American Higher Ed: Innovative, Adaptable, Transformative

Edward L. Ayers

by Edward L. Ayers

Here’s a puzzle:  Americans love their own colleges and universities and yet are suspicious of and even disdainful of colleges and universities in general. Why is that?

Polls show that the great majority of Americans who graduated from college are grateful they went to that college, felt they got their money’s worth, and would go there again. The  love of institutions by students, alumni, and neighbors appears in gifts and in  window stickers proclaiming loyalty to their institution long after they have left. People acknowledge that universities are the source of much of our country’s comparative economic and military advantage, that our nation’s system of higher education is one of the great accomplishments of the United States.

And yet criticism of higher education descends from all parts of the political spectrum. From the right, we hear that colleges and universities are overrun with radicals; from the left, we hear that colleges and universities are overrun with corporate and managerial ideals. From the right, we hear that college costs too much because the federal government subsidizes students who should not be there; from the left, we hear that college costs too much because state and federal government has starved them. From the right, we hear that colleges need to rely more on on-line instruction and efficiencies that come from replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts. From the left, we hear that on-line education is one more way for big business to take over higher education, the turn to contingent faculty one more way to strip the freedom of thought and expression tenure was created to protect. Both sides agree that administrators are to blame, but for different reasons—either for not being in charge enough or being too much in charge.

The familiar debates over higher education are not very productive, in part because each side indicts rather than persuades the other. Critics begin with assumptions and reverse engineer solutions that meet those assumptions. In the meantime the real and immediate challenges of higher education go unmet.

A broader historical perspective can perhaps help move the conversation forward. Pulling the camera back, we see that the range, depth, and diversity of Americans achieving higher education has increased exponentially over the last half century and is still increasing. Between 1970 and 2017, the total number of students increased from 8.5 million to 20.6 million and the numbers and rates are still increasing. The number of female students increased from 3.5 million to 11.5 million. The percentage of students of color has doubled since 1976.

The transformation is gaining momentum and extending into all aspects of our institutions. Since 2000 alone, the number of low-income students enrolled in college has increased 14 percent, the number of female students by 29 percent, the number of black students by 73 percent, and the number of Hispanic students 126 percent. In 2017, 70 percent of high school graduates went on to another level of higher education, the highest ever. When they arrive in college, these students see that almost a quarter of full-time faculty are persons of color and almost exactly half are women.

These are remarkable, and heartening, transformations, some of the most positive things that have happened in this country over the last half century. They define the context for everything else in higher education, both our success and our remaining challenges.

Because of the transformation, demand for all kinds of education has never been stronger. Our community colleges are bulging at the seams; public universities of all sizes and kinds are flooded with applicants; for-profit and on-line enterprises have grown up to meet a demand that states and non-profits cannot meet. College has never been worth more, for the wage gap between college-educated and non-college educated people is higher now than it has ever been:  56.6%.

Far from being hidebound and resistant to innovation, higher education is and has been one of the most dynamic economic and social components of American society since World War II. Our universities have developed the most transformative industries of our time and have been on the forefront of every major social change. They have been agents of integration, inclusion, and internationalization, advancing the society far beyond their own gates. They are unruly and loud and sometimes self-righteous because they are the places where the nation tests itself, where new generations define what it means to be American.

American higher education, in other words, has never educated more people, it has never educated a broader array of people, it has never offered an education that embraces so many fields of learning, it has never offered degrees more valuable and more coveted, and it has never been more respected and appreciated by the people who benefit from it. The world admires and copies every aspect of America’s diverse system of higher education, from our liberal arts colleges to our research universities.

Colleges and universities have assumed greater responsibilities than ever before. Higher education is now serving a student body far larger, more diverse, and often poorer than ever before in our history. It educates more people from more backgrounds in more ways. Higher education is hard, intellectually and socially, and it is not surprising that those who are the first in their family to go to college or who speak English as a second language or have other work responsibilities may struggle and require more support. Student welfare, engagement, and protection have become institutional responsibilities and those responsibilities bring enormous benefits as well as new costs.

