Making the Case for Higher Education: Our Four Mistakes
Keynote Address for the Annual Conference of the Higher Learning
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
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
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.
The environment for higher education is already very different and very
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
(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
(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
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
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%.
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
“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
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
by John W. Gardner in his classic statement that we can be equal and excellent,
(4) But more about success for students in the final mistake – eschewing
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
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
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
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
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
We must make accessible our universities to those with lower incomes, but with
equal commitment to those students’ success.
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
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