solution for an institution in which presidents have presided but not led. They have insight and are usually change agents that can make their candidacy attractive at colleges and universities where aspirations still matter. It only works when these institutions know what they want. And most importantly, the Board must be prepared to stand with the president, keeping their noses in and their hands outside of the tent.
At these institutions, a politician-turned-president may be an attractive solution, especially if the politician has shown creativity and ingenuity in the way that they govern. Choosing a narrow ideologue almost never works, especially among faculty and students who value academic freedom.
Politicians must be willing to learn the job – especially their role in shared governance for which they will have no direct experience but considerable unofficial training – if they are to be successful.
But politicians can be a good choice. Their addition to a deep pool of presidential candidates can add tremendous value. And a number of them matched to the right circumstances will make fine presidents.
For thousands of high school students, October marks the start of the college application season. Application deadlines approach, standardized tests and essays are finalized, and this year, an earlier deadline for the FAFSA financial aid application.
In a series of reports last month, seasoned higher education journalist Scott Jaschik presented some interesting findings about the state of admissions. In a piece entitled “More Applications, Plenty of Spaces,” he addressed the number of applications and the availability of admissions openings on college campus, drawing from a survey by the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC).
Taken together, the results paint the picture of a higher education admissions community under considerable stress although the factors vary by size, type, and whether public or private.
The good news in this year’s NACAC study is that the number of applications is up by about six percent for first-time freshman, four percent for transfers, and 23 percent for students from outside the United States.
Troubling Signs for Enrollment Offices
As you look “under the hood,” however, some troubling signs suggest that the levels of stress and uncertainty in enrollment offices continue.
The NACAC study reports that only 19.7% of the colleges and universities surveyed admitted fewer than 50 percent of their applicants, while 36 percent admitted 50 to 70 percent of their applicants. The average admissions rate for colleges for enrollment in 2014 was 65.8 percent, up from 64.7 percent the year before.
The NACAC study also looked at yield — the percentage of admitted students who enroll. The number rose slightly to 36.2 percent but was down substantially from 2002 when it was just under 50 percent. Just under 40 percent of the colleges used a waiting list. An average of 32 percent of students who stayed on the list were offered an admissions spot although the percentage was far lower at the most selective colleges.
Among the factors that influenced admissions decisions, less than 15 percent reported that race and ethnicity had a moderate or considerable influence. For first generation applicants, the colleges noted that this factor played a moderate or considerable role in about 16 percent of the applicants.
What Do Admissions Officers Think About All of This?
The Inside Higher Education survey was more topical by design, looking at admission officers reactions to issues like the new SAT, the launch of a new college application to compete with the Common Application, a calendar shift in application deadlines for financial aid, the free public education proposals of political candidates, and the US Supreme Court decision upholding race and ethnicity in college admission decisions.
The most comparable findings to the NACAC study dealt with whether colleges and universities met their historic May 1 admission deadlines. The survey found that the proportion of private colleges that met their May 1 admission goals was down one percentage point to 41 percent. But the percentage of public colleges meeting their May 1 admission goals was down dramatically to 29 percent.
Mr. Jaschik reported that the decline was almost all from community colleges whose admissions officials do not focus as much on a May 1 deadline. Significantly, while 20 percent of community colleges related that they met their May 1 admissions target a year ago, only nine percent did in this year’s survey. In fact, 88 percent of the community colleges report that they are down compared to two years ago.
If we separate these numbers from other data that could be layered on, like financial aid discounting, transfer practices, and retention, the concerns continue to rise. But even looking at these basic admission data, the picture over the short term at least is clear.
Look Beyond Elite Schools for True Picture
The obvious conclusion is that all of higher education is not Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, or Yale where single percentage admission numbers show no particular relevance to the rest of America’s colleges and universities. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Selectivity and quality remain distinctive traits only sometimes shared in common. The numbers suggest that Americans can still get a great education, minus the snob appeal of the anointed, resource-rich few at the top of the pyramid.
The real danger is that there is a growing chasm between what higher education offers and the willingness of Americans to take advantage of it. On this level, it seems to be a mix of economics, politics, psychology, and optics.
The root of the problem is most likely that higher education –whether public or private – has created an unsustainable operating model that no longer makes sense.
Challenge for Institutional Leadership, Not Just Admissions
And therein lies the problem. At its most fundamental, enrollment is code for revenue. It’s a critical distinction when America’s colleges and universities are so heavily dependent on tuition for their survival. The survey numbers suggest that American higher education has a growing revenue problem masked by a softening admission market of students who fill seats in college classrooms.
