From yesterday’s EPS conference… my remarks. I hope they prove useful in some way.
Saving Public Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century: The Case for Pragmatic Idealism
By now we are all well aware—the United States is “losing the future” by falling in international rankings of the stock of college educated labor. Here at home, we are told that “for the good of the state we cannot afford to have the quality of UW-Madison … erode because we have our hands tied behind us in a range of ways that make us uncompetitive with other public and private universities around the world.”
The need to compete – with other colleges and universities across the world, across the country, and across our state – is the dominant and ever-present message stalking public higher education today. It drives our administrators to seek creative financing strategies and new governance structures, pushes our faculty to take on extensive grant-writing efforts and build in time-consuming travel, and makes students and families reach ever-deeper into their savings and lifetime earnings to try and buy the best.
The implications for the educational enterprise that we call higher education are devastating. Rather than working together towards common goals—for example of producing a thoughtful, engaged group of citizens, land-grant institutions have thrown aside their core missions and silently declared war on one another. It has become a “survival of the fittest” where the terms of success are dictated by how many of the best-prepared and most able-to-pay students you can admit. The spirit of education has been lost.
Education requires cooperation—cooperation between teachers, administrators, students, and parents. In higher education, where movement among colleges is rampant—nearly half of all undergraduates today attend more than one college—cooperation and coordination is paramount. But the fight for prestige, for resources, and for status condemns cooperation to sound almost quaint. Instead of working together to gain a bigger loaf for public higher education, we are scheming over how to squirrel away the most breadcrumbs.
What’s more, we never compete over how well we educate. Let’s be honest: higher education in this country is not primarily—and perhaps never really has been—about the students. If it were, we would be doing more to make sure that we not only enroll them but that we also educate them. We would not simply hire more faculty and staff, but ensure that those inputs translated into greater student success. We have done a remarkable job of inviting in more “customers” over the last several decades, but made absolutely no progress in helping them obtain the “product” they came for—the degree. We have done very little to ensure that we convey lessons that result in deep learning, have steadfastly refused to measure achievement, and even put up roadblocks to doing so. One of the biggest roadblocks is the claim that institutional autonomy is the key to success—that institutional leaders “know what’s best” and are hindered if not given flexibility to control their own destiny. It’s true, institutions are very good at acting on their own behalf—but in this competitive environment they cannot be trusted to act for the common good.
Contemporary higher education policies are not up to the job of reforming this broken system of public education. The Obama Administration’s agenda operates at a very shallow level, aiming at enhancing excellence by increasing graduation rates (not necessarily learning), promoting equity that helps students to pay more for college without asking them “what for”, and selling an efficiency agenda that places politics and costs first, and only includes effectiveness related to the very narrow excellence agenda (measuring completion but nothing deeper). Is it any wonder that none of these efforts have really succeeded?
The results of this unchecked competition are stark. Higher education today is a savagely unequal place. In some colleges in this country, students benefit from the resources created by enormous endowments, high tuition, and significant tax breaks. Per pupil spending is as much as eight to ten times higher at some private colleges as it is at the nonselective institutions where most of America experiences postsecondary education. But even within public education—even within a single state—enormous divides are evident. For example, here in Wisconsin, the public university educating the best prepared kids spends $2,700 more per student on instruction – not research, or services—just instruction—than the rest of the public universities. That’s right—we spend far more on the easiest to educate in this state than we do on the hardest to educate.
Competition is embedded in our history. There’s been a consistent trend in which individuals and institutions “consciously or unconsciously align…themselves into teams in an effort to protect or enhance their own team’s advantage.” There are team efforts to maximize benefits relative to costs, and team efforts to evade costs entirely. Economist Nancy Folbre recently observed that the maneuvering that has taken place among American colleges and universities over the last century, a “game of strategy,” “makes World of Warcraft truly seem like child’s play.”
