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.
In an op ed in the New York Times last month, Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker, speaks to the value of college internships. Walker noted the personal impact: “As a low-income kid from a small town who entered college without an extended network, my internships equipped me with the skills, confidence and relationships to channel my potential into a rewarding career.”
Mr. Walker offers a blunt assessment of internships: “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” He suggests that those who want to improve growing levels of inequality “actually – and often unconsciously – reinforce the dynamics that create inequality in their own lives.”
His solution is to offer paid internships, with the government stepping in to compensate interns in work settings like the nonprofit community for those students who do not have other established networks to support them. Mr. Walker provides examples of federal programs that could be used to “facilitate internship grants for low-income students.” He notes further that among the criteria in internship selection used by the Ford Foundation is the requirement that interns must be the recipients of need-based financial aid.
It’s an intriguing idea, especially given the overwhelming statistical evidence of long-term income stagnation leading to deepening economic stratification. Increasingly, the polls suggest that income inequality is the dominant concern among Americans and partly responsible for the rising tension and political chasm that exist among American voters in a very uncertain political season.
What hits home in Mr. Walker’s op ed is an even broader problem. America’s colleges and universities are failing to play as large a role as they could to build a productive workforce of liberally educated Americans. Internship programs offer a splendid opportunity to bridge gaps between what a college education offers and what a workforce needs.
Mr. Walker is right to suggest that current internship programs that often rely heavily on alumni and parent networks reinforce older practices favoring the privileged few among students. Who you know matters with many of these internships, with an often disproportionate number of internships occurring in areas like management, finance, communication, and engineering.
Mr. Walker’s comments provide an opportunity to speculate on how and why internship programs might be strengthened at the institutional level.
Here are a few suggestions:
College career counseling offices, where many internship programs are housed, must receive more attention from senior higher education administrators and faculty;
These offices should broaden their internships to include not only professional programs in which employers value internships as early employment screenings but also programs in the humanities, arts, and social sciences to provide a more comprehensive array of internships;
College strategic plans must emphasize the tactical value of internships, linking career counseling at a minimum to alumni, development, and enrollment efforts to differentiate their academic programs from their peers;
Internships provide both cash and in-kind potential for fundraisers seeking to link the giving passion of donors to the practical need to place liberally trained college graduates into the global workforce;
Internships offer an opportunity to define an academic major by providing practical experience as a value added that increases student employment potential in weaker employment fields; and
Internship placements likely also translate into higher retention and graduation rates and promote the value of a four-year degree to transfer applicants.
The Ford Foundation’s concentration of need-based financial aid recipients in their internship screening is admirable. It is a critical component within a more comprehensive institutional program that should receive special emphasis. Yet for colleges and universities, it is important to look at the full complement of students to be certain that a broad range of internships are generally available.
This presumes, of course, that career counseling offices maintain strict control over their programs to ensure that internships reach the best qualified and best prepared rather than reinforce class and cultural stereotypes. How the program is managed is key to whether colleges actively step in to address basic inequalities.
There is a strong additional message in Mr. Walker’s comments that state and federal officials must consider. Many of the “flipping McDonald’s hamburgers” complaints about recent college graduates confuse the real problem.
America must provide clearer and more explicit links between what students learn and how they transition into the global workforce. Mr. Walker’s call for federally-financed internships could provide such a link.
Let’s hope that states and the new federal leadership see the value in such a strategy as among a number of innovative pilot efforts to better secure a trained workforce of liberally educated employees. It’s time to look for creative ways to bring colleges and the government together as partners to work on solutions on which we can agree.
American higher education’s operational model is based on outmoded — and some (myself included) would argue, unsustainable — revenue and expense assumptions.
In a “Futurist” piece in NACUBO’s Business Officer magazine (July/August 2016), I argue that institutions must look inward to develop a budget format that creates a sustainable financial model appropriate to changing circumstances on college and university campuses.
To achieve financial viability, each institution will have to manage change by developing new financial models after evaluation its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Many institutions will succeed; some will not. …The biggest variable is the experience and innovative capacity of the leadership.
Specifically, it will be critical to match changing financial practices with modernized, streamlined and better informed governance — beginning with how trustees see their role in shared governance.
Click HERE or on the image below to read and/or download the article.
Click HERE to read the article and the entire issue on the Business Officer site.
As we prepare for the negotiated spectacle that will play out at both political conventions, these staged reality television moments will also be set against a backdrop of heightened social, cultural, racial, and economic tensions. America has not seemed as divided nor as tribal since the 1960s.
What will this whirlwind of emotion, rhetoric, and anti-intellectualism mean for American higher education?
To begin, it might be best to take a step back to recognize that the federal government has done and can do enormous good.
It was the government that brought us the GI Bill. It was the government that brought us advances like Title IV and Title IX, protecting basic rights to encourage access and equality. These improvements shaped and refined our approach to American higher education. Collectively, they are a powerful statement of what responsible government can accomplish for its citizens.
There is always an open question on what national political platforms mean to governance. They may not reflect the views of the candidate nor the political realities faced by a new administration. But in a strange election cycle where the rule of reason and the basic social courtesies no longer seem to apply, we might be wise to establish a few general parameters by which to read the tea leaves a little early.
First, the operating principle guiding political positioning on American higher education must be to do no harm.
It’s always presumed that national political candidates have benefited from a blizzard of white papers and informed conversations on various education issues. It is further assumed that a coherent governing philosophy emerges from these think tank moments upon which national political leaders can graft sound education program and practice.
