• December 20, 2014

College Presidents Are Too Complacent

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

This issue of The Chronicle features two important surveys of higher education: one with college presidents and one with the public. These new data give us a chance to take a second look at some of the trends I discussed in an article for The Chronicle in November 2005. At that time, those trends appeared to be pushing higher education into a new era of turmoil, crisis, and challenge.

In sharp contrast to my 2005 article, the tone of the two new Chronicle surveys suggests to me the opposite of turmoil and crisis. Though some Americans grumble about not getting great value for their money, the vast majority are pretty well satisfied with the performance of higher education. Most Americans who have been exposed to higher education feel that their investment has been a sound one. A majority of college presidents believe that higher education is moving in the right direction. Almost four out of five (76 percent) say they are convinced that our higher-education system is doing a good or an excellent job of providing value for the money spent by students and their families.

The college presidents do acknowledge that higher education confronts many problems. For example:

  • Troubling increases in student plagiarism.
  • High schools doing an ever-poorer job of preparing students.
  • Failure to do an "excellent job" of providing academic programs that meet the needs of today's economy.
  • The increasing inability of students and their families to pay for a college education.
  • The conviction that our system of higher education is losing ground relative to those of other nations.
  • The likely failure of President Obama's goal to have this country achieve rates of college completion superior to any other country's by 2020.

But these decidedly nontrivial problems somehow fade into the background as the college presidents express their satisfaction with today's higher-education system. From the perspective of the trends that trouble me, this high level of satisfaction signals a lack of awareness of the dangers that lie ahead. The message I get from the survey of college presidents is, "We are doing just fine under difficult circumstances. If you send us more money and better-prepared high-school students, we can do an even better job." Neither the general public nor the presidents of our colleges seem conscious of the seriousness of the threat; they therefore lack the sense of urgency needed to confront it.

Both college presidents and the public seem to be reacting to what might be called "the old normal"—the world as it existed in the two decades before the deep recession of 2008-9. In the old normal, American universities were tops in the world; our economy was the undisputed world leader; the dollar was strong; income inequalities were much narrower than they are now; unemployment averaged about 5 percent; low-skill, high-paying jobs were commonplace; and our science and technology held undisputed world leadership.

In the old normal, higher-education credentials were seen by the public as desirable, virtually guaranteeing higher incomes and social status, but they weren't seen as indispensable to making a decent living. (In The Chronicle survey, Americans ranked having a strong work ethic, knowing how to get along with others, and learning new skills on the job as more important to success than achieving higher-education credentials.) And in the old normal employers valued higher-education credentials less for specific job skills than for a certain polish: being able to understand complex instructions, feeling socially comfortable, speaking fluently and grammatically, and making clear presentations. Companies felt that they could impart the specific skills they required to people whose college credentials proved that they were good learners.

That is not what higher education has to deliver in the world of the "new normal." In this emerging world, education beyond high school becomes indispensable to making a good living.

The threat, as I see it, is an impending crisis in this nation's powerful, if unwritten, social contract. Higher education is becoming the main battleground in a national struggle over how to keep faith with this contract.

At its core, the social contract that binds Americans together is amazingly simple. It is an implicit understanding that all citizens should be given a fair chance to achieve social mobility. It promises Americans the opportunity to better themselves and to improve their lot in life. Throughout much of our country's history, this social contract has functioned to the satisfaction of the public. Indeed, despite today's political polarization, we live with one another with a remarkable degree of social harmony.

The survey of the public shows that Americans don't believe that the lack of higher-education credentials has prevented them from getting the kinds of jobs, incomes, and social status they seek. But now all sorts of national and worldwide trends are merging to increase the importance of higher education. U.S.-government projections are that nearly eight out of 10 new jobs will require some sort of higher education, including work-force training.

It is not easy to discern to what extent structural change will reshape our economy. Some features of the new normal are all too clear. The era of low-skill, high-paying jobs is dead and gone. Many of those jobs are easy to export to countries with far lower standards of living.

Similarly, it is hard to imagine that we can quickly reverse the growth of economic inequality. The Institute of Policy Studies reports that CEO pay has soared from 30 times that of the average worker in the 1970s to more than 260 times today. The top sliver of the income distribution does better and better, while middle-class incomes stagnate.

We may not return to the old unemployment rate of 5 percent in the foreseeable future. Companies have learned how to make money even under recession conditions by laying off people and taking advantage of technology and manufacturing abroad. Asian countries are also determined to overcome our lead in science and technology, and their students excel in math and related subjects.

Put all those conditions together, and you get a far different world than the one that existed in even the recent past.

The survey of college presidents shows that our institutions of higher education are making some constructive changes to adapt to the new trends. Most recognize that today's students need far more flexibility than in the past. The lockstep pattern of going to college directly from high school and spending the next two to four years there without interruption is no longer a practical path for many students. Increasingly, students spread their higher-education experience over a decade or more after they graduate from high school, and our colleges are preparing to provide this flexibility.