Follow the money. The solution rests not in admission offices but with trustees and administrative and faculty leadership who must read and interpret what they see. It’s a clear call to shake off the inertia on most college campuses while there is still time to act.
Reporting in last week’s Inside Higher Education, Kasia Kovacs reviewed the findings of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, an initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Dr. Michael McPherson, co-chair of the commission and a well-respected economist, former college president, and president of the Spencer Foundation, spoke to Ms. Kovacs about the Commission’s report, A Primer on the College Student Journey, which used data to form conclusions about the state of undergraduate education at two- and four-year colleges.
Dr. McPherson reported: “Our ambition is to help the American population, the American people, to appreciate what a college education means now in the United States, which is something much broader and more complex than what a number of us might have thought a few years ago.” Dr. McPherson and his colleagues interpreted data from a wide range of sources, including the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Commission’s findings are critical to our understanding of what’s happening in American higher education, providing a snapshot of who goes to college, how they pay for it, what happens when they get there, how they fare, and what directional changes they make.
The findings present a complex and compelling story about opportunities and challenges facing higher education, with the balance tilted toward an optimistic and hopeful view overall. Some of the more interesting findings are:
Gender and ethnicity and race matter. In 2015, 50 percent of 25-29 year old women had a college degree compared with 41 percent of men. Almost three-fourths of Asian students 25-29 years held at least an associates degree. This number drops to 54 percent for white students, 31 percent for black students, and 27 percent for Hispanic students in the same category.
Half of America’s high school graduates need remedial assistance in college, and that help often falls short. Only 28 percent of students in remedial classes at two-year colleges actually earned a degree in 8.5 years.
Students are borrowing more. In 2000, 50 percent of students took out loans, with the number increasing ten percentage points by 2012. Only nine percent defaulted on their loans, but this number rose to 24 percent if they did not graduate. Ms. Kovacs reported that the Commission found that “borrowers at greatest risk of defaulting are typically those who take out the smallest loan amounts.”
Transfer students follow what the Commission calls a “multi-directional transfer swirl.” Almost one-third of students transferred or were simultaneously enrolled in two institutions over six years. A surprising number were lateral transfers; 15 percent of two-year students transferred to another two-year college and 17.2 percent of students at four-year colleges switched to two-year institutions.
The Commission’s findings suggest implications for American higher education. These implications will powerfully affect the level of workforce preparation, any potential improvement to the disparity in income and social inequality, and in time, America’s commitment to higher education as a kind of safety value “great equalizer.”
The first implication is that a complex mix of familial, social, cultural, economic, and psychological factors affect whether a high school graduate seeks a college degree. It may be that matching application pools to demographic changes backed by renewed commitments to increased financial aid is not enough to provide the twin goals of a well-educated citizenry and an educated workforce.
Is it also possible that the levels of debt already in place now, fostering a consumer revolt over college costs and presidential positions on free tuition and ameliorating middle class debt, may actually discourage college attendance? In pledging relief, is there a corresponding compelling argument on why a debt-laden college degree is so critical to many Americans?
For some high school graduates and their families, there is not a good answer on why they should spend the money. The optics can shape the perception dramatically.
A second implication is that the stark data on college preparedness suggests that there is a growing dissonance between what basic education teaches and what higher education expects of its students. College faculty regularly complain about the lack of student preparation as they engage newly admitted students. Has the conversation between basic and higher education leadership – one that goes beyond the politicizing of issues like test scores at the state and federal level – occurred on how to develop a common set of expectations that make the handoff between these groups more seamless and successful?
And finally, the Commission’s findings speak volumes about what choices students make within the higher education system. The process of transferring within a “multidirectional transfer swirl” is hardly seamless. The failure to increase qualified counseling, provide safety nets, and better general directional advice can be as big a deterrent as college costs in dampening higher graduation rates, at both the two- and four-year levels.
Higher education is the cornerstone upon which America’s successful participation in the competitive global economy rests. It’s likely an uneven evolution ahead. The Carnegie Corporation study helps because it allows us to get our facts straight first.
The study concluded that more than 800 American colleges exhibit factors that call into question their sustainability over the long term. These factors include
having enrollments under 1,000 students,
tuition discounts higher than 35 percent, and
high debt payments for recent campus capital improvements.
As expected, nearly 80 percent of these potentially unsustainable colleges are small – with fewer than 1,000 students – but nine percent have more than 10,000 students.
