American Higher Ed: Innovative, Adaptable, Transformative

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Here’s a puzzle:  Americans love their own colleges and universities and yet are suspicious of and even disdainful of colleges and universities in general. Why is that?

Polls show that the great majority of Americans who graduated from college are grateful they went to that college, felt they got their money’s worth, and would go there again. The  love of institutions by students, alumni, and neighbors appears in gifts and in  window stickers proclaiming loyalty to their institution long after they have left. People acknowledge that universities are the source of much of our country’s comparative economic and military advantage, that our nation’s system of higher education is one of the great accomplishments of the United States.

And yet criticism of higher education descends from all parts of the political spectrum. From the right, we hear that colleges and universities are overrun with radicals; from the left, we hear that colleges and universities are overrun with corporate and managerial ideals. From the right, we hear that college costs too much because the federal government subsidizes students who should not be there; from the left, we hear that college costs too much because state and federal government has starved them. From the right, we hear that colleges need to rely more on on-line instruction and efficiencies that come from replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts. From the left, we hear that on-line education is one more way for big business to take over higher education, the turn to contingent faculty one more way to strip the freedom of thought and expression tenure was created to protect. Both sides agree that administrators are to blame, but for different reasons—either for not being in charge enough or being too much in charge.

The familiar debates over higher education are not very productive, in part because each side indicts rather than persuades the other. Critics begin with assumptions and reverse engineer solutions that meet those assumptions. In the meantime the real and immediate challenges of higher education go unmet.

A broader historical perspective can perhaps help move the conversation forward. Pulling the camera back, we see that the range, depth, and diversity of Americans achieving higher education has increased exponentially over the last half century and is still increasing. Between 1970 and 2017, the total number of students increased from 8.5 million to 20.6 million and the numbers and rates are still increasing. The number of female students increased from 3.5 million to 11.5 million. The percentage of students of color has doubled since 1976.

The transformation is gaining momentum and extending into all aspects of our institutions. Since 2000 alone, the number of low-income students enrolled in college has increased 14 percent, the number of female students by 29 percent, the number of black students by 73 percent, and the number of Hispanic students 126 percent. In 2017, 70 percent of high school graduates went on to another level of higher education, the highest ever. When they arrive in college, these students see that almost a quarter of full-time faculty are persons of color and almost exactly half are women.

These are remarkable, and heartening, transformations, some of the most positive things that have happened in this country over the last half century. They define the context for everything else in higher education, both our success and our remaining challenges.

Because of the transformation, demand for all kinds of education has never been stronger. Our community colleges are bulging at the seams; public universities of all sizes and kinds are flooded with applicants; for-profit and on-line enterprises have grown up to meet a demand that states and non-profits cannot meet. College has never been worth more, for the wage gap between college-educated and non-college educated people is higher now than it has ever been:  56.6%.

Far from being hidebound and resistant to innovation, higher education is and has been one of the most dynamic economic and social components of American society since World War II. Our universities have developed the most transformative industries of our time and have been on the forefront of every major social change. They have been agents of integration, inclusion, and internationalization, advancing the society far beyond their own gates. They are unruly and loud and sometimes self-righteous because they are the places where the nation tests itself, where new generations define what it means to be American.

American higher education, in other words, has never educated more people, it has never educated a broader array of people, it has never offered an education that embraces so many fields of learning, it has never offered degrees more valuable and more coveted, and it has never been more respected and appreciated by the people who benefit from it. The world admires and copies every aspect of America’s diverse system of higher education, from our liberal arts colleges to our research universities.

Colleges and universities have assumed greater responsibilities than ever before. Higher education is now serving a student body far larger, more diverse, and often poorer than ever before in our history. It educates more people from more backgrounds in more ways. Higher education is hard, intellectually and socially, and it is not surprising that those who are the first in their family to go to college or who speak English as a second language or have other work responsibilities may struggle and require more support. Student welfare, engagement, and protection have become institutional responsibilities and those responsibilities bring enormous benefits as well as new costs.

Institutions of higher education are hardly above criticism, of course. In fact, they are built to foster critical thinking, hard questions, good evidence, and strong arguments. In my experience with a broad range of people from a broad range of institutions, colleges and universities are run with rigor, discipline, and hard numbers. They continually explore and test their assumptions, constantly adapt to changing circumstances and learn from one another.

Like those institutions, critics need to focus on particular problems rather than resort to a generalized set of assumptions. The two major problems of American higher education are the amount of debt some students accrue and low levels of completion for some students in some schools. The two problems go together, for the students who do not finish are those who cannot repay the debt they acquire. Most who graduate do not build up large amounts of debt and default rates are low. Students who give up after a year or two, however, are not equipped to get a job that allows them to repay the debt. Colleges themselves, having analyzed the issues, are putting their resources, in the form of need-based aid, to this purpose—hundreds of millions of dollars each year in Virginia alone. A broader focus on behalf of those students would pay the biggest dividends for the institutions and those who support them.

These problems matter. How well colleges and universities succeed matters because higher education embodies and reflects the possibilities of society at large. Questions about affordability are questions about social mobility in America; questions about diversity are questions about fairness in this nation.

Rather than fixating on why “college costs so much,” in other words, it would be better to focus on the more concrete problem of debt and completion, problems that are both byproducts of the transformation and the strongest impediments to its progress. The democratic transformation of American higher education is not complete and it never will be, but it can be advanced with deeper perspective and clearer priorities.

Edward L. Ayers is president emeritus of the University of Richmond. This column is based upon a speech he delivered to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia last week.