Affordability, Higher Education

America’s Strategic Plan

When I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, I decided on the following tag line: Public Higher Education: America’s Strategic Plan. Honestly, I was chaffing at the notion that public education institutions were being charged with developing strategic plans that were focused on defining our place in a market of educational institutions. Public higher education is not meant to make a profit. In most cases, we were set up to serve a particular region’s educational needs and we were not designed to compete across regions (although, of course, we do). As I see it, we exist to support two fundamental goals of the nation – cultivate an informed citizenry and support the potential for social mobility. If we are to strategize, we should be focused on better ways to meet those goals rather than identifying market share and seeking improved rankings.

I am less snarky about institutional planning today but I still balk at the market focus. The funding models for higher education have changed significantly and public institutions are now tuition dependent with no choice but to find ways to compete with each other to survive. In New England, where the opportunities for education are vast and the student population dwindling, this need is particularly acute. Public universities that can focus on prestige (higher admission standards and big ticket research opportunities) are working their way up the ranking lists. Some schools have niche programs, carving out a focused identity and usually staying small. Regional comprehensives that focus on access are doing their best to focus on the transformative power of education, largely in terms of socio-economic gains. None of these strategies are negative, but they are trapping us in a competitive cycle that loses track of our essential value.

The good news is that infrastructure is the hot new buzz word, and a big re-think is going on. President Biden is proposing all kinds of investments in higher education, from increasing the Pell Grants and NSF funding, to funds specifically focused on equity. At the state level there is a strong focus on community colleges as an important part of lifting people out of poverty through specific career training. Somewhat more broadly, all of higher education is being incentivized to support particular career trajectories in STEM and Healthcare. This is a good first step, but at this important, once in a century moment, when infrastructure is the word of the day, we need to think bigger.

Let me put it plainly, without a fundamental shift in how public higher education is imagined in relation to the core goals and values of the United States, we will continue to find ourselves chasing rankings and students instead of focusing on learning. While I know it strikes some as a nice-to-have, higher education is essential to the economy we have built so far and the one to emerge. Just as the nation progressed from providing a 6th grade education to a comprehensive K-12 education, and increasingly a pre-K education, it is time to think of public higher education as something that must be universally available (yes, free). It is the essential component of our national infrastructure.

I am not saying we are more important than healthcare. I am saying developing a good healthcare system relies on educating scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers, actuaries, community liaisons, bilingual front line support for treatment and benefits administration, culturally aware people to navigate community norms that might keep them from following healthcare instruction, and so on. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.

Transportation infrastructure is the same story. We need engineers and urban planners, supervisors and pavers, economic development professionals and safety specialists, environmental and computer scientists, people with an understanding of the barriers to usage of public transportation and those who understand how to optimize work schedules to stagger demand. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.

Economic development is 100% connected to the educational opportunities available in a community. But it isn’t just the narrow focus of trained financial managers or skills in advanced manufacturing. It is the fullness of ongoing access to education over the life of a career so that people can retrain or refocus their knowledge as the world and/or their interests change. Supporting ongoing access means reframing our thinking about education as a one-time investment (2 or 4 years) to something that people keep returning to throughout their lives.

And, of course, all of these professionally focused arguments for education totally neglect the rest of our value – fostering the insights into human culture, behavior, histories, and discoveries that help us put our world in context. An educated society does not stop at understanding how elections work and how to get a job. It must continue to the why of it all. Obviously, the question of why and the meanings we ascribe to our existence grow with us. The value of the more broadly focused liberal arts thinking often comes into focus long after we encounter them. Each phase of our lives might compel us to think further, ask new questions, and pursue ideas ancient and new. This broad and inquisitive thinking is also infrastructure, with foundations laid in our early education so that there are opportunities to follow up later. It provides room for the growth that we say we value and the emergence of new perspectives that can literally change the world.

So, I’m glad that infrastructure is in fashion and I hope that we can use this momentary embrace of long-term thinking to truly plan for the long-term of public higher education. Let’s commit to our true value as an essential component of a just and thriving society. Let’s fund education in a way that allows us to focus our strategic plans on learning instead of market share. Let’s recognize that public education is America’s strategic plan for a great society.

Affordability, Higher Education, Thinking

Time for a Timeline Change?

