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Making the Case for Higher Education

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Keynote Address to the Higher Learning Commission annual meeting

Keynote Address to the Higher Learning Commission annual meeting

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  • 1. Making the Case for Higher Education: Our Four Mistakes Keynote Address for the Annual Conference of the Higher Learning Commission Chicago, Illinois April 23, 2007 Thank you for welcoming me this morning and for the opportunity to speak to you about higher education. I’m happy that the public is talking about higher education, but some of the recent attention to it reminds me a bit of being in Purgatory—you know you’re in an important place, but you’re not quite sure where you’re going next. (And being a university president in Purgatory is way too similar to being a fly; both president and fly can be eliminated swiftly with a newspaper.) The theme of this annual meeting—addressed from many different angles in various presentations—is “Leading for the Common Good.” And the truth is that most of us are here because we sincerely believe in higher education’s role in promoting the common good. We are also here because we understand that a strong, healthy system of higher education is absolutely fundamental to our nation’s competitiveness and quality of life. Higher education’s importance as an economic as well as a social good isn’t new. Our founding fathers knew it—as Thomas Jefferson noted when he said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Justin Morrill knew it when he envisioned a national system of land-grant universities that would educate the many who weren’t part of the upper class. And we know it today. Our health as a nation has always depended on our ability to educate. Now it depends on our ability to educate a knowledge workforce that drives innovation. And it depends on our ability to compete with developed countries as well as the developing ones. The writing is on the wall: higher education confronts a very different and challenging environment. Seven countries with which we directly compete— Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden—already are ahead of the United States in college-degree attainment. Universities in developing countries like China and India are now globally competitive with our universities. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., state budgets are strained by the rising costs of Medicaid, deteriorating infrastructure like bridges and roads, the need for more prison beds, and improvement of K-12 schools. Competition for what formerly was the state’s budget for higher education is growing. 1
  • 2. The environment for higher education is already very different and very challenging. Change for higher education need not be inimical to it or to us. Change actually presents those of us who lead higher education with real and important opportunities. But we will not be successful in seizing those opportunities—and assuring the strength of American higher education and American prosperity—if we do not understand the changes to our environment and address the challenges that confront us. Today, I’m going to talk about four mistakes we are making in dealing with the change that confronts higher education. I’m going to propose alternate strategies for success that will help us resist these mistakes, be more effective leaders of higher education, and ultimately enable us to sustain the best system of higher education in the world. The usual defense of higher education is a mistake. It is a mistake because of what the public is hearing in the defense, and it is a mistake, most importantly, for what our defense of higher education is doing to us. What we are doing to ourselves, I have come to believe is resisting criticism of higher education – criticism that we need to hear and criticism that has legitimacy for guiding change to higher education. In our mistaken defense of higher education, we appear to implicitly resist changes to our environment – changes that all about us see. But, most importantly, we are limiting our ability to anticipate and address the challenges to higher education, and ultimately to use new strategies and structures to improve higher education. I understand that our defense of higher education comes from honorable motives and a genuine desire to preserve the value of higher education. Nonetheless, the positions taken, the propositions adopted, and the messages communicated belie the motives – and are mistakes. I believe there are four particular mistakes we are making. In describing each mistake, I am going to use a fairly negative label – one used by some of the public and many politicians in their reactions to us. I then want to look at why each is a mistake, but most significantly, I want to use that mistake to challenge us to recognize essential changes that are warranted in our colleges and universities. (1) Whining. 2
  • 3. Yes, whining. I said I would label each mistake negatively but, I believe, characteristically from the public’s point of view. We leaders of public higher education are widely perceived as whining, mostly about the money. Well-intentioned academic leaders mistakenly believe they can make a case for public higher-education funding based on current funding relative to the past. Usually the argument goes like this: A decade ago, our state spent 17% of its revenue on higher education and today, it spends only 9%. The argument may include comparisons of the average amount of state support per student today with a decade ago. The reality for our states’ budgets is grim: Forecasts from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems projects that only eight years from now, state revenues in the U. S. will be almost 6% (5.7%) lower than necessary to meet anticipated services expenditures, and the National Center’s forecast indicates a shortfall of varying magnitude for every single one of our 50 states. We certainly can