The presidents are also aware of the potential of online methods for delivering course instruction. The public still believes that online instruction is second-best to personal instruction, without realizing that online instruction enjoys several extraordinary advantages. The most obvious one is flexibility: the ability to learn at your own tempo and at times of greatest convenience (especially if you are employed). A less obvious advantage is that with online instruction, it is possible to have the nation's greatest teachers as your instructors.

Colleges are also aware of the increasing burden of higher costs on students and their families. Many institutions are pursuing programs to increase student aid and make loans more available to students.

Those steps are positive, but they fall far short of meeting the main challenge—the new normal for the world economy. If the United States is to live up to its social contract of offering Americans a fair shot at social mobility, higher education must make transformative changes in at least three areas: becoming more affordable, doing a better job of linking two-year colleges to the world of work and to four-year colleges, and ensuring that the nation maintains its lead in science, technology, and other high-level skills.

Affordability. Both the college presidents and the public agree that parents and students themselves should take the main responsibility of paying for college. But families can no longer meet those inexorably rising costs. Increasingly, students are dependent on financial aid or loans. In the public survey, only 39 percent of college graduates relied mainly on loans or financial aid to pay most of their costs. Among current students, that figure has soared to 65 percent, with only a minority able to rely mainly on their own or their parents' resources.

Clearly, higher education cannot continue its pattern of annual increases in costs without the system's becoming unglued. New initiatives to rein in costs and increase revenue are badly needed. For example, the desires of many baby-boom retirees to continue their college education opens a new market for colleges, especially among alumni.

Better integration of two-year colleges. Our system of community colleges is a national treasure, all too often taken for granted and undersupported. A significant and growing percentage of the nation's 12 million college students attend community colleges, and the number is likely to rise as the proportion of minority youths increases. Community colleges address the needs of our ever more diverse population, compensating for some of the failures of our K-12 system.

One of the country's most troubling societal problems is that the college-completion rate of students from low-income families is disastrously below that of students from middle-income families. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education are devoting major resources to finding strategies for narrowing the gap, and we should be grateful for that effort, but it makes one wonder why the government and higher-education institutions themselves are not doing more to correct this potentially explosive problem. With the disappearance of high-paying, low-skill jobs, earning higher-education credentials becomes the only way that tens of millions of Americans can better themselves economically.

We cannot depend on our two-year colleges to alleviate that problem without helping them to create closer ties with employers and four-year colleges. A closer integration with employers will help to ensure that students have jobs waiting for them, and it will sharpen their focus on the skills that are most in demand in the workplace.

The relationship with four-year colleges calls for a subtler strategy. Many four-year institutions take a condescending attitude toward community colleges, regarding them as mere steppingstones to the "real education" that the four-year colleges provide. If they were to take a less patronizing attitude, they might find it easier to cooperate with community colleges in developing programs to meet the needs of today's economy. Such a strategy would enable the four-year colleges to keep faith with the mission that should mean most to them—a commitment to provide the broad-based education that promotes the intellectual growth of their students.

Imparting the higher skills that good jobs demand. I have saved for last the most complex area of necessary change—maintaining world leadership in science, technology, and related entrepreneurship. The issue here is not a matter of American hubris. It is a matter of economic common sense. Between them, China and India have populations of well over two billion people, many of them hard working, ambitious, smart, and talented. The Chinese, who have a long tradition of economic domination, are playing catch-up with the United States. If we are able to maintain our own entrepreneurial vitality, their successes will add to world growth. But if we lag too far behind, the Chinese will gobble up our high-level jobs as well as our low-level ones.

A survey by Public Agenda, a public-policy research group, shows that a major obstacle to better science-and-math education is that Americans simply don't see its relevance to their lives and believe that the training their children are getting in those subjects in the K-12 years is "fine as it is." Consequently, there is a lot of resistance to upgrading math and science instruction in the schools.

In my view, the single most effective form of intervention would be for the science and technology communities to prepare—and test with young people—persuasive online forms of instruction that communicate the relevance, importance, and magnitude of the opportunity that studies in science, technology, and math present, especially for women and minorities. Additionally, college science faculty should cooperate with local high schools to develop more-germane curricula and lesson plans.

If we do not act to prepare America's students to succeed in the emerging world economy, there simply won't be enough truly good jobs for them. Such a failure would violate the social contract and bring about the kind of unrest and resentment that plagues so many other nations.

Indeed, a huge responsibility rests on our institutions of higher education. A wake-up call is in order for the presidents who lead them.

Daniel Yankelovich is founder and chairman of three organizations: Viewpoint Learning Inc., a company that develops specialized dialogues on public-policy issues; Public Agenda, a nonprofit policy-research organization; and DYG Inc., a market- and social-research firm.

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