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Resolving Higher Education's Challenges

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The destructive negative news about our higher education system keeps coming, but there is very little coverage in the national media about why colleges and universities might not be addressing perceived shortcomings as rapidly or comprehensively as students, their families, external organizations or the media wishes, or on what creative solutions might realistically exist. After all, a robust higher education system is critical for national economic competitiveness and our vibrancy matters for this country.

The significant criticisms against us are expressed as follows: we provide little value to our students, and do so at an excessively high price, and we allow our students to graduate with limited skills, few employment opportunities, and staggeringly high debt (on which an increasing number of them default). We resist accountability and do not measure student learning in ways that are useful to students and their families. We raise tuition annually at rates faster than other products or services. We clandestinely operate welfare states, in which we subsidize poorer students by providing aid to them that is funded by wealthier students who pay the full, advertised sticker price for college. Our decision-making processes -- rooted in notions of sharing governance with faculty (and students) -- are both inefficient and medieval, and allow faculty to resist needed changes. We build palaces for our students simply because we can -- such as luxury residence halls, new comprehensive athletic facilities (with climbing walls), and well-appointed student centers.

It would be easy for me, as president of a mid-sized residential liberal arts college, Cornell College, to reject defensively these claims; however, they contain a measure of truths regarding higher education as a sector that require our serious and honest attention. For example, we know that students nationwide sometimes struggle to find gainful employment and are graduating with significant debt that limits their post-graduate options. As a sector, we know some employers are increasingly expressing displeasure that the college graduates they hire lack basic skills such as an ability to think critically or communicate in an effective manner. We know that tuition, until recently, has risen at a rate that eclipses a number of other sectors. We do not have a uniform system for measuring student learning -- to the frustration of governmental officials, families, and others.

However valid aspects of some of these criticisms may be, they do not speak to the reality of a vast majority of colleges and universities that are doing a lot to meet the needs of their students and to continue as institutions for the long-term. At Cornell College, for example, our students report that they find their education to be rigorous and meaningful -- life-changing even, thanks to the extensive faculty-student interaction that studies have shown lead to successful learning and growth. We regularly measure student learning as well as student satisfaction and post-graduation outcomes. Nearly all our students receive some form of institutional financial aid and a significant portion of it is to meet their demonstrated financial need. In fact, over 34 percent of our students receive Pell Grants. Like many other schools, we focus on remedying deferred maintenance and building enhanced educational facilities, not palaces, that meet our needs. And, our faculty members are active participants in evaluating how our curriculum and programs should evolve to meet the needs of students today and into the future. They do not resist change but instead see its necessity.

There has been limited coverage in the national media regarding why higher education cannot seem to resolve its problems or why colleges and universities are not taking meaningful steps to address them. It is simple: many schools are fighting for their survival, and they have no incentive or even ability to act more comprehensively to improve.

Many institutions are already forced to make poor long-term decisions. And, they know it, having little ability to do anything else. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) recently reported that private college and university tuition and fees rose, on average, 3.6 percent this year while institutional student aid grew almost twice that amount at 6.9 percent. While it may appear that colleges are increasing aid to respond to concerns that college is too expensive, it is likely that those schools are undercutting their futures in order to meet current enrollment goals. In addition, many schools continue to award merit aid to students who already have the resources to attend college. These schools hope to fill their seats and also attract better students, which should translate into marginal increases in revenue and stronger rankings. However, merit aid means fewer dollars for students who really need that aid to attend college. A reliance on merit aid to attract students also provides a disincentive for colleges to reduce or limit increases in tuition, because it has become the practice to keep tuition high and then negotiate down with each student. But, what capacity does any school have to alter this practice, especially when it is fearful of its own long-term survival? For many institutions, merit aid puts students in seats today, and few schools have the luxury of looking years out.

It is also true, as with every other college president, I am held accountable for the successes and failures of Cornell College -- not all of higher education. I have no immediate incentive to take steps to improve higher education or society beyond the contributions we make to the lives of the students we serve. Deep institutional changes are hard to make during challenging financial times. Some might argue that difficult times are when dramatic change should be made -- that is what Cornell did in 1978 when it adopted its distinctive One Course At A Time curriculum, one of the best decisions we ever made. However, given that a dramatic change at an institution often comes with real financial risks (and it could take years before it bears fruit); some schools do not have the financial cushion to take that risk. Every institution, especially those that might be on the financial edge, has to think this way.

In addition, colleges and universities are prohibited from working together to make improvements in financial aid policies, namely merit aid, for fear of anti-trust violations under The Need-Based Educational Anti-Trust Protection Act. Merit aid -- when not a part of a student's demonstrated financial need -- serves to entice students to enroll rather than to ensure access to college. As a result, merit aid does not achieve larger national goals for access and affordability.

There are a number of plausible solutions to resolve our higher education problems that come to mind:

First, because many schools take their lead from the most prominently known schools, one could initially focus on these schools so that they are the first ones to make further appropriate changes, particularly in their pricing and financial aid policies. Any such changes would likely trickle down to other schools.

Second, the federal government could make it possible for colleges and universities to discuss, together, the negative effect that merit aid is having on our financial models and tuition increases. Many speculate that if the merit aid could be reduced -- in a manner that no one school felt threatened that it would fall behind other schools -- then perhaps colleges and universities could safely reduce their financial aid budgets. In so doing, schools could then focus primarily on ensuring access to college for students (by awarding aid only to those with financial need), lowering tuition for everyone, and directing some liberated aid monies back to educational programs. Reducing merit aid would also improve the narrative around college -- that going to college is the privilege itself and a form of merit aid as opposed to the current narrative that attending college is an entitlement whereby the merit aid is the privilege.

Third, a body outside of higher education could influence it, so that students and their families could better educate themselves about the qualities of an institution, not just its reputation or ranking. Students and their families need appropriate information, and they should include the performance measurements that President Barack Obama has proposed, such as an institution's graduation and transfer rates and its graduates' earnings and the percentage of advanced degrees earned by graduates. However, measuring what graduates do right after college will not suffice. We also must measure what students do while in school. All institutions should uniformly measure and share their students' success as shown by the percentage of students who take writing-intensive courses, engage in community service, learn to work in teams, or apply their in-class experience through off-campus internships. Instruments such as the National Survey on Student Engagement provide valuable data on the quality of learning, as reported by students themselves. Further, though there is significant criticism of reliance on input measurements alone, such as the academic qualifications of incoming students, these measurements are also valuable for prospective students and families assessing fit with a particular school. After all, students can learn from their peers as well as from their professors; thus, knowing about the quality of the student body is helpful information.

Fourth and finally, in partnership with colleges and universities, the media should cover realistic solutions to our current challenges and the value of a college education -- its benefits -- at the same time that it fully airs criticism of higher education. To this point, it is interesting that there are few articles about the fact that, for example, at most schools, the cost of providing an education exceeds the advertised sticker price. (That is, even a full-pay student receives a benefit beyond the stated tuition.) Nor are there many articles these days about how a college education has transformed someone's life as it does for many of our students.

The national conversation about college has to change if we are going to maintain a broad array of college and universities, and quickly, before it is too late. Absent a dramatic shift in this conversation, hundreds of smaller schools that offer exceptional opportunities on a limited budget will be squeezed out of the market -- to our collective detriment. Many schools will continue to struggle to achieve their enrollment and financial goals, only accelerating a downward financial spiral that could lead to their demise. At this point, we need to be honest about our challenges and collectively courageous to make the necessary changes. We also need a media that can help explicate the complexities and differences of the many colleges and universities as well as thoughtfully advance a more constructive dialogue about the direction of higher education and its value.