make our case for state revenue, but can we really persuasively argue that college students and faculty are more important to society at large than young, school-age children, protection from criminals, or the medical needs of indigent grandmothers? The needy aged and the uneducated young will always win, without even making an argument for their case. This is why this portrayal of our funding situation is a mistake. Our environment—and that of the state’s budget—has changed, and the implications are straightforward. We must make our colleges and universities partners with the state. Building the state’s economic prosperity overcomes, in part, the state’s shortfall in revenue through new tax dollars from new businesses and new jobs. Alternative sources of revenue will also be necessary – like research dollars, student fees, foundation and other forms of private support. But higher education cannot presume that business will continue as usual. We must look for lower-cost, higher-output alternatives to traditional instruction in our colleges and universities, looking beyond traditional bricks and mortar to meet demand, with lower costs per student and with teaching and learning models like those the for-profit universities have adopted. And we must control administrative costs. But whining will remain a mistake--one that may well limit our ability to grapple with the changed environment and address the challenges of the future with new strategies and organizational design. (2) A second mistake made by those of us who speak for public higher education is threatening the public with the specter of privatizing public higher education--or with limiting the number of students and graduates as a result of funding shortfalls. Again, this defense of higher education begins with the money. We explain how non-state funding of higher education—tuition, federal research funding, or gifts 3
  • 4. and endowment earnings—has come to replace state funding in terms of total per-student support. And projections in low-tax states like Colorado can be used to produce a near zero level of state funding in the near future. Thus, the argument goes, there will be no public colleges and universities left in our future. They will only be state-assisted or state-located. But the fundamental shift away from state revenue for higher education has already occurred. We just have yet to recognize that it is part of our environment – today and tomorrow. Threats like privatizing higher education do not work – in part, because they are threats! Most people do not react well to threats, especially ones for which there are no obvious solutions. And even at very low state funding levels, state governments and taxpayers still view public colleges and universities as belonging to them and serving them. Indeed, there is a growing sense of entitlement by the middle class to the private good of higher education, whether the college or university is private or public. We see this sense of entitlement, in part, as a positive force in that a college education is seen by more and more as an essential preparation for most jobs. However, we also see this sense of entitlement in the resistance to pay for a college education—even by those who can afford to pay. And we see this issue of entitlement in growing pressure at the federal level to regulate our diverse colleges and universities. But, as we know, higher education is not just a private good. It is a public good that has considerable impact on our community’s quality of life and economic prosperity, from new ideas generated, new spin-off companies, new patents, new products, and new jobs. The public good is also served with newly educated graduates who enter the workforce and become productive members of our society. The nature of our economy has changed. As a knowledge economy – we are highly dependent on the fundamental products of higher education: New ideas that lead to new businesses and the creation of new jobs, and a well-educated labor force that makes our region and our country more competitive globally. This public good of jobs and globally competitive labor is one that benefits all of us, not just one that the holders of degrees obtain. Economists like Charles Jones and Paul Romer have argued persuasively that higher education accounts for very substantial variations in the economic prosperity of countries. Other economists have made the case that regional differences in U. S. economic prosperity are related directly to the presence of research universities with doctoral programs. There is a strong relationship between economic prosperity and two important contributors: ideas and labor, i.e., research and university graduates. Professors, through their research, generate ideas, and professors, through their teaching, generate a well-educated labor supply in the form of new graduates. 4
  • 5. Capitalizing on that impact of higher education as a public good depends on us, the leaders of higher education, to make the case for higher education as a public good, but more importantly to actively transform our institutions into instruments of that public good—to take reasonable, entrepreneurial risks commensurate with potential benefits, to make strategic choices that reposition our institutions as instruments of the public good, and to couple those strategies with organizational and structural change that is essential for their implementation. There are substantial differences among America’s colleges and universities, and this heterogeneity in U.S. higher education is one of our country’s assets. At Colorado State University, we are capitalizing on the value of the public good with a three-part approach: (1) With a strategic plan called “Setting the Standard for the 21st Century,” that commits us to a responsibility for regional quality of life and economic prosperity (2) through an organizational redesign that we call Superclusters – an example being our infectious disease Supercluster—that match university strengths with regional economic