Like everyone in higher education, I am continuously trying to puzzle through the economics of access and equity. As a nation, we have invested deeply in the notion of education as a path to opportunity. Public education, from Kindergarten through some post-secondary education, is nearly (though not quite) considered a right for all Americans. The prevalence of public education is the result of the difficult, but ultimately productive arguments that have taken place since the start of this nation. While we do not always agree about what education should look like, it seems we do agree that it should be widely available.

Our pattern has been one of expansion. Education was first for small groups, sometimes segregated by sex, often by race. Through arguments, local and national, we have broken down many (though not all) of the barriers to at least a high school education. (For an enjoyable history of K-12 in the US, I recommend Johann N. Neem’s, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America). We shouldn’t forget that high school was an expansion, not an assumption from the start. It serves as a reminder that we have continuously added to the scope of what we think the public should fund. As we dive into the national conversation about funding post-secondary education, this is an important lesson. What sounds like an insane economic expansion to some, is really part of the trajectory of expanding access to education from our earliest days.

Nevertheless, the expansion of higher education needs some careful thought. Two data points caught my attention as I read the higher education news over the last few weeks. The first was in Brian Rosenberg’s recent story in the Chronicle, “The Problem with Biden’s Higher-Education Plan” in which he points out that access is only part of the story: completion rates must be addressed. The second is in Jacquelin Elias’s report, “Who Holds America’s $1.5-Trillion Student Loan Debt?” Guess what? There is a connection between the debt and the completion question. To sum up, those who did not complete their degrees are most likely to a) not yield the financial benefits of a college education, and b) carry student loan debt that they cannot re-pay. And, while the group of students who borrowed money that they cannot repay do not carry the super high student loan balances (our grant systems do help), they are likely to be haunted by the bad credit implications for a lifetime.

Now, Biden (and Obama before him) has a strong focus on community colleges. This is where the free college conversation is strongest, and many states have taken steps to make that promise somewhat real. It is last dollar free (students must use their grants first), and it is tuition, not cost of living free, but it is something. For those of us in the public four-year world, the current free discussion is mapped to family income. This seems fair, but it does mean that schools like mine are likely to be missing many of these students in the first two years, while they leverage the free community college for their foundations. I think everyone should make sane economic decisions around their education, so I am not whining, just noting the budget problem this leaves me with.

But that is not what I really want to think about here. What I am most interested in is the fact that, even with the free college, completion rates are a problem. Financial concerns certainly drive that so this funding structure will help, but it is a lot more than that. A short list of things that might get in the way of degree completion includes college preparation, cultural/family support for education, commitment to education/knowing the purpose, and the million ways that life gets in the way. So, I agree with Rosenberg’s observation that completion needs our attention. But the question I have is, do we have the education timeline right?

We speak in two-year and four-year completion rates as if they are part of nature. From an economic planning point of view, that structure certainly helps us organize resources and curriculum. But it doesn’t serve the majority of students very well. This is why community colleges are always struggling with a measure that doesn’t fit their students’ realities, with three year graduation rates below 30%. That is also why access oriented four-year colleges struggle around the 50-60% six year graduation rates. None of us likes these outcomes, and we spend a lot of time and money trying to address them, but I think we might just have the model wrong.

Since so many students do not complete degrees in two-year or four-year timelines, perhaps it is our organization of time that is the problem. Maybe there is room for a different approach. For example:

  • Break up the undergraduate experience into two-year increments. I would add that we should really consider three segments, expanding access to advanced education (whether degrees or certificates), because so many opportunities for growth require more learning, after careers are underway. Whether a two-year of four-year institution, that first two years are focused on essential learning foundations with introductory major preparation. For some, this will include job specific education, and a clear exit from education for now. That’s fine. Graduates get the credential win and are prepared for more if they change their mind. For others, there is a career trajectory that is more broadly defined, and their next step should be a year or two in the workplace, exploring options. Then return, for the major work and some more advanced practice in liberal arts thinking. This approach might foster greater commitment to completion (through direct understanding of value) and give students time to grow into what they want to learn.
  • Add a service year infrastructure to our educational planning. If all high school graduates are required to do one year of national service prior to entering college, they will contribute greatly to supporting areas of need and have time to think more about what they want to learn. We already know the kind emotional growth that can take place in a service year, which may help students do better when they are in college. It is also a potential engine for cultural engagement, helping students understand the needs of many different communities. This requirement could also help all of us see the value of our investment in education, because in addition to supporting the next generation in their professional and intellectual growth, we will see real labor in our communities.
  • Support part-time learning, for real. You see, some students just really need to take the path more slowly. Our current infrastructure makes this challenging and, frankly, makes the student feel like there is something wrong in needing more time. If we schedule learning opportunities year round, in shorter increments, the part-time track could still yield degree completion in a timely manner (two-three years; four-six years, etc.). It will facilitate the management of those other things in life that get in the way and support the momentum that many have identified as crucial for degree completion.