Institutions of higher education are hardly above criticism, of course. In fact, they are built to foster critical thinking, hard questions, good evidence, and strong arguments. In my experience with a broad range of people from a broad range of institutions, colleges and universities are run with rigor, discipline, and hard numbers. They continually explore and test their assumptions, constantly adapt to changing circumstances and learn from one another.

Like those institutions, critics need to focus on particular problems rather than resort to a generalized set of assumptions. The two major problems of American higher education are the amount of debt some students accrue and low levels of completion for some students in some schools. The two problems go together, for the students who do not finish are those who cannot repay the debt they acquire. Most who graduate do not build up large amounts of debt and default rates are low. Students who give up after a year or two, however, are not equipped to get a job that allows them to repay the debt. Colleges themselves, having analyzed the issues, are putting their resources, in the form of need-based aid, to this purpose—hundreds of millions of dollars each year in Virginia alone. A broader focus on behalf of those students would pay the biggest dividends for the institutions and those who support them.

These problems matter. How well colleges and universities succeed matters because higher education embodies and reflects the possibilities of society at large. Questions about affordability are questions about social mobility in America; questions about diversity are questions about fairness in this nation.

Rather than fixating on why “college costs so much,” in other words, it would be better to focus on the more concrete problem of debt and completion, problems that are both byproducts of the transformation and the strongest impediments to its progress. The democratic transformation of American higher education is not complete and it never will be, but it can be advanced with deeper perspective and clearer priorities.

Edward L. Ayers is president emeritus of the University of Richmond. This column is based upon a speech he delivered to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia last week.  

There are currently no comments highlighted.

13 responses to “American Higher Ed: Innovative, Adaptable, Transformative

  1. What the internet has brought us in addition to all the new benefits is other things that are clearly not – like social media bullying …

    but it’s also given voice to everyone – not only the good guys but the bad guys

    AND it has given voice to those who are critics .. all kinds and all manner of critics including those of the government – and institutions.

    Liberals don’t tend to harbor thoughts of having the govt force them to do things.. Conservative critics actually see that as a proper role of govt in all manner of things from “free speech” to tuition costs to what “science” is taught to whether there is a political “balance” to what is taught.

    So Higher Ed.. along with many, if not most , other institutions are being criticized from “groups” of similar mindsets who have “found” each other on the internet… and now are allied groups in pursuit of changes at Higher Ed.

    I do not see such movements to change higher ed – on the “left”…

    Some say, even those who comment on these pages, that Liberals have “taken over” Higher Ed and now constitute a “deep state” that cannot be dislodged.

    So voices of reason, like Dr. Ayers are “elites” who need to be burned at the stake as a necessary part of flushing liberal apologists.. from the stage!

    He’s quite right at saying this: ” The two major problems of American higher education are the amount of debt some students accrue and low levels of completion for some students in some schools. The two problems go together, for the students who do not finish are those who cannot repay the debt they acquire.”

    but the critics have totally different ideas about how to deal with this….

    • “Liberals don’t tend to harbor thoughts of having the govt force them to do things.. Conservative critics actually see that as a proper role of govt in all manner of things from “free speech” to tuition costs to what “science” is taught to whether there is a political “balance” to what is taught.”

      What a bizarre statement. Freedom of speech is a clearly articulated Constitutional right. It is the overriding law that all areas of American government are obliged to enforce. Tuition costs from public colleges and universities are a function of the management quality of publicly owned institutions. Given that these colleges and universities are owned by “we the people” and managed by government employees why wouldn’t it be right for government to insist that they be managed intelligently. The question of what is taught is another public school thought. Our government takes our money under threat of force and then uses that money to teach things like science. Why shouldn’t “we the people” have a say in what our government teaches in these classes we all pay for?

      • Freedom of speech does not allow you to have your free speech anywhere you choose though.