opportunities. Superclusters are designed to address great global challenges like infectious zoonotic disease and environmental sustainability—challenges that confront all of us—through an academic multidisciplinary structure coupled with a new structure at the edge of the university that leverages science working with management to move innovation more quickly to benefit the public through commercialization. (3) And third, through the redesign of our outreach efforts through a new Vice President for Outreach and Strategic Partnerships with responsibility for extension, life-long learning, and our new Office of Economic Development. Trying to privatize public education is a mistake; actively serving the public good is an opportunity—one that provides us a natural advantage in higher education. (3) Elitism is our third mistake. And like the other two, it is based in a defense of higher education—one that is intended to make the case for higher education but one, as well, that represents our failure to address the challenges of an altered environment. The argument for higher education goes like this: We make a case for the importance of a highly ranked, high-quality college or university in our area or our 5
  • 6. state. A top 20 college or university will better serve our state, our region, or our country, we may say. Such a university—to better serve the needs of the public—must recruit the best and brightest. Of course, the same leaders espouse the need for diversity and access as well, but, as if these ideas existed in alternative planes, they seldom reconcile recruiting the best and brightest with greater diversity and access to higher education. Separating these two issues may seem like a benign mistake. It is not. Higher education is a competitive industry after all, and a new driver of that competition is coveted inclusion at the top of college rankings. Many of these rankings—like those from U. S. News—are based substantially on inputs, the amount of money spent per student, and incoming students’ high-school rank and test scores. They are not based on the challenges of remediating ill-prepared high-school graduates, nor on the actual student transformation process that comes from teaching and learning. To compete in the rankings, presidents, chancellors, and deans have shifted need-based aid to merit aid with the goal of attracting more students with the highest SAT scores and high-school rank, thereby raising the appearance of quality through a higher position in college rankings. Calling this direction in higher education “elitism” and a “mistake” is not intended to mean that all of our colleges and universities should be alike in their admissions standards nor that we should eschew recruiting bright young people. However, in focusing on only the best and brightest and, in shifting need-based aid to merit-based aid, we mistakenly imply that recruiting “the best and the brightest” and creating access are separate ideas. This mistaken argument for the best and brightest should be perceived by the public for what it is: elitism in the face of the well-documented need for increasing access and success for the growing number of talented minority and lower- income young people. In the U. S., African American students are making some progress in their enrollment in colleges and universities, but their numbers are still not equal to whites. Worse still in the U. S. is the disproportionately low number of Hispanic and Native American young people who attend college. And disproportionately again, they, like African American college students, fail to graduate from our colleges and universities. Between 1980 and 2020 in the United States, the working age white population will decline from 82% to 63%--a 19 percentage point decline over 40 years. The minority segment is expected to increase from 18% in 1980 to 37% in 2020; the Hispanic segment alone will nearly triple—going from 6% to 17%. 6
  • 7. The greatest increase in population will be among the least educated. In 2000, whites between the ages of 25 and 64 were twice as likely as African Americans to have a bachelor’s degree, and three times as likely as Hispanics. Almost 50% of Hispanic and African American 9th graders do not complete high school and become eligible for college. In words reminiscent of Dickens about the shadows of things that may be from the Ghost of Christmas yet-to-come, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education drew this conclusion about our future without fundamental improvements: “Given the changing demographics of the nation’s workforce over the next two decades, the current educational disparities among racial/ethnic groups are projected to lead to a decline in the educational level of the U. S. workforce as a whole.” The Center’s report goes on to project a real decline in personal income per capita in the U. S. due to projected declines in educational level. Despite these grim shadows of what may be, the challenge can be met. Leaders of our colleges and universities must respond with a commitment to build access with success, and this is not merely an issue of schools’ shifting aid toward need, which they must do. More fundamental changes in pricing and paying for higher education are required if we are to alter our future labor supply and the education level of our citizens. Sadly, the public debate has focused on tuition or price increases rather than increases in access to higher education. The elasticity of demand for higher education is low overall; raising tuition has little effect on overall demand. But price does matter to one segment of the economy; lower-income families, disproportionately minority, are responsive to price—they are price elastic in their demand for higher education. Access fundamentally depends on offering much larger financial-aid packages to working-class families and lower-income students to reduce their net costs and equalize opportunity to higher education. Before turning to the final mistake, let me conclude my comments about elitism. Elitism is a mistake that limits our potential to have a high-quality labor force in a globally competitive knowledge economy. Instead of making this mistake, we have an alternative: adopting the pricing and student aid changes necessary for access and encouraging a shift in the public debate toward economic prosperity and access. But access alone is insufficient. Access without a reasonable promise of success is a fraud. This commitment to access with success is the very basis of Thomas Jefferson’s argument for the need for an educated populous if democracy is to work effectively. It is also at the heart of arguments put forward 7