Seth Reynolds, a managing director at Parthenon-EY Education, offered two important observations. The first is that “small and large colleges that are thriving . . . have either found a strong niche or they operate at a large scale.” The second conclusion is perhaps even more telling: “But for most institutions, the path forward is not one that they can take alone. They need to shift their mindset and consider collaboration in ways they haven’t before.”
Some may consider these bleak conclusions. But they do not mean that the sky is falling for American higher education.
Mr. Selingo notes that higher education is primarily a location-bound, highly regulated, bricks-and-mortar industry with wide variations in capacity to reflect changing American demographics. He notes that the report suggests that circumstances will force many institutions into deeper partnerships with one another.
The report also suggests that the biggest obstacle to deeper partnerships is pushback from various constituencies, including trustees, faculty members, students, and alumni. Mr. Selingo concludes that “if the current rich diversity of the American higher education system has any hope of existing another few centuries, campuses need to rethink their long-held position that the best way to survive is to operate on their own.”
Greater Collaboration, Even Consolidation, May Be No-Brainer
There is a good deal of common sense embedded into this logic. Many colleges and universities – including a good number whose names are widely recognized – operate on older, unsustainable financial operating models that lack coherence and transparency.
Looking at ways that combine a mix of people, programs, and facilities to create not only efficiencies and economies of scale but also new opportunities for students and faculty is something of a no-brainer.
Or, at least it should be.
The problem is that the spark that triggers the kinds of changes that higher education institutions must make is missing. The protectors of the historic traditions that shape the governance of these institutions support, at best, incremental change and point correctly to the relative handful of closures and mergers annually to make their case for the status quo.
The root of the problem is perhaps that no one is talking about overall health, focusing instead on trend lines and a murky future. Many argue that solving the growing income disparity in America, or waiting it out for more robust economic growth, will largely make the concerns over sustainability in higher education go away.
Lessons From the 1800s on Changing Higher Education Landscape
History doesn’t support this analysis. There have been distinct phases of growth in higher education. One in particular in the 19th Century illustrates the kind of future that might be in store for American colleges and universities.
In the 19th Century, the predominant trend that followed a period of expansion in American higher education was a surprising number of mergers and closures, especially as the Civil War deaths decreased that generation’s ability to support colleges and universities across the country. By the end of the century, a new commitment to public, professional, and graduate education reshaped the higher education landscape.
The point is that change happens and that the record supports an unsteady and uneven evolution ahead.
As we look at the Parthenon-EY Education study, it is essential to think through how best to prepare for change. The worst case is that either side – whether incrementalists or disruptors – wins. It is far better to imagine a negotiated evolution.
Disconnect Between Data & Perception Must Be Reconciled
To do so, we must do a much better job of linking data with a more thoughtful education of key higher education constituencies to produce a common understanding of the issues. It must begin with the recognition that American colleges and universities are – overwhelmingly – tuition dependent, endowment poor, and debt ridden. Many are open enrollment institutions with archaic management practices. And most important, governance practices and constituency perceptions must be brought into better alignment with what the data suggest.
There’s a tremendous opportunity to manage the crisis to a more sustainable future. But it must start with a recognition that the fundamental disconnect between what the data tell us and what uninformed campus communities think is happening must be reconciled quickly.
On September 13, a House Ways & Means Subcommittee will hold a hearing that, according to Janet Lorin in Bloomberg, “is set to look at how colleges, through their tax exempt endowments, are trying to reduce tuition.” Ms. Lorin reports that the subcommittee hearing will feature testimony from policy experts and college officials.
It’s an interesting time to examine college endowments. As Ms. Lorin reports, most endowments are expected to post investment declines for fiscal 2016.
The House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Oversight will also look at how endowments intersect with the tax-exempt status enjoyed by colleges and universities. As Lauren Aronson, a spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee, relates: “This is another step that the committee is taking to understand what colleges are doing to address soaring college costs through their endowments and nonprofit-tax status.”
The committee’s hearing is separate from its joint inquiry with the Senate Finance Committee, whose members requested data in areas such as endowment spending, fees paid to investment managers, and rules on naming rights for donors from the 56 wealthiest private colleges last February.
For argument’s sake, let’s not take a position on whether this is information gathering or a Congressional witch hunt fueled by consumer polling. We can all agree that the effort to provide debt relief to Americans is a good idea.
It’s not so much the noble aspiration but the approach that should raise eyebrows. Words and actions are always important. How you do it – and how you convey your intent – matters even more in these settings.
