This morning’s news about higher education included two articles related to the financial structures in higher education. The first, A New Model for a New Reality, discussed St. John’s University’s efforts to replace tuition funds with donor funds, to reduce the cost to students. The second, A Public College Merger in Arkansas, describes the merger of Henderson State with the Arkansas State University System. This is a cost saving measure, seeking to leverage shared services (IT, HR, etc.) to reduce costs in the face of shrinking enrollments due to demographic shifts. These stories are part of steady stream of stories about vulnerable institutions of higher education.
Much of the eastern United States is facing the squeeze arising from a significant decline in high school graduates and these cost containment strategies may help us get through it. Indeed, in terms of public systems, my frugal side suggests that sharing some resources, already invested in by the residents of my state, is a fair and thoughtful strategy. However, I think we have only scratched the surface of the problem (sustainability) for higher education. We need to think much more broadly about new models, than these efforts to balance budgets suggest.
To get a little more insight into this, we need to look beyond the headlines surrounding particular colleges and universities in dire financial straits, and consider the many environmental factors affecting higher education right now. Here is but one intertwined example: the expansion of advance placement (AP) to full associate’s degrees in high school, and the national strategy of increasing post-secondary education attainment to 60% by 2020 (https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/37720-Challenges-and-Opp-Exec-Summary.pdf).
Advanced Placement courses were once available to a limited pool of students at relatively well-funded high schools. Today, earning college credit in high school is widely available. This transformation has involved a variety of steps. First, we have expanded opportunities by moving from a simple AP test, provided by the College Board, to offering Early College programs, which include partnerships with local colleges and universities. Early College is overseen by faculty at the partner schools and provides students with direct college credits (Calculus, for example), at that university, and a very low cost. Progressive school districts have found ways to support the costs for the neediest students, broadening access to a college level curriculum. This is a positive, but there is more to the story.
Because of the affordability of this model, and a desire to expose more students to college-level experiences, there has been a move to offer the full associate’s degree in high school. The difficulty here is simply this–high school is not college. Although a student may master calculus in high school, and deserve college credit for it, in reality the conditions under which that material is learned are very different from college. The pace is slower, and the supports for learning much stronger, because there is not the same presumption of independence (appropriately so) in high school. In addition, this is mostly a cost-shifting scheme, making high schools responsible for supplying an educational opportunity for which they receive little financial support.
A related development, driven by the focus on increasing the attainment of post-secondary credentials, is a tremendous investment in community colleges. The target of 60% degree attainment by 2020 is driving a focus on two-year degrees and certificates. There are significant barriers to increasing the number of people enrolled in four-year degrees, so focusing on two-year degrees and short-term certificates makes a lot of sense. This, however, effectively leaves four-year degree granting institutions out of the conversation, and frequently underfunded.
Now, all of this is complicated and not something I can fully dissect in this blog, but I would like to consider a few implications. First, the structural issues that are keeping students from four-year degrees are largely financial. Moving education to the high schools just hides the problem and cheapens the educational experience. Focusing on investing in community colleges, at the expense of investing in universities, is likely to reduce the number of students who consider pursuing four-year degrees.
Second, while these cost cutting schemes look like great paths to access, they tend to prioritize completion over growth. I am all for access to jobs that can stabilize family finances quickly, but certificates and two-year degrees tend to be less than is needed for a full career arc in a constantly changing economy. Funding access to those, at the expense of four-year and post-baccalaureate degrees, is likely to keep the neediest students from access to the full education experience that they deserve.
It is hard to discuss the complexity of these issues without appearing to devalue first-level credentials. That is not my point at all. I am a champion of community colleges and a supporter of reasonable early college initiatives. What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to look at these initiatives in the context of the full range of opportunities we hope to provide to our community. Perhaps, reconfiguring our education timelines should be part of this conversation. If we determine that supporting initial credentials in high school can help students find their way to additional education and careers, fine. Then that should be the path for all students, not just those who can’t afford college. If a stop at community college to round out that initial certification and provide some career foundations is a good idea, great. Then it should be the norm, and not a strategy just for those without a family history of attending college. After this, attending universities for baccalaureate and graduate degrees should be financially available to everyone, as we support long-term growth in the rapidly evolving workplace.
What I am trying to say is this; it is time for us to have a real conversation about what our post-secondary education goals should be, not just in terms of attainment, but in terms of equity, and real access to life-learning. We must re-imagine education for modern standards and expectations, and then create funding models that make the full range of post-secondary credentials truly accessible to all.