Higher education on trial

The questions of the cross-examination
By: | Issue: August, 2014
July 28, 2014

Higher education is in the dock in 2014. The questions are flying:

Why does it cost so much? Why does it cost more each year?

Why do so many students not finish? Why can’t they get good jobs? Why is it not equally accessible to all?

Why is it not doing a better job training teachers for K12?

What do we have to show for the trillion dollars in student loan debt? Who will repay it?

And why do some universities seem to be living in luxury on accumulated endowment while still charging exorbitant tuition?

These are fair questions. Shame on higher education that we have not been more proactive in explaining ourselves. Shame on higher education that we have not stewarded more cautiously the public funding that has been readily available over the past several decades.

Shame on higher education that we have kept too much in our proverbial ivory tower, writing and speaking only to each other and all too often leaving graduates to fend for themselves after they “walk the line.” Higher education certainly owes the public some answers.

If this trial is to turn out well for the public, and not simply serve certain short-term political purposes, there are other questions that need to be asked in cross-examination. Let me suggest just a few:

How long since the government spent as much on education as on prisons or on the military? And how long has it been since there was as much sustained public scrutiny of prisons and the military as there is now on education?

What is the cost of not getting a college education—both for the individual and for the public? For a few child prodigies, earning a college degree might have been unnecessary. For most young men and women, however, not having a college degree will double their chances of unemployment in a recession and decrease their average lifetime earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What are the best indicators that higher education is doing its job? Higher education may well need to ratchet up its accountability structures. Whether that will best happen through federal regulation or a one-size-fits-all rating system remains to be seen.

At best, a federal standard will squeeze our diversity and create unequal burdens on institutions depending on the socio-economic populations they serve. At worst, it will leave us with the same challenges of “affordability” and “accessibility” and far fewer individuals and institutions with a vested interest in meeting those challenges.

To measure the quality of an institution by the incomes earned by graduates within a defined period following graduation, as the current government proposals suggest, is to fail miserably to understand the range of motivations that drives our most intelligent and best educated young people.

There is no correlation at all between the jobs that are most essential to the public good and the salaries of those positions. For starters, compare the salary of a public school teacher with the salary of a professional football player.

What is the public purpose of higher education? It’s all about fueling the economy through job training, right? Certainly that is important, but there is more.

For many individuals and communities, colleges provide their only affordable access to the arts. Colleges nourish democracy by preparing broadly educated citizens with a sense of public duty and community responsibility.

They are repositories of memory and hotbeds of research and innovation. And they are primarily responsible for developing the intellectual capital of the next generation.

When they are doing their job, colleges and universities fuel the critical thinking that helps keep all of our public institutions at their best.

Higher education in 2014 may be getting what it deserves, paying the price of having been a law unto itself for too long. It is time to move beyond a defense of privileges and self-interest to constructive engagement with the public’s questions before the opportunity passes.

For everyone’s sake, we hope it is not already too late.

Shirley Mullen is president of Houghton College (N.Y.).