  • 8. by John W. Gardner in his classic statement that we can be equal and excellent, too. (4) But more about success for students in the final mistake – eschewing accountability. This final mistake will have special meaning for everyone here because of your involvement with accreditation. It may also, in the long run, be the most damaging mistake for colleges and universities. The mistake of eschewing accountability is one that neither business nor government can understand, but they strongly believe that we in higher education are making the mistake of being unwilling to accept transparency and accountability. This was evident in the report from the Spellings Commission and even more so in the recently proposed regulatory changes from the U.S. Department of Education, requiring accrediting agencies to become more aggressively involved in measuring how well we educate students and in communicating that to the public. And while we might bristle at the implied assertion that we don’t care about the learning of our students, the truth is that, today, we are perceived to be hiding the truth about our students’ experience. Business people have come to expect a very different consumer today, with more assertive expectations about product and service. Politicians and government officials face a public that demands more openness. By contrast, the public perceives that higher education’s leaders eschew transparency and accountability by failing to embrace specific, public goals for improving retention and graduation; by not embracing improvements in productivity; by not measuring the learning environment and learning itself with measures like the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment; and by not transparently communicating the results of these measures on our websites and in our publications. Of course, we have our reasons. Learning really will vary, depending on how well-prepared our students are. We lack control over the preparation of incoming students. Learning is hard to measure. And our colleagues may not be as willing as we to stand up to public scrutiny. Despite such reasons, and the challenges of accountability in higher education, eschewing the public’s call for accountability and transparency is a mistake—one 8
  • 9. that fails to recognize new expectations by the public for all actors in the marketplace, including those of us in higher education. It is a mistake that fails to recognize the growing array of sophisticated information tools that may address productivity and accountability, even within universities. At Colorado State University, we are taking these calls for transparency and accountability seriously. That is why our admissions website includes an accountability section for prospective students and parents. That is why we have expanded our use of the National Survey of Student Engagement to enable colleges within CSU to evaluate their learning environment. That is why we are implementing longitudinal use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment to assess learning. Despite the difficulties of accountability, eschewing it will only diminish the strength that we have in the U. S. with a very heterogeneous and decentralized array of colleges and universities But let me conclude. As leaders of higher education, we understand that we face considerable challenges. We are leading organizations in a very competitive industry—one that is driven by global competition for the very best faculty. We are actors in organizations that seemingly cannot control our input—poorly prepared students. (Of course, those students who come ill-prepared to higher education do so from the classrooms of teachers who graduated from our teacher-education programs.) As education’s leaders, we are challenged by rankings that are too heavily driven by inputs rather than the educational process. And as leaders of knowledge workers, our shared governance with faculty demands a level of engagement rather than command and control. (Of course that engagement also allows us to take advantage of the wisdom and commitment of these knowledge workers whom we call faculty.) However, none of these challenges—these realities of our environment—forgive us for the mistakes we are making. Arguing that education is different—which it is—from other industries only means that higher-education leaders must engage in change management that is sensitive to our own environment. We cannot be complacent; we must adopt goals that challenge us to stretch and improve, and then develop strategies and restructure and reorganize to achieve these goals. We must make accessible our universities to those with lower incomes, but with equal commitment to those students’ success. 9
  • 10. We must commit to accountability with transparency, with rising quality and value in our colleges and universities. And we must make our accreditation an instrument in achieving that rising quality. Essentially we must change – for the environment has changed. And we can no longer afford the four, costly mistakes that I have addressed. Higher education is essential to our country’s future – its economic prosperity and our quality of life. We are higher education’s leaders. The future of higher education—and the future of our country—depend on our rising to the challenges that confront us. Let us embrace those challenges 10

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