        For instance – you can’t stand up in the middle of Church an give your view of something.. Conservatives don’t seem to “get” that.

        re: ” why wouldn’t it be right for government to insist that they be managed intelligently”

        well you could say that about DOD or the NTSB or DMV or the SCC .. but does that give you the right to demand all their records then go in and tell them how to change? Now THAT’s BIZARRE!

        yet another thing Conservatives don’t ‘get’.

        • There are a lot of legitimate rules about when and where you can use your right of free speech. However, there are few legitimate rules regarding what you can say. Public colleges and universities, owned by the people, have no basis banning the content of most speech. Referring to a MtF transgender person as “he” may be rude but is covered under free speech.

  2. Mr. Ayers,

    If most students fill up popular and high priced bars night and day in a college town and never fail to believe that they are having a great time while getting educated, then in such as case is this reliable evidence that a bar is where students should spend most all their time while in College?

    And, is it also reliable evidence that those bar scenes are performing a valuable public service that justifies the escalation of its liquor prices sky high year after year, irrespective of the later consequences to its customers, and the town.

    And, does the bars’ provision of such service render them unaccountable for the consequences they reek on “their students” and society? After all, everybody is said to be “Happy.” And it that be so, should that be the end of the matter. Or do the issues at play here go far deeper than popularity? Do results matter? Does price matter? Does accountability matter?

    For another example – should those paying the bills and relying on the service of a public university in that town of bars have the means to monitor the performance of that public university – its costs, its results, where all the money it too collects goes, and its consequences?

    And if the public does have that right to monitor, should the standard of performance here be someone’s poll? Or is the right test of performance to be judged on alleged Alumni support? Or on somebody’s claim to love the school? Or whether or not a self-interested party claims that the institution is admired or copied by others, both here or abroad?

    Or should a university’s standard of performance depend upon someone’s politics or their self-interests? Or on how many many people the school claims to educate, without reliable proof?

    Or does performance depend on ethic mix or race or class claimed to be served? And cannot ‘Low levels” of retention and/or completion be solutions as well as a problems? And why should whether or not universities can cook up ever more ways to separate ever more students, families and taxpayers, from ever larger sums of their hard earned money, be the great problem facing American colleges and universities today? Is this not at best a highly debatable problem at best?

    It suggest that these are not good standards by which to judge the proper performance of a university whose real job is teaching, educating students.

    Many informed educators have suggested that the matters at issue today here regarding education go for deeper than cliches. And I suggest that making broad general assertions and claims that are very much in dispute by serious people raise far more questions without answering any.

    The time for glib assurances, platitudes and bromides is past. They party is over. Educators need now to listen and think afresh about what citizens are saying. And start dealing with reality. And fixing it.

    So too is the time past is for schools to try yet again to ensnare citizens in the weeds of numbers and statistics that tell people nothing of value while they obscure real the truths, realities and problems of today’s system of higher education. The subject here is not statistics. Or even money. Its people – our children, their future and ours. Its about one of nature’s most difficult and perilous of tasks, helping kids pass through adolescence to become properly educated and productive adults in a healthy society. This mean all our kids. People’s worth is far greater than a school’s BA.

    Its also about colleges and universities preserving, not destroy, those kids’ history, culture, and legacy, and building upon the grand inheritance that belongs to those kids so those kids can use their legacy to help them mould themselves into adults who are capable of keeping and enhancing their world and building their lives their our way into one worth living for them.

    Many people, as informed as you, believe our colleges and universities have lost their way. That they are failing miserably in their mission, and bankrupting our nation. Why can’t you see this?

    And why does the cost of higher education have to rise ever higher as if your costs rise without end in your world, and do so in direct proportion to your failure to educate our kids and preserve their culture, instead of undermining their cultural inheritance, its future, and their own?

    And why, even now, after all that has happened and is yet unfolding, do you suggest that these concerns and the judgements they imply are so radical, uniformed and undeserved, when so many other respected educators today have written so many books on this subject, and are alarmed by what is happening in Higher Education today and where its taking us.