We have created an aspirational elite that aims to compete in games it cannot ever win. The proliferation of power among the truly elite colleges and universities –those with billion dollar endowments and admissions rates below 10 percent–is bolstered by entire industries—the testing industry, the private counselors, the media (whose journalists themselves often attended elite institutions), and ranking systems at the national and international levels. Public higher education will never win in a competition with those folks. But it seems unable to adjust to that reality, insisting on the need to get further ahead. In a sense this is unsurprising, since the elites, as Louis Menand has noted, have “the visibility to set standards for the system as a whole.” Thus the claim that elites can and should dictate the terms of “quality” is practically hegemonic—it is, for so many, beyond question.
This is a terrible shame, since people have powerful college experiences in non-elite institutions that frequently go unnoticed. They are ashamed to admit that a community or technical college contributed to their education, or that before their graduate degree they attended State U. The elites reinforce this feeling by constraining opportunities for other institutions in ways that are often barely visible. Public support on the part of a flagship for its local community college or branch campus may be bolstered by an unacknowledged, unstated desire to preserve “quality” (aka high tuition and high admissions standards) at one’s own institution. Similarly, what appears to be a laissez faire “let all flowers bloom” attitude towards for-profits, schools that “aren’t even playing in the same game,” is at the same time a way to ensure that the working class has somewhere else to go.
The scramble to climb even just one more rung up the status ladder is all-consuming. The quest feels so necessary that it swamps realities—realities about the massive resource disparities that make achieving such “success” impossible. It makes us willing to leave behind those who cannot afford our newly jacked-up tuition, or cannot meet our newly-raised admissions standards—since after all, we have no choice but to race ahead.
Except that we do have a choice. As sociologist Peter Berger once said, “Unlike puppets we have the possibility of stopping in our movements, looking up and perceiving the machinery by which we have been moved. In this act lies the first steps towards freedom.”
We can no longer continue to skirt the moral and ethical justifications for the existence of public higher education by relying on the tired excuse that we are being pragmatic. The realists do not have this one in the bag. We can think bigger and better—envisioning public colleges and universities that achieve excellence not because they employ the biggest names, attract the biggest grants, or enroll the brightest students but rather because they successfully create individuals who are connected to their state and the world. With this vision, they would take students as they are and work to help them become outstanding—in other words, we’d help mold human beings into smart, ethical members of our community. Wouldn’t that be something worth being known for?
This way forward for public higher education lies in a new focus on institutional cooperation on behalf of students. We must begin to take actions based not on our shared fears, but rather on shared values. We cannot continue to act based on self-interest, but rather begin to consider that higher education generates societal goods in which we all have a stake.
This would be a very different way of doing “business.” It would require value-realignment. It would require a new approach to distributing resources. It necessities a real accountability system—one that is accountable to students. It would require those of us who work in the most elite public institutions to take on responsibility for the low graduation rates at other universities—which themselves are the consequence of systematic under-resourcing and demoralization from which we, at Madison, have benefited. We can no longer allow there to be colleges for “other peoples’ children” and attempt to leave them behind.
Mine is a vision of pragmatic idealism in higher education. We can be realistic, effective, moral and directed. The chancellor of UW-Madison recently asked a very good question: “What to do, what to do?” in the face of pending budget cuts. She offered a very common, and highly pragmatic response: “Begin with the hand we are dealt…” and seek new “flexibilities” to accommodate it. Instead, I recommend the pragmatic idealist’s response: Take the inevitable budget cuts, and use the resulting crisis to rethink goals and missions, and build a stronger, incremental case for future public investment that is consistent with our ideals. In cooperation with the full system of leaders, professors, and students ask: “Why is this the hand we are dealt? Who benefits from this hand? What are the alternative hands we could be dealt if we work together to make education the priority?”
What we do next is not merely a political or economic calculation. It is a moral calculation. Our actions reflect our beliefs and our awareness about what is really happening around us. If we confine ourselves to merely offering smart but dispassionate critiques, adapt to our new circumstances rather than actively resisting this change, and don’t begin to openly question the dominance of this competitive, elitist spirit, we will collectively fail to achieve the goal of educating students. As Diane Ravitch so eloquently put it last night, “schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration.” We have done a poor job of collaborating on solutions to the crisis we are now facing. The answer is not to pull further apart, but rather, to finally—on behalf of Wisconsin students—to come together.