There’s a lot to worry about here. The Democrats have a clearer program and their platform is likely to move the presumed nominee further to the left. The Republicans seem to have little definition to their higher education goals. It’s a “who’s on first” moment for both sides with some uncertainty about viewpoints and what will prevail.
Second, let’s understand what we propose.
This is where the philosophical meets the practical. It’s one thing to offer free ice cream for everyone, since almost everyone likes ice cream. But at some point – free public tuition is an outstanding example – both the cost and the impact must be thoroughly vetted.
Who will pay for this “free” tuition? With student/counselor ratios of 1000/1 at some community colleges already, how can a massive influx of new public college students receive the counseling necessary to match the financial resources to the needed graduation outcomes? Do we really want to choke the system further?
Who will build the facilities and hire the faculty and staff beyond what new tuition dollars can reasonably provide?
Do we really want to transfer students in big private college states to public higher education if it is cheaper for the government to educate students at private colleges, supported by grant and loan programs? What would be the impact on local and regional economies?
What’s best for public and private higher education in the long run, already underfunded and weighed down by a massive collection of contradictory and expensive state and federal rules and regulations?
It’s not enough to propose new government programs developed from polling and anecdote. If America wants to improve higher education access and outcomes, its leadership should understand the situation far better than the language used to argue for the programs proposed in the recent primary battles.
Third, rather than approach how to make improvements to American higher education through sweeping programs that a deficit-ridden government cannot afford, it might be better to think about what can be done.
This approach presumes three conditions.
The first is that national political candidates ask higher education’s leadership what it needs. One answer will likely be regulatory relief that costs far less than free ice cream.
The second is that the new political leadership must be willing to examine which programs work best when measured against their stated policy goals.
And the third will be to figure out how the government can offer new programs within available discretion that better serve current students seeking to gain access, debt relief, and employment.
Of course, if the current political dysfunction continues, much of the conversation will go nowhere. Americans must ultimately prevail over their elected officials to demand that things get done. If this requires incremental steps, it may be that less is more. But less is better than nothing.
The alternative is an inward-looking, deeply divided America going forward that is a mockery of the promise that made higher education possible for so many of its citizens.
Tim Goral published an extremely interesting interview with former president of the Appalachian College Association, Alice Brown, in University Business last month.
Ms. Brown’s comments reflected the wisdom of a professional who had served for 15 years leading a consortium of 35 private, liberal arts colleges in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Her remarks were wide-ranging but one set in particular stood out above the rest. Ms. Brown claimed that “the central Appalachian region has a unique character – the students have different needs and different goals.”
Ms. Brown explained that students in her college consortium “come from a different culture.” She suggested that “the culture is very family oriented . . It’s a culture that doesn’t give kids a lot of experiences in the outside world. They come from a closed culture and they can continue to get that at a small college.”
Ms. Brown argued that this need reinforced the value proposition for small, rural liberal arts colleges that provide a nurturing climate crafted to encourage student success. These colleges did so on terms acceptable to the cultural and social environment into which these students were born and to which they hope to return.
The dominance of family, social, psychological and cultural forces on a student’s decision to attend and remain at college should not be underestimated.
Higher education leadership at two- and four-year colleges in Massachusetts have conveyed to me separately and repeatedly the same story.For many of their students, success means something different than the stereotypical views of hyper-competitive students angling for admission to Princeton before accepting a seat in a future admissions class at Yale Law.
For many American students, their ambition is not dramatically different than among the most competitive students in any admissions class. The best and brightest students can come from anywhere. But the differences can be magnified when shaped by geography, the ability to handle debt, the need to support themselves and others, and the reasons for seeking a college degree. It’s often more pragmatic than broadening.
As one group of community college counselors reported in a conversation with me about how best to create a seamless transfer pathway, it’s often impossible for a Boston–born student to imagine success beyond a transfer to the local four-year public, U-Mass/Boston. There’s nothing wrong with this ambition, especially given the amazing work undertaken at the University. But the failure – if there is one – is in the narrowness in how the transfer student approaches the goal of a four-year degree.
The counselors reported that it goes well beyond finances to include the practicality and insularity that comes with tribal ties to family, neighborhood, culture and region, whether rural or urban.
UMass is logical because it has a good educational program at a stop on the MBTA subway line. It makes sense to a student whose mindset reflects the familial and cultural values that inform their decision and reinforce their sense of self that may extend only as far as the end of the subway.
This raises an interesting policy question.
If the purpose of American higher education is broader than workforce training, what values, if any, does this education support? Should colleges and universities enforce the cultural and social norms of their region – or at least their market draw – or should they teach to the broader values in American society? Is the purpose of American higher education principally to create global citizens?
Are critics of colleges and universities who “coddle” their students with elaborate safety nets in a nurturing environment really missing the point when the very success of student service programs is measured by metrics upon which accreditors, state and federal regulators, consumers, parents, students and graduates judge them?
If a student feels alienated from the mainstream campus culture, the isolation typically conveyed by many first-time freshman as “homesickness” can have a dramatic impact in areas like retention. Yet we know that graduation rates are highest when American colleges and universities match their educational program with student service support and employment after graduation. It makes the value proposition clear to students and their families.
It may be that residence life programs must serve two masters. The first is to be certain that college shapes, defines and supports a constantly evolving understanding of American values in a global society across its academic and residence life programs. But it may also be true that to do so colleges and universities must better understand the competing claims tugging at students drawn from the splendid parochialism of their upbringing.
For many of us, there seems to be a growing chasm between the coarse, vulgar individualism of polarized, partisan political behavior in American society and the best values shaped by its imperfect Founders. Colleges and universities have a critical role to play in setting the stage to better align social, familial and cultural values to the more endearing traditions in American society before we muck them up any further.