There are two stories we can tell about US higher education. In the first, public two- and four-year colleges face increasing student service costs, 20 percent less state support than they received before the recession, and a shortfall they pass onto students, who now graduate with an average of $30,000 of debt. In the second story, those institutions have contained costs, keeping tuition increases at inflationary levels, while expanding educational access, and increasing educational attainment. So which is it? The answer is, as is often the case in my columns, it depends.
Higher education is something of a hydra, though even that metaphor presupposes a shared body that does not necessarily exist. While colleges and universities have developed a set of shared credentials—Associates, Bachelors, and Masters degrees—high school graduates pursue post-secondary education via a dizzying array of institutions, from community colleges and coding boot camps to private liberal arts colleges and public research universities. Mind you, when I began my college search, I didn’t understand such distinctions, and, if I had, I might have chosen another path. Many of the subtleties of higher education are either assumed or, worse, shrouded in mystery, from curricular requirements and financial aid eligibility to the distinction between subsidized and unsubsidized student loans. In short, while US colleges and universities are doing many things well, higher education writ large has some problems.
At NY EdTech Week, one panel convened a half-dozen leaders of educational nonprofits, for-profits, and traditional universities to engage a simple question: how broken is college? The conversation was rich and wide-ranging, veering from considerations of cost and access to the role of technology in the transformation of higher education. This week, I want to use some of that conversation—and my subsequent conversations with panelists—to tease out the nuances of the session title and to begin to think about what can be done to improve higher education.
Which College Is Broken?
Conversations about higher education tend to focus on the most prestigious universities, despite the fact that most Americans pursue post-secondary education through very different institutions with very different constraints. In our correspondence, panelist Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka S+R, posited that research universities tend to garner the most attention from the media and the public.
“One of the things that is very hard about a conversation on this topic is that the ‘post-secondary community’ is incredibly diverse,” Guthrie explained. “There are research institutions, institutions that want to be research institutions, teaching institutions, four years, two years, etc. etc. So often we will have a conversation about higher education and people will be talking about different parts of the system all at the same time.”
When I spoke with the moderator, Doug Lederman, one of the founders of Inside Higher Ed, Lederman was the first to admit that some colleges are doing just fine. “It’s pretty hard to look at Williams and say it’s broken,” he noted. “You could say it’s not optimal. But if it wants, Williams will be around for 100 years, and largely unchanged.”
Prestigious private colleges and universities do face challenges—challenges which I don’t mean to elide—but I think it’s important to refocus conversations about higher education on public institutions and community colleges for three reasons: first, these are the vehicles through which the majority of students pursue higher education; second, they are largely responsible for the increase in post-secondary educational attainment; and third, the most prestigious universities receive ample attention elsewhere.
For Whom Is College Broken?
As I suggested earlier, the premise of the panel—that higher education is broken—is itself an argument. Lederman explained how the title shifted from the accusatory (Who Broke College?) to evaluative (How Broken is College?) during the planning process. The more interesting question, and one that Lederman teased in his opening comments, is, in what ways and for whom is college broken?
To this query, Stella Flores, associate professor at the NYU Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy, offered perhaps the most direct response: “The elephant in the room is that higher education isn’t broken for the wealthy.” By ensuring (considerably) higher lifetime earnings and granting access to a “homogenous network that reproduces advantages,” the nation’s most prestigious schools reify the wealth and status of the privileged. (A claim largely substantiated by Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, in her recent University of Baltimore commencement speech.) The difficulty, as Flores frames it, is that colleges and universities are experiencing dramatic growth of underrepresented students, whom they were not designed to serve. This is a problem for both the institutions and the mechanisms that fund them.
Why Is College Broken?
While the panel provided many different prescriptions for the ills of higher education, there was a point of consensus: The erosion of public financing is greatly responsible for the tuition crunch. States invest cumulatively 10 billion dollars less in public institutions than they did eight years ago—all while expecting the same student services.
Some of those costs can be contained with technological cost savings. When I asked panelist Wallace Boston, CEO of American Public Education, how his institution managed to avoid increasing undergraduate tuition for the past 15 years, Boston provided an admirably specific answer: they developed a homebrew system to automate enrollment, advising, and counseling; embraced e-books and OER textbooks (e.g. OpenStax, which I’ve written about previously); and shifted from a proprietary to an open-source learning management system. With teaching costs constituting just one-fifth of university expenses (namely on account of the adjunctification), technology, services, and support comprise a large share of both costs and savings.
But let me be clear: the primary reason public colleges and universities face these difficult choices is because state and local governments have chosen to invest less in higher education, a trend that accelerated with the recession, but began 40 years earlier. This isn’t some new problem, but the product of decades of policy choices. When I spoke with panelist Peter Smith, professor at University of Maryland University College, he spoke to the far-reaching consequences, rooted in his experience in both higher education and politics. (Smith has served his home state, Vermont, as a state senator, lieutenant governor, and congressman-at-large.) “The decline of state funding, proportionally for the past 20 years, is a tragedy for economic development in states,” he explained.
How Do We Improve College?
Addressing the challenges facing public universities and community colleges isn’t only about preserving individual institutions but safeguarding the social mobility and economic vitality they enable. However, scaling best practices is easier said than done because the U.S. higher-education system is less a system than a loose affiliation of college and universities. As Lederman put it, “It’s hard to get systemic movement when you don’t have a system.”
Within universities, the rewards structure isn’t designed to support the transmission of good ideas across universities. “The institution is constructed in a different way,” Guthrie explained. “The benefit is that faculty can focus on their work. The challenge is that they’re not necessarily working to make their teaching more efficient or less expensive.” Bridget Burns, executive director at the University Innovation Alliance, put it perhaps most succinctly: “The rewards in higher education incentivize individual behavior rather than collective action.”
How then do we convey good ideas—opportunities for efficiency as well as methods to make classes more engaging, programs more consistent, degree requirements more transmissible—across an institution and to other, comparable institutions? Lederman pointed to college associations (e.g. the Great Lakes Colleges Association) and disciplinary associations (e.g. the Modern Language Association) as historically effective organizing principles. Guthrie highlighted TPSEMath, which seeks to develop mathematics curricula that align with applied use. Boston suggested the Lumina Foundation, which has sponsored the Degree Qualifications Profile, a set of generic competencies with evidence-based assessments.
In the context of consortia and associations, technology may prove less a vehicle for than a facilitator of systematic change. Look no further than online education ventures, about which I’ve spilled some ink, to discover the limits techno-utilitarianism. As Lederman put it, “Education is about process and experience, not just content. MOOCs [massive open online courses] have largely failed because they’re all about content, when education is a process.” However, where MOOCs have failed, other technologies may flourish: big data, particularly student analytics, can support more institutional research that in turn promotes the proliferation of effective pedagogy. This is how flipped classrooms took root.
Contrary to popular perception, higher education has a long history of change. Ask anyone who has enrolled in a distance-learning program, be it an online extension program or the twentieth-century antecedent, a correspondence course. And there’s no reason to suspect colleges and universities will not continue to change. Drawing upon his decades in the industry, Lederman noted: “This isn’t the first large economic turmoil during which higher education has taken grief. It’s a correction, not a catastrophe.”