Most Colleges Have Little or No Endowments
Let’s get real, Congress, and establish the facts:
The 56 wealthiest private universities do not reflect the rest of American higher education, not even remotely. They are large research complexes scaled and identified by purpose as distinct and different from undergraduate colleges, teaching universities, and community colleges.
Most colleges have little or no endowments, are heavily tuition-dependent, and are in deep debt for capital improvements. Many are, effectively, open admissions institutions with escalating tuition discounts.
Tax exemption is a broader issue than its relationship with endowments. The federal government granted tax exemption because colleges and universities serve a public good. They still do.
Tax exemption assists private colleges especially because it bridges the gap between public and private colleges, with public colleges also receiving additional state subsidies. It essentially levels some of the playing field among institutions in a decentralized higher education system.
State support over the past 20 years has decreased for public colleges and universities, with many now re-characterizing themselves not as state-assisted but as “state located” because of shrinking government support.
Congress must be certain to review government support across all programs for colleges and universities, whether public or private, as part of its fact-finding effort. Is it possible that the decline in government support has contributed to rising tuition sticker prices? Is the government really blameless in this debt crisis?
How many federal regulations affect colleges and universities? Is it likely that the cost of these reporting requirements also jacks up tuition substantially? Most colleges and universities are almost entirely dependent on tuition revenue, yet are encumbered by across-the-board government reporting mandates, regardless of their size.
For those colleges with endowments that actually contribute to their bottom line, the rule on spending is often something like a draw down of 5% on a trailing 12-quarter average. When endowments drop due to market conditions, is it really feasible for Congress to deny them the flexibility to manage prudently in bad times over the long term?
American Higher Education is Not Monolithic
It is a fundamental mistake to paint American higher education as though similar conditions apply across the broad diversity of institutions that comprise it. What would be helpful is for Congress to assume less and learn more before it holds its hearings, given the idiosyncratic nature of the information it recently requested.
To do so, Congressional hearings must begin with the right questions. And they might do so by approaching higher education not as an arrogant, bloated industry in need of “big stick” political discipline.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for high tuition sticker prices. It’s time to make the pillars of federal policy more clear rather than creating artificial linkages among endowments, tax exemption, and tuition as a popular if insufficient explanation of why college costs so much.
It’s August. For many families, it’s time to participate in a celebrated American ritual: moving a son or daughter to college. While thousands of parents and children bid each other farewell after moving belongings into a dorm room, the experience is acutely personal.
Every child has a different and unique relationship with a parent. For some students, their impending advance toward an adult, independent life is not an especially introspective moment. For many of these first-year students, it’s something akin to a long sleepover, summer camp, or travel abroad. A few students arrive on campus from boarding schools where residence life rituals are long since learned and well understood. But for most students, inching through the summer toward “move in” day is a cause for excitement, trepidation, and uncertainty.
When students arrive on campus as “first years,” it’s always best for them to think through a plan of how to organize their college years. The best piece of advice for them perhaps is to “know yourself.” College students come with different levels of maturity and a variety of perspectives. In this new environment, no one really cares about your grade point average, athletic prowess, or that legendary moment in summer band camp. What most first-year students look for is someone like themselves, who shares their interests, and who can make them laugh or at least feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar setting.
Even the most experienced students feel some level of homesickness. The great thing about college is that you are on your own and treated – more or less – as an adult. That’s also the worst thing about college life. Now, only you can explain your successes and failures. And like it or not — you own them.
Most colleges have time-tested student life programs that address some of the worst first moments that students face. Many student life programs do an exceptional job at “move in” day, where helpful upper-class students work together with often remarkable precision to welcome the students to residence life. Parents are often astounded that the move-in process takes so little time, operating something like a well-greased machine. Let the acculturation begin.
What families should also see in the best of these programs is the subtext. Permeating the heavy lifting and helpful answers is a deep reservoir of optimism from faculty, staff, and students that goes well beyond the smiles and welcomes. It’s a special moment full of opportunity and promise.
Move-in is like walking across a suspension bridge high above the river. Don’t look down, keep walking, and enjoy the feeling of fresh new land under your feet on the other side.
At this point, the only option left for the parents is to enjoy the college-provided lunch. Lunch is meant by the college to be a last supper of sorts for parents – eat it and then walk away. You will leave a mostly adult child in capable campus hands. Don’t muck it up by overstaying your welcome. And don’t make the assumption that you know best. Your expertise ended effectively when you drove through the campus gates.
