Americans expect a lot from their colleges and universities. They want higher education to prepare students for jobs and as citizens in a democratic society. At the same time, they expect universities to produce research that makes our lives better and drives economic development in their towns, regions and states.
Few other institutions in our society have so many aspirational and disparate missions. That, in large part, explains why higher education is under so much strain these days. Half of Democrats and three-quarters of Republicans say higher education is “going in the wrong direction,” according to the Pew Research Center. Americans are frustrated with higher education: College costs so much, too many graduates end up in jobs that don’t require degrees, and campuses have become echo chambers for a narrow set of political and social viewpoints.
The rising tension of higher education’s multiple missions is not only apparent in public opinion polls, but it’s also showing up in the bottom line of colleges and universities.
This past week, Moody’s Investors Service released its annual tuition survey for the hundreds of public and private four-year universities it follows. At public universities, Moody’s found that “net tuition revenue” — the cash that colleges have left after giving out financial aid to students — grew by 1.5 percent last year, less than that of private universities for the first time. Why is that figure important? Because in more than half of the states, institutions rely more heavily on money from students and parents than from state and local government support.
The financial strain is similar at private colleges. Moody’s found that at two of every five private schools, the tuition discount rate for incoming students is at least 60 percent. The discounted price is what students pay, not the sticker price. It’s important to note this about the Moody’s survey: The firm typically examines the finances of only the strongest colleges, given that they are the ones most interested in issuing debt through the public markets.
Since the Great Recession, colleges and universities have attempted to tweak their missions to align with a new financial reality. They have shifted academic programs, added resources to career services and emphasized students completing their degrees. But it’s clear that incremental improvements to the status quo won’t be good enough to overcome the challenges facing higher education today.
Instead, the partnership between universities, government and the public needs to be restored. That’s what Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein argue in a compelling new book on higher education, “Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership between America and its Colleges and Universities.” Thorp is former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and now provost at Washington University in St. Louis; Goldstein is an entrepreneur in residence at Chapel Hill.
In the book, the pair are critical of the primary approach most colleges use to set a course for the future: strategic plans. Thorp and Goldstein say such plans in higher education, absent a major crisis, usually lack a time frame and resources needed to put them in place. The typical strategic plan, the authors write, is “noncontroversial and looks very much like the strategy that schools, similarly situated, have adopted … to keep the institution in line with its peers without creating waves among the school’s key constituencies.”
Indeed, a recent analysis of more than 500 strategic plans from public universities found many parallels across schools of all sizes and types. The study was part of a report released by the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech and the Deloitte Center for Higher Education Excellence (to which I contributed). Academic research was, by far, a common element in most strategic plans: The term “research” was the seventh-most-common word in the documents, and 54 percent of all four-year institutions had at least one paragraph devoted to research. Other common themes included expanding enrollment, facilities and new academic programs.
What the plans show is that many schools are strikingly similar in structure and ambitions. They want to keep up with the Joneses or, better yet, move up the prestige ladder in higher education. What this has encouraged over the last few decades is a one-size-fits-all model when an increasingly diverse student body demands more differentiation among colleges. It also promotes high-priced institutions at a time when a shrinking American middle class needs more lower-priced options for college.
In their book, Thorp and Goldstein outline a blueprint for trustees, presidents, faculty and students to follow to rebuild higher education for a new century. They call on trustees to stop micromanaging (hear that, University of Maryland regents?), for presidents to spend more time with students and less money on administrators, for faculty to focus more of their efforts on teaching and for students to engage in their learning instead of simply being spectators to the college experience.
Some colleges and universities have the brand names, the national reach and the deep pockets to manage the multitude of expectations placed on them. But the vast majority need to quicken their pace of change and focus their mission on the students they want to serve and the research it makes sense for them to support. That’s the only mission they can adopt for survival and to better fulfill even the most basic of public expectations.