  3. Interesting thoughts but the coming tide of challenges were not mentioned. I can remember 15 years ago when some people made the case the everyone should own a home and debt will work itself out. We now know that we cannot afford as a nation to print money so everyone can own a home without any accountability.
    These are some higher education facts:
    Student debt is approaching $2 trillion and half of those who owe the money do not have a college degree or credential. And, it is hard to make the case that because they tried to go to college and get a degree or credential things are better for millions who owe billions.
    And who has benefited from this debt? Not faculties. Not students. But administrations, recreational activists like sports etc have benefited.
    Administrators have benefited while students and former students have more than a trillion in debt.
    Presidents’ income have increased at a rate several times the rate of inflation. Looking on the internees I found that the President of Wake Forest made $4 million lasts year…pretty good for a Baptist university. And Baylor had some ten administrators who made more than a million dollars including chief student affairs officer who made more than a million dollars. Another Baptist university. Wonder what Christ is thinking about that.
    And, in Virginia three university presidents were among the top ten nationally at more than a million a year in 2012. Those institutions were Virginia Tech, George Mason and the University of Virginia.
    Faculty salary increases over the past decades have increased about the same pace as the value of a undergraduate degree but administrators and coaches have jumped ten times faster than faculty compensation.
    And, for the most part students have paid for that via loans.
    And, this is just a beginning with the challenges ahead. For example, the profile of the next generation of college aged citizens will be dramatically different than today. And, to assume that the next generation that is less well prepared for college will go and borrow billions to try to get a degree is wishful thinking. Change is coming.
    Opps my I pad battery is going down.

    • jwgilley –

      You remind me of the educators I so vividly remember from my time at UVA. The Shannons, the Runks, and yes, Professsor Ruhi Ramazni – how they never failed to educate me, even just passing them on the lawn. What men they were!

      • MussingsfromJanus-

        Mr. Gilley’s comments are posted right above here.

        J. W. Gilley, a contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion, earned B.S., M.S. and PhD degrees in Engineering from Virginia Tech. He taught at Virginia Tech, Bluefield State College, George Mason University, and served as president of University of Tennessee system from 1999 to 2001, president of Marshall University from 1991 to 1999, and as Virginia’s Secretary of Education from 1977 to 1982.

        On the Jan. 16, post “American Higher Ed: Innovative, Adaptable, Transformative, Mr. Gilley recalled:

        “I can remember 15 years ago when some people made the case the everyone should own a home and debt will work itself out. We now know that we cannot afford as a nation to print money so everyone can own a home without any accountability.”

        Mr. Gilley’s comment referred the sub-prime mortgage default crisis that blew up the American economy in 2008, plunging the nation into a prolonged economic recession of historic proportions. And he went on to highlight similarities that drove that sub-prime mortgage crisis and today’s crisis in Higher Education.

        Specifically, and I quote:

        “These are some higher education facts: Student debt is approaching $2 trillion, and half of those who owe the money do not have a college degree or credential. And, it is hard to make the case that, because they tried to go to college and get a degree or credential, things are better off for millions who (now) owe billions.”

        Mr. Gilley next asked a key question:

        “And who has benefited from this debt? Not faculties. Not students. But administrations, (and) recreational activists like sports, (and) Administrators have benefited while students and former students have more than a trillion in debt.”

        Mr. Gilley next offered examples of where some of the money secured by student debt went:

        “(University) Presidents’ incomes have increased at a rate several times the rate of inflation. (From) the Internet, I found that the President of Wake Forest made $4 million lasts year…pretty good for a Baptist university. And Baylor had some ten administrators who made more than a million dollars including chief student affairs officer who made more than a million dollars. Another Baptist university. Wonder what Christ is thinking about that?

        And, in Virginia three university presidents were among the top ten nationally at more than a million a year in 2012. Those institutions were Virginia Tech, George Mason and the University of Virginia. Faculty salary increases over the past decades have increased about the same pace as the value of an undergraduate degree. But administrators and coaches have jumped ten times faster than faculty compensation. And, for the most part students have paid for that via loans.”

