Editor's Note

September/October 2011 The College Try

By Paul Glastris

Every year the Washington Monthly devotes an entire issue to assessing America’s colleges and universities. We do this because we believe they are key to the country’s greatness. They produce the research and human capital that fuel the economy. They teach the habits of mind and spirit that undergird democracy. And they provide the means for upward mobility that is the bedrock justification for the American experiment.

It should come as no surprise, then, that higher education, like the country itself, is in deep trouble. Tuition—the price of admission to middle-class life—continues to rise far above the rate of inflation, as it has for years. At public colleges and universities, tuition hikes averaged nearly 8 percent this past academic year thanks to cash-strapped state governments slashing higher education budgets. Community colleges, unable to keep up with demand in a tight labor market, are capping enrollments and turning students away. For-profit schools have turned out to be better at earning profits and foisting unpayable debt burdens on their students than providing them with marketable credentials. And elite schools remain bastions of privilege, with twenty-five upper-income students for every low-income one. Though they’ve recently been trumpeting their eagerness to admit more poor and working-class students, an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that the percentage of students on Pell Grants at the fifty best-endowed colleges and universities in the country hasn’t budged since 2004. The United States, once first in the world in the percentage of its young adults with college degrees, is now tenth, and slipping.

Yes, it’s depressing. But America has always had a knack for reinventing itself, and if you look hard, as we tried to do, you can find innovations in the higher education sector that could turn things around dramatically.

One of these is Western Governors University. A nonprofit online school founded by state governors a decade and a half ago, WGU caters to the same adult learners that for-profit colleges target. But while the for-profits’ enrollments are plummeting and their business models collapsing in the face of relatively mild new federal consumer protections called “gainful employment” rules, WGU is thriving, reports John Gravois (“The College For-profits Should Fear”), by offering its students “a college degree that is of greater demonstrable value than what its for-profit competitors offer … for about a third the price, in half the time.”

Another area ripe for innovation is college admissions. One big reason capable lower-income students don’t find their way into selective colleges is that, unlike upper-income students, they have no one to help them figure out what the best schools are, push them to take the right college-prep courses, or assist them in filling out complex application and financial aid forms. But as Kevin Carey explains (“The End of College Admissions As We Know It”), that process is being radically simplified by a company called ConnectEDU. The firm is rolling out a Web-based networking platform that enables students to link up with schools—and vice versa—the same way eBay, Facebook, and Match.com help users find antiques, friends, and dates. If the software works as its designers hope, Carey predicts, “the higher education system will become more like the meritocracy it has long pretended to be.”

Heartening as such innovations are, they must swim upstream against an incumbent system that is notoriously resistant to change. Americans generally admire colleges and universities and don’t want to have to add them to the list of venal, rent-seeking monopolies they have to worry about. But they should.

This tendency toward incumbency protection is powerfully reinforced by the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. By rating schools on measures of fame, money, and exclusivity, U.S. News rewards the very behaviors that prop up the status quo. We devised our college rankings to change the system by offering a different, healthier set of incentives that reward schools for promoting research, service, and social mobility.

But if we want to see innovation at a fast enough pace to arrest the system’s—and the economy’s—slide, Washington itself is going to have to change some incentives. The Obama administration’s gainful employment rule has begun to do so for for-profits. What’s needed now are rules that encourage better behavior from traditional colleges and universities— for instance, by mandating the release of data about how much students learn in the classroom and earn after they graduate. This will give college-seeking students the information they need to make wiser decisions. And that, in turn, will force schools to put their considerable brainpower to work figuring out how to give Americans the education they need at a price they can afford.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • Vazir Mukhtar on September 21, 2011 1:06 PM:

    Thoughtful article.

    IMO, the universities belonging to the NCAA need to take back for themselves the running of and philosophy guiding the NCAA.

    The PBS Newshour recently featured the author of an article in the current Atlantic Monthly one night. On the lame excuse that there was no one available, the NCAA sent a spokesman the following night. The softball questions even Gwen Ifill asked were ruined by not having both persons on the same program.

    One of the excuses the NCAA gives for not paying players is that they want the student-athletes to preserve their amateur status. Another is that Title IX, which provides that women must have comparable sports opportunities as men. The women's programs are sponsored by monies generated by football.

    Now if amateur athletics and intra-mural sports are offered and sometimes required by the university, then if not tuition, then some combination of fees and other university resources should cover those costs, just as "academic" programs are paied by such a combination.

    I say pay the football players. If coaches of high-ranked teams are able to command the salaries they do, and those salaries typically exceed those of distinguished faculty, then why shouldn't the players be paid. If the aim of the highest tier of NCAA football programs is to sponsor amateur athletics, which it obviously is not, then let the coaches and other university employees involved in that program be paid along the same lines as university academic faculty.