Parents have a choice to make once they reach home. They can re-emerge from the college selection process as “helicopter parents,” continuing to hover over their children, interpreting the uncertainties and insecurities that they hear, and determined to fight for their child’s rights and needs. It’s admirable and entirely misguided.
It’s better not to miss the seminal moment that “move in” day offers to fine-tune the adult in your child.
This is also where technology can inhibit your first-year college student. God did not invent the cell phone – nor Facebook, Snap Chat, Twitter, and texting – to provide you with a web-based umbilical cord by which you can keep connected with your child minute-by-minute. If you are going to develop a lasting adult relationship, you need the space and time to settle into the new arrangement. Set pre-arranged times and days for conversation, unless an emergency arises.
Finally, be aware that money doesn’t solve everything. Hopefully, you were wise enough to place expectations on how your child can help support a four-year college experience as part of a family commitment. Watch the unexpected expenditures and monitor open-line credit and debit accounts, especially if these lessons have yet to be learned by your first-year. And, be aware that some expenses will be legitimate.
In four years, hopefully your child will be sharing a barely affordable undersized apartment in Hoboken with college friends. It’s always best to teach reality before it happens.
For parents, it’s normal to feel sad at some point when you recognize that the move-in experience is also a move-away moment. That awaited acceptance letter that arrived last spring changed your life forever, too.
In September 2012, I chose to begin to contribute to the national conversation about higher education by tackling the concept of leadership in one of my first blogs for the Huffington Post.
In that article, I suggested, “the job has evolved, but the national imperative for presidents to lead as well as govern remains constant.” As leaders of institutions who incubate ideas, college and university presidents are ideally positioned to make a significant contribution.
Obstacles to Presidential Leadership
I chronicled a number of obstacles to experienced presidential leadership, asserting that:
the training for how to be a president was spotty, episodic, and inconsistent;
there is no carefully cultivated farm team from which to pull promising future leaders into the major leagues;
there is little evidence of trustee-initiated succession planning; and
shared governance values process and consensus over outcomes making it more difficult for “change agent” presidents to succeed.
Crisis in Shared Governance
While the reception the post received persuaded me to continue to publish and speak out on issues of higher ed leadership and governance, there was something missing from my argument. The recent dust-ups among college presidents, boards of trustees, and faculty reinforce the continuing crisis in shared governance.
The cold fact is that there is no evidence to suggest that presidents seeking to lead have any incentive to do more than preside.
It’s dangerous to put your tenure on the line and imperative that you know when to fall on your sword. What I missed in that first blog, however, was that there is a practical side to college leadership.
Shared Governance Suffers from Lack of Education
The biggest failure in shared governance is the lack of broad-based education about the issues facing those who govern America’s colleges and universities. Trustees are the most poorly educated. There is a corresponding need to keep faculty fully informed, especially on issues that affect higher education beyond the college gates.
All parties should be watching the platform positions taken by the two presidential candidates, for example, to determine how the potential implementation of these positions will affect their institution.
But there is a practical dimension to leadership. What you know, how much you know, and where and how you educate yourself has a direct relationship to the quality of shared governance on a college campus.
Education begins with the presidents, given their role as chief spokespersons and chief executive officers. A president must be an informed generalist on almost any subject that affects higher education. It’s hard to be transparent in a university community when you don’t know much about the subjects that most affect it.
New Book is Must-Read for Senior Leadership in Higher Ed
The authors, both seasoned higher education leaders, use field experiences, reports, news coverage, and interviews with leaders and policy makers to review some of the challenges facing college leadership and offer advice on how best to navigate and succeed against the crosscurrents that leadership faces. They offer case studies to show in practical terms how the job gets done.
Where the Theoretical Meets the Practical
Drs. Boggs and McPhail have performed an invaluable service because they offer a readable primer that is also a continuing resource, especially for new leadership. Its value extends across American higher education, although the concentration is on America’s community colleges. Their book is where the theoretical meets the practical.
In a recent interview with George Boggs, I asked why practicality would resonate with leaders whose day job is to be “big picture” oriented. Boggs replied that higher education leadership emerges unprepared from a variety of backgrounds. He argued persuasively that the range of topics, venues, and constituencies presumed a deeper understanding among new presidents than exists today.
Dr. Boggs believes that the most important contribution that the book can make is to encourage leaders to “think about issues before they have to deal with them.”
Greatest Challenge is Helping Students Succeed
You come away from a book like Practical Leadership asking about the policy behind the advice. Boggs suggested that he and Dr. McPhail view helping students succeed as the greatest challenge facing American higher education. They remain encouraged that major foundations and national policy makers are tackling pieces of the foundation upon which student success is built.
