From Crisis to Crisis: Costs Only Part of the Problem

Rusty Monhollon, July 2013

I listened intently to President Obama’s speech in Buffalo last week. The president’s assessment of the state of higher education and his proposals for addressing its failings directly shape my work as a policymaker at a state higher education agency. The president believes we face “a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt.” His solution is to hold institutions and students accountable by using federal financial aid as an incentive for performance and innovation.

Under the administration’s plan, colleges would be “rated” by the value they offer students, with federal financial assistance hanging in the balance. “It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results,” Mr. Obama declared, “and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future.” The president argues these measures “will help parents and students figure out how much value a college truly offers,” and highly rated institutions will “see their taxpayer funding go up.” The president also seeks to make students accountable for their own education by requiring academic completion as a prerequisite for continued federal grants.

From a policymaker’s perspective, it’s difficult to argue against the principle of institutional (and student) accountability through the use of appropriate measures of performance. As a practical matter, however, I have serious concerns about rating colleges based on their “value.” How will the Department of Education apply such measures as the amount of debt an institution’s graduates accumulate, its graduation rates, and its alumni performance fairly across the full spectrum of postsecondary education in the United States? Will the department use the same metrics to establish the “value” of training certified welders and training engineers? Emergency medical technicians and physicians? It seems difficult at best to develop a national rating system that fairly accounts for both community colleges and comprehensive universities, or technical schools and liberal arts colleges.

There are other practical concerns. Holding institutions accountable for how much debt students take on while in college places accountability on the wrong set of shoulders. There is plenty of evidence (both anecdotal and research-based) that students spend student loan money on more than just books and tuition. The precipitous decline in state-level support for higher education has forced public colleges to scramble for new sources of revenue. This, in turn, has created cut-throat competition to attract students and the diversion of already scarce funds into marketing and other noninstructional areas.

I was trained as a historian, and spent nearly two decades teaching in college classrooms. Much of what the president said I had heard before. Since at least the end of World War II, higher education has seemingly moved from one crisis to another. Speaking in 1949, John Hanna, president of Michigan State University, warned of a “serious financial crisis” that “places more of the financial burden of a college education on students.” He further declared that colleges must “embark on a program of economy and efficiency, ‘making one dollar do the work of two.’” The president of the Ford Foundation in 1958 declared “that higher education is beset to day by financial difficulties greater than those of any other period in” American history. In 1963, President Kennedy implored Congress to address the “long-predicted crisis in higher education.”

The US economy and society is vastly different today than it was a mere five decades ago. During the Cold War federal research dollars poured into university coffers, sustaining and expanding institutional infrastructure and capacity. American assembly lines spewed forth automobiles, televisions, and refrigerators. A high school diploma was a ticket to a comfortable lifestyle. The baby boomers were just beginning to flood college campuses. The Cold War has ended, manufacturing jobs withered away, a college degree is the ticket to a comfortable lifestyle, and the baby boomers are just beginning to retire. While it’s evident our economy and society have changed, it’s less clear if higher education has. As the Spellings Report noted in 2006, higher education “has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy. It has yet to successfully confront the impact of globalization, rapidly evolving technologies, an increasingly diverse and aging population, and an evolving marketplace characterized by new needs and new paradigms.

I don’t mean to minimize, or trivialize, the very real challenges facing higher education today. The real “crisis” in higher education, in my view, is not funding (when hasn’t that been an issue?) but the direction of a public discourse about the very nature and purpose of the enterprise itself. Is the purpose of higher education workforce development or developing the person? Is it a public or private good, benefitting the entire society or only the individual degree seeker? How we as a society answer to these questions will go a long way in shaping higher education in the 21st century.

Rusty Monhollon is assistant commissioner for academic affairs at the Missouri Department of Higher Education. Previously, he was associate professor of history and director for the masters of arts in humanities program at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He is the author of “This is America?”: The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas (Palgrave, 2002) and the editor of Baby Boom: People and Perspectives (ABC-Clio, 2010).