This is just a sketch, and there is so much more to say. The work on supporting the varied learning needs and reducing cultural barriers to success is still urgent. The need for reasonable and helpful accountability measures for free education requires attention. But if we change our assumptions about the timelines for education, perhaps the expansion of access will have the desired effect, instead of a lot of students with some college and no degree. And, of course, I think that all of it should be free.

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

Simplify FAFSA? How about no FAFSA.

This morning’s higher education news is filled with comments about the finances. Secretary of Education DeVos has extended the pause in student loan repayments for another month. This is in response to COVID-19 and the number of people in financial distress right now. Good. I just wish it would be for longer than a month because we all know it will take longer than a month for folks to get back on track with careers, rent, and general economic security.

Universities are considering various downsizing options in the face of strained finances or as a new strategic plan, but implementation of these plans is in question. Faltering enrollments are causing administrators to consider streamlining major offerings. Others appear to be reconsidering tenure track faculty, although the comments were later deemed “flippant” and insensitive.

Then, there is the drumbeat of inequity in access to higher education. This morning’s big contributions were a discussion of family debt on the College Scorecard. Some of the biggest family debt (parent plus loans), happens at HBCUs. Then there is the story on how our first generation students and students from historically underrepresented groups do not get enough information to know they can appeal financial aid decisions. And of course, Senator Lamar Alexander is still trying to simplify the FAFSA. Yes, please. It would be grand to get this done.

But here’s the thing, if you look over months of articles and data, it is clear that our access to education problem for families of lesser means, and yes that skews families of color, is persistent and pervasive. As a culture we get ourselves trapped in circular arguments. We believe in merit and equal opportunity, but we recognize that there are structural elements that are barriers to those opportunities. Then we try to right those wrongs with subsidized student loans, access programs, and admissions practices that attempt to improve the diversity of our student bodies. Then we get mad because those steps start to look like something other than merit, which makes us angry and we start to scale it back. That anger may be misplaced, of course, but that is the cycle of the arguments. The same people end up losing every time.

So simplifying the FAFSA is a noble goal, but it will not get us out of this cycle. As far as I can tell, those subsidized student loans are mostly helping the haves, not the have nots. They bridge the gap to elite colleges, perhaps, and would be nowhere near enough money for those colleges if the families did not have funds to contribute or the university did not supply lots of additional scholarships for those families who can’t contribute. Parent Plus loans make me shudder because those who need them tend not to be able to afford them. No, this system is not doing what we want it to do for access to education.

So, let’s really simplify. Make public higher education tuition and fees free. No FAFSA required, just free. Set a reasonable cost per student rate, that takes regional cost of living into account, and provide that funding to the state colleges and universities. Then fix the state and federal tax codes to make sure that all of us are paying our fair share to support that public higher education state by state. A progressive tax system will be based on earnings, so that takes care of the problem of people with degrees who work in lower paying careers (social work, education, and many other civic focused jobs come to mind). We don’t need different pay-back rates or loan forgiveness. Just tax appropriately. Graduates who move into higher paying careers will pay more, of course. Students who fail to graduate (an unfortunate scenario, but it will happen even when education is free), will not be saddled with debt they can’t repay and bad credit that keeps them from surviving. They will just limit their access to careers that pay higher wages (perhaps). Progressive tax structures still work for this.

Now some will jump to accountability questions and I do believe in those. The quality of education can still be evaluated, so can degree completion rates and how universities monitor this. Students can still be asked to leave college – free doesn’t mean forever. We can think through how we address graduate education, perhaps. None of these questions should be barriers to free education, because the equation is still simple. Education tends to lead to higher wages, higher wages should lead to higher tax contributions that should be directed back to education. The system should support itself. I understand the political complications, but the rest makes sense.

As for FAFSA, save that simplified form for the cost of housing, I suppose. That might be useful.

Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

 

 

Affordability, Higher Education

Iowa Caucuses

Here it is–Iowa Caucus day 2020.  In this topsy-turvy field of democratic candidates (obviously the republican candidate is already settled), we’ll be watching the winnowing begin.  Student debt has been one of the top issues for many of the candidates, and I have been watching with interest as various plans for reform are put forward. While I do not have anything to say about the plans, such as they are, I do want to focus on some issues that are salient for me.

The structure of our economy, coupled with the cost of housing, means that most people cannot achieve a measure of economic stability without some level of post-secondary education.  What that post-secondary education consists of can vary widely, but as a society, we must acknowledge that a high school diploma no longer carries any real advantage.  To help people help themselves, we must support affordable post-secondary education.

Affordable has two important variables, where one starts and where one hopes to end up. Where one starts is all about the assets we can leverage to go to college.  Those assets have to do with our K-12 experiences (did we have access to quality college preparatory curriculum or will we need remedial education), our socio-cultural experiences (has anyone in our family/neighborhood ever attended college or do we have to figure it all out on our own), and our economic status (can we pay tuition? can we afford not to work full-time?). Policy proposals surrounding higher education need to take these questions into account, because they answers have everything to do with student debt.  Less-preparation, more time working, and even cultural adjustments generally add time to degree completion. Time to degree completion drives up cost.

Where one hopes to end up has to do with the potential earnings associated with one’s college degree. This is not a simple equation.  Investing in nursing, or education, or accounting degrees may have a pretty clear return on investment, (if you don’t overspend to achieve them) but most degrees do not. Working in public service careers generally means earning less than in the private sector, but not always.  A good education in entrepreneurship does not a millionaire make.  It simply prepares students for the changing world of work. So does a degree in literature. For advanced degrees, it may make more sense to align cost with earnings potential, but at the undergraduate level, it just does not add up. Given this complexity, perhaps it is the cost of the undergraduate degrees that we should focus on, not the earnings potential of particular majors.

Much of the college debt conversation in the press features extravagant and often unnecessary borrowing.  It makes a good news story to focus on the student who took out $150,000-200,000 in student loans and now cannot afford to live reasonable lives.  This is a lot of debt, but those loans frequently reflect some unfortunate decisions, most of them motivated by an obsession with brand recognition. Social pressures and guidance counselor recommendations inspire students to pursue degrees at private colleges and universities, when families do not have sufficient resources to support attendance at those schools. Borrowing to attend many privates can easily top $150,000.  Yet, there are many public alternatives with the same curriculum and leading to the same certifications.  Let’s try to stop the debt before it happens, by focusing on the public options. We should celebrate the investment we have made in public higher education and the opportunities it provides, instead of convincing students that a lot of debt for comparable private school experience is necessary.

While public colleges and universities are relatively affordable, and our system of Pell Grants is admirable, we are still too expensive for many families. Remember, we have increased the credential requirements for a reasonable standard of living, so more people must go to college. This means many families who might not have ever considered post-secondary education now feel compelled to provide it. They are not likely to have amassed sufficient savings to support a college degree. If we simply take the basic model, where students live with their parents while in college, then the costs per year at a public college in the northeastern US is somewhere between $8,000-$14,000 per year (considering fees and books, etc.). If families want their students to have a residential experience, then we are talking about an additional $10-12,000 per year.  This could easily get a student to $80,000-100,000 in debt. It is not the norm, though.  Most opt to commute and save on the housing.  There is actually quite a lot of responsible borrowing. But, how much is reasonable?  What level of interest should a student pay on that debt? These are the important questions. What is a reasonable return on investment based on the typical, not the exceptions?

What is clear to me is that I am looking for a candidate with a demonstrated commitment to public higher education.  Seventy-four percent of all students attend public higher education institutions. These institutions do their very best to meet the needs of a diverse student body, by combining support for the least prepared students, with opportunities for the most-prepared students, all with the same finish line in view. They are non-profit, which frees them to focus on the best interest of the students, not the bottom line. Unfortunately, public institutions have faced funding cuts for over a decade and these have been passed on to our students.  Those cuts are a huge driver of student debt. So, let’s fund public higher education at a level that does reduce debt. Let’s invest wisely in these engines of opportunity, because we know that we need to education the majority, not the lucky few. Let’s commit to creating opportunities for all because the return on that investment will benefit the whole of our society.