        Mr. Gilley next suggested that: “This is just the beginning of the challenges ahead. For example, the profile of the next generation of college aged citizens will be dramatically different than today. And, to assume that the next generation that is less well prepared for college will go and borrow billions to try to get a degree is wishful thinking. Change is coming.”

        I believe that Dr. Gilley has gone right to the core of why the rising costs of American higher education pose an existential threat to our system of higher education, the future of its students, past and present, and to our nation. We have a growing population of former students whose futures are hobbled by personal debt now totals nearly two trillion dollars. And good reason to fear that future students will increasing be unable to pay for their higher education at all, or service the debt that they are forced to assume if they do.

        Remember that the wealthiest generation in world history, the Baby Boomer Generation, has to date financed most of this higher education cost explosion, but no longer. Today, stagnant income growth, falling rates of savings and investments, alarming declines of family formations, and staggering cost escalations, each year combine to put college and university educations beyond of reach for ever more Americans.

        Each year, it becomes more difficult for those who drop out and graduates alike to pay off their student loans, not to mention realize the American dream: secure a stable long term job, buy a home, marry and build a family, and save and invest for the future, much less enjoy a rewarding quality of life.

        So this is far more than a financial threat posed by a real estate bubble. It’s an existential threat. On the basis of demographics alone, our system of higher education has launched our youth and our nation into a financial, cultural, and political fool’s errant.

        History shows that these sorts of artificially stimulated costs and demand scenarios that are financed by easy government funded money, whatever the product, have very fast burn rates that can easily collapse national industries and institutions that facilitate them, in a decade. This would be déjà vu, a repeat of events that triggered the 1991, 2000 and 2008 recessions, on steroids. (See my numerous posts on the Blog on this subject, most recently in comments to “Is It Time for a Son-of Restructuring Act for Higher Ed? Posted May 16, 1917.)

        But here the consequences of the cost explosion in Higher Education are proving far more tragic. This spending spree has been for decades, and is now, ruining the education of our kids and stripping them of their culture. This we detailed earlier on this blog, its many posts and comments.

        But here, right now, I mention one. This massive spending spree on the most privileged few within Academia, its bloated bureaucracies and spoiled students, has starved and abused most everyone else in our colleges and universities, most particularly those who teach, try to educate our children. At the same time, this spending spree on all the wrong things, has encouraged, indeed now forces, schools to cater to every whim, wish, and desire of their students. This undermines their chance for an education. And its undermines the profession of teaching, learning, and scholarship.

        Why the spoiling of students and their chance to learn?

        Because the students pay most all of higher educations’ bills, or create the means to finance those bills, and keep the school ratings high, and so these students are critically necessary to keep ever more money flooding in on the illusion of keeping many public institutions afloat and performing well, pretending to educate, while they only indulge the PRIVILEGED FEW.

        Now we have reached the point where it’s very hard to get off this Merry-go-Round. In our capitalist system this is typical of the over heated bubble scenario, and it is the typical plight of its financial addicts. But, on this particular merry go round, unlike any others before it, now our children’s educations along with their culture, heritage, institutions, and future are what is being burned at the stake of corrupt higher education.

        Far more than a freeze on spending and costs are needed to fix these problems we all face.

  4. I don’t understand this article. Comparative global data clearly shows the U.S. has the highest costs per student in the world and is middle of the pack at best on completions. Why should we not focus on cost?

    At the beginning of the article, Mr. Ayers asks why Americans love their own colleges and universities and yet are suspicious of and even disdainful of colleges and universities in general. His conclusion later is more or less that our sentiment for our own college is a more accurate measure than the general view, and the higher ed system by and large is on the right path. I disagree.

    This sounds worryingly like what has been called “Fenno’s paradox” in political science. The paradox, backed up by surveys, is that people generally disapprove of the Congress as a whole, but support their own Congressmen. I’m certainly not going to argue that Congress is functioning well because I may think my Congressman is OK. There is ample evidence here as well that the institution is not performing well.