Perhaps that’s what’s best about this new primer. It’s optimistic and hopeful – a kind of “roll up your sleeves and get the job done” approach to leadership. In that blog four years ago, I suggested that presidents must have the courage to lead. Boggs and McPhail now demonstrate that it is also important to know how and why.
Late last month, the board of trustees fired Suffolk University’s president, Margaret McKenna, for cause. She is the fifth president in five years to depart the school.
The six-month saga had more thrills, spills, and missteps than the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and has become something of a spectator sport in Boston. Ms. McKenna, a civil rights lawyer, foundation head, and former university president, is much respected and widely known throughout American higher education. The Board hired an independent investigator and found breaches in her employment agreement and fiduciary responsibility that justified the termination, according to an email from the board.
Ms. McKenna released her own statement saying that she was given three reasons for her termination. The Board complained that she had inadequately communicated with the board about university accreditation officials, improperly provided information to the accreditors, and participated in a meeting with the Boston Globe’s editorial board when the first effort to oust her occurred in February.
The Board released its email to a largely empty campus and terminated Ms. McKenna well before the start of the new academic year. It appointed the provost as the interim president and named a trustee to head the search committee for a new president.
The Boston Globe fired back in a blistering editorial opening with “well, excuse us.” In a fairly balanced opinion, the Globe reported on the achievements of Ms. McKenna and the trustees. Yet the Globe concluded: “But now that the board has fired her, it owns the consequences, and must ensure that the university gets the fully empowered, long-term leader that an institution so important to Boston’s future needs.”
Let’s be clear about the principal issue facing Suffolk University. It’s no longer about shutting down the friendly fire nor is it about contributing further to the ceaseless gossip in the growing “she said/they said” debacle. Indeed, both sides need to get past what happened quickly and reach an accommodation immediately. If all parties love Suffolk University – as they profess they do – then the University community must move forward to understand the root cause of the mess they have created.
The point is that it is pointless to litigate Suffolk’s crisis in the court of public opinion. What is essential, however, is that the shared system of governance at Suffolk – or what is left of it – must begin to function again.
The actions by the University’s board of trustees indicate at the moment that the board does not understand that it is the problem. The board’s actions have been vindictive, exceedingly public, secretive, lacking transparency, and hopelessly insular. Its recent actions are like watching the captain on the Titanic rearrange the deck chairs moments before the ship collides with the iceberg. Anyone could see it coming.
Board of Trustees Has Lost its Credibility
Let’s state the obvious – the board has completely lost its credibility. It is divided, badly factionalized, and hopelessly out of touch with how American higher education works. The terms of the February agreement keeping Ms. McKenna in place for almost 18 months effectively set up her to fail by not crafting a corresponding climate to ensure her authority, and therefore, her success.
To fix Suffolk University, the board must begin by acknowledging its own mistakes. It cannot correct from within by appointing trustees, no matter how well regarded, to begin a new executive search. To regain credibility, the Suffolk Board must also reach out in full transparency to faculty and remaining senior staff – the three legs of shared governance in higher education – to describe a transparent and believable search process around which the Suffolk University community can rally.
It must also conduct a nationwide search that does not presume that local candidates best suit the needs of a national university. These conversations must go well beyond the boardrooms and legal offices populating Boston’s skyscrapers where much of the mischief began. For the moment, Suffolk’s trustees will need to borrow against the credibility of respected national voices to have any hope of attracting a deep pool of qualified candidates.
Perhaps the greatest mistake that Suffolk’s trustees can make in the coming months is to fail to understand that American higher education is watching. They will face difficult, painful angry conversations with faculty, students, alumni, donors, and other key stakeholders. It is likely a given that donor support – especially among alumni and parents — will take a hit.
Damaged Reputation, Loss in National Standing
But what should worry trustees the most is Suffolk’s loss in national standing due to the damage that they have inflicted on its reputation. American colleges and universities take decades to burnish their academic standing among their peers. It usually takes as long for the standing to decline as inattention, board overreach, or weak administrations – or some combination of all three – extinguish the reputational flame.
But Suffolk’s trustees have managed to diminish the standing of the institution that they are obligated to protect with a parochial swiftness that is almost breathtaking in its arrogance and insularity.
In these kinds of crises, you can fix almost anything. Sometimes you can hide in plain sight, wait it out, and confuse the issue. But what you cannot do is fix a broken reputation.
Suffolk University is a good place. It deserves better.
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