    The NCAA system for its top group of football teams is a sham. It needs to be reformed just as do admissions processes, tuition fees, etc.

  • me on September 30, 2011 3:42 PM:

    fame, money, and exclusivity.... research, service, and social mobility....
    Huh. I'm a college professor, and I'm trying to help my students understand how to read, critically analyze, interpret, and communicate -- shouldn't that play a role in college rankings? Also, shouldn't any school that has 500 students in a single class at the same time be automatically off the college ranking list, with huge classes being a clear sign that the school isn't even trying?

  • Anonymous on October 11, 2011 6:57 PM:

    “gainful employment” rules in a recession seems to be a problem waiting to happen.The economy needs Jobs.
    Our leaders need to start thinking different about our problems if we expect a different outcome!
    It’s really not about creating jobs. By reframing our situation we can see that jobs already exist; however, they are occupied by retirement eligible people (Boomers). If we adopt an alternative solution to ending unemployment, i.e. providing incentives for boomers to leave the workforce, we will provide job opportunities for the unemployed. We can eliminate unemployment with a two pronged strategy that: 1) provides incentives that will allow boomers to leave the workforce, 2) stipulates that the vacated positions be filled. This new strategy is about the redistribution of economic resources (jobs).
    While boomers remain in the workforce there is little opportunity for movement and few opportunities for promotions. As boomers leave, new positions will open, people will be promoted, and receive a salary increase. In turn, these employees will pay more taxes, including Social Security and Medicare tax. The effect that this new strategy will have on the workforce will be more dramatic than anything ever proposed!
    As Baby Boomers comprise about 16% of the workforce an incentive plan that helps them leave their current positions will open millions of private sector positions per year for the next few years. More importantly, we can create these incentives by refocusing existing resources, and not spending more. This is accomplished by reallocating the money that we are currently spending on the unemployed, i.e. shifting these resources to people who are willing to retire and open a position for the unemployed.
    This plan works by supplementing an incumbent’s earned entitlement. The majority of people eligible for social security are entitled to an average benefit of about $1200 per month. A government provided incentive payment equal to (150%) of their Social Security benefit for five years would motivate many baby boomers to retire. It’s important to remember that these jobs do not have to be created; no new infrastructure has to be built.
    Contrast the cost of this incentive plan about $1800 per month (1.5 or 150% of the average SS entitlement) with the amount of total support we provide the unemployed, i.e. unemployment benefits, food stamps etc. It’s estimated that it costs between $2,000 and $3,000 per month (all sources) to support the unemployed.
    How long can we continue to extend the unemployment benefit? What happens if we don't extend them? What will it cost us to retrain these people when they do re-enter the workforce? If we consider the true total cost, lost tax revenues (sales tax, gas tax, unemployment insurance tax, and home foreclosure) the cost to continue to support these folks might be significantly higher.
    Pete Collegio

  • Milan Moravec on October 21, 2011 4:51 PM:

    Colleges and Universities not holding the line on rising costs and tuition. Like so many I am deeply disappointed by the pervasive failures of Regent Chairwoman Lansing, President Yudof and the ten campus Chancellors from holding the line on rising costs and tuition increases.
    Californians are reeling from19% unemployment (includes those forced to work part time, and those no longer searching), mortgage defaults, loss of unemployment benefits. And those who still have jobs are working longer for less. Faculty wages must reflect California's ability to pay, not what others are paid.
    Pay increases for generously paid Faculty is arrogance. Instate tuition consumes 14% of Ca. Median Family Income!
    UC Berkeley (ranked # 70 Forbes) tuition increases exceed the national average rate of increases. Chancellor Birgeneau has molded Cal. into the most expensive public university.
    President Yudof and Chancellor Birgeneau have dismissed many much needed cost-cutting options. They did not consider freezing vacant faculty positions, increasing class size, requiring faculty to teach more classes, doubling the time between sabbaticals, cutting and freezing pay and benefits for all chancellors and reforming the pension system.
    They said such faculty reforms “would not be healthy for University of California”. Exodus of faculty and administrators? Who can afford them and where would they go?
    We agree it is far from the ideal situation, but it is in the best interests of the university system and the state to hold the line on cost increases. UC cannot expect to do business as usual: raising tuition; granting pay raises and huge bonuses during a weak economy that has sapped state revenues and individual Californians’ income.
    There is no question the necessary realignments with economic reality are painful. Regent Chairwoman Lansing can bridge the public trust gap with reassurances that salaries and costs reflect California’s economic reality. The sky above UC will not fall

    Opinions? Email the UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

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