  5. What an odd article. The facts in Virginia for public colleges and universities are clear – the rise in tuition has been greater than the decrease in state support. The net rise has also been in excess of inflation. This has happened in spite of the increased use of contingent faculty and online courses. Instead of excuse mongering perhaps Mr Ayers should put forth some ideas as to why tuition is spiraling at Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

  6. re: ” people generally disapprove of the Congress as a whole, but support their own Congressmen.”

    true.. for Congress and colleges as you point out!

    re: ” why is tuition so damn high”?

    why are aircraft carriers do damn high?

    why are colonoscopies some damn high?

    Why is cable and internet so damn high”

    why is the 25K service on my car so damn high?

    wah wah wah … come on DJ… what’s with you ?

    • Larry:

      As a certified liberal and budding socialist I understand that you find our government to be infallible (other than failing to take an even high percentage of people’s wages and private property for subsequent redistribution). However, even Fidel Castro tried to make the Cuban government more efficient. Socialism is abhorrent to me but even I’ll admit that if there must be socialism let’s at least try for efficient socialism.

      Cable is overpriced but not provided by government. There are more and more alternatives like Hulu coming online. The free market is working, you have a choice.

      Internet access has been falling in price faster than just about anything (considering the bandwidth provided). If college tuition followed the internet cost curve you could send your kids to a public college for the change you find under your couch cushions.

      Cars are considerably more reliable than they once were. I have seen no evidence that the total cost of ownership for a car (absent fuel) is going up faster than inflation. In fact, I suspect the opposite to be true.

      Colonoscopies are too expensive and health care costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation. This is a societal problem. However, the government doesn’t own the health care industry like it owns public colleges and universities. So, I’d like to see government action on health care but the people giving colonoscopies are generally not government employees managed by government managers.

      Aircraft carriers are built in generations or classes. Their value is relative to their ability to win battles in times of conflict. I have no basis to think that the cost / effectiveness of aircraft carriers is a problem. Neither do you.

      All of which leaves public college tuition. Public colleges and universities are owned, operated and managed by the government. For many years, tuition at public colleges and universities did not rise faster than inflation (holding state support flat). Over the past two decades or so that changed and changed dramatically. Public college and university tuition is rising faster than inflation after adjusting for changes in state support. This is making college education ever less affordable for America’s middle class. While liberals wail about the cost of healthcare and pass badly flawed legislation like Obamacare in a half-assed attempt to “do something” there is no similar sense of urgency regarding college tuition. Since colleges and universities are typically bastions of liberalism run by progressives I can only assume they are immune to criticism from the liberal elite regardless of how poorly they fulfill their mission of educating America’s youth. Typical liberal double standard. All that is missing from a “liberal full house” is to somehow declare those of us who want accountability for skyrocketing public college and university tuition as racist.

  7. LarrytheG one common characteristic of the comps you provide (all but the auto service cost) is that these operate in realm free of market forces:
    “why are aircraft carriers do damn high?
    why are colonoscopies some damn high?
    why is cable and internet so damn high”
    why is the 25K service on my car so damn high?”

    …also true of public higher ed. Its student/parent constituents have no voice, no lobbying power, no invitation to the debate stage.

    Ed Ayres: self-interest is the primary reason graduates are loyal to their schools. I won’t devalue my own diploma by denigrating the issuer. But the interests of alums are not the same as the interests of hopeful high school students wishing to enter the system. Their interests are lower barriers to entry (easier admission standards, lower cost, more seats). Easing access conflicts with elevating institutional reputation most of the way.

    While I concur with LarrytheG oft stated comment that not every 18 year-old needs nor should pursue a 4-year degree, I am adamantly opposed to what Univ of Alabama has done (only 41% of its students are Alabama residents), and what UVA wants to do, which is to widen the doorway to higher-paying out of staters to solve it’s reputation metrics and cost issues. This hurts the interests of in-state high schoolers and their families.

Leave a Reply