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ESSAY: Reclaiming the Public Discourse

July/August 2013

By David Maxwell

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There’s a hard truth behind the perception that college costs too much, and higher education leaders—together with their counterparts in the business world—need to do a better job of telling the story.

DAVID MAXWELL has been president of Drake University, Des Moines, since 1999. He is a member of the executive committee of the Business–Higher Education Forum, and he sits on the boards of directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. He has served on the boards of the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and is a member of AAC&U’s National Leadership Council for the LEAP Initiative.

The picture painted in the media and among the public these days is overwhelmingly negative: “Higher education costs too much, the students aren’t learning the right things, it’s taking them too long to graduate, they’re not getting jobs when they do graduate, and they are graduating with crippling loan debt.”

Students and parents similarly express concern that higher education is getting too expensive. They’re right, of course, and the issues of cost and access keep a lot of us up at night.

We in the higher education community need to acknowledge that we are too expensive, and it’s likely to get worse if we do not develop business models that produce more learning for less cost (notice I did not say “more degrees” or “more credits”—there’s a difference). 

For the public institutions, the massive disinvestment by the states has shifted the financial burden from the public resources to students and their families—an unfortunate reflection not only of fiscal realities, but also of the dangerous shift in attitude toward higher education as much more of a private good than a public good. At the same time, many private institutions—certainly through the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade—increased their costs; the market tolerated it. In fairness, their motives were not to make a profit or build up reserves, but for programmatic and capital expansion in order—they believed—to remain competitive. 

Then the recession diminished families’ ability to pay ever-escalating tuitions. At the same time, negative perceptions about higher education are being reinforced to some extent by sensationalist media that can find, unfortunately, a disappointingly large number of real-world examples to illustrate their indictments of higher education. 

The end result: More people are calling into question the value proposition of higher education. They are beginning to ask, “Is a college degree worth it?” Of course, they should be asking, “Is a college education worth it?” 

Making the Case

We must have honest and meaningful answers to that question, and we need to find ways to more effectively communicate those answers. The first thing we must do is recognize—and communicate—the fact that the term “higher education” covers a lot of ground, and the debate is really about college. 

Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, recently made this important distinction in a panel discussion sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education. College is not job training, college is not simply knowledge transfer—college is, ideally, a set of integrated and interconnected learning experiences (in the classroom, around the campus, and off the campus) that enable students to develop intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Those outcomes are not appropriately measured by job-placement rates, or median salaries of graduates (although I am, of course, delighted by the fact that the accomplishment rate of Drake University’s Class of 2012 was 98.7 percent!).

The second thing we must do is ensure that our answers to the value question are not laced with academic jargon. As for virtually all professions, when we talk about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, we tend to speak in a tribal dialect. We need to find ways to do a better job of explaining ourselves to people who aren’t us in ways that they find comprehensible, transparent, and compelling. 

We also need to find ways not only to inject ourselves into the public discourse, but to reclaim the public discourse so people are talking about the things that really matter, the things that really make a difference. And we cannot be the only ones making the case.  

Mutual Expectations

The Business–Higher Education Forum (BHEF) recently completed a study that asked corporations what they were looking for in college graduates and what workplace skills they required in the 21st century. The answers: critical thinking; problem solving; analytical reasoning; written and verbal communication; and working in multicultural, cross-disciplinary teams.

Sound familiar?  

What the business world calls 21st century workplace skills, we in academia have been calling liberal education outcomes. It’s a matter of labeling. It’s a collision of tribal dialects. A survey of 318 employers, commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) this year, identified exactly the same issues (and more), often in exactly the same language. As BHEF points out in its report, higher education and business need to do a better job of talking to each other about mutual expectations and the ways in which higher education is meeting workforce needs.

AAC&U has pushed the connection between higher education and workforce needs into the foreground of public discourse. In April the AAC&U announced an employer-educator compact, signed by more than 100 college presidents and 150 business and nonprofit leaders, who have committed to articulating the importance of liberal education outcomes. 

It is my hope, and that of my colleagues in both AAC&U and BHEF, that if business leaders and policy makers articulate the importance of these critical workplace skills/learning outcomes—which ultimately shape jobs, careers, personal fulfillment and citizen engagement—the public and the media will listen. But we have to make it easier for them by providing them with clear and convincing arguments and the data to back them up.

So I am confident that we can make a compelling and verifiable case for a college education for those who can afford it. But we are increasingly unaffordable to a rapidly growing percentage of the American public. This is what really keeps me up at night—and I know it’s a source of persistent insomnia for most of my colleagues: The current financial model is not sustainable.

An Unsustainable Business Model 

The sources of revenue for most colleges and universities are tuition and fees (for most of us, the primary source), which are under pressure; auxiliaries, indexed mostly to enrollment; endowment income, which has proven to be erratic in recent years; philanthropy, which is episodic and tied to the economy; and, for some institutions, research funding and indirect cost recovery, much of which has been put at risk by the recent financial debacle in Washington.  

So there’s the dilemma—the primary (for most institutions) source of revenue is under pressure, and the others are unreliable and unpredictable.

And when we look at the expense side, the media and policy pundits are talking about MOOCs (massive open online courses) and “$10,000 degrees,” some even asserting that in a decade there will only be a dozen “traditional” institutions left and everyone will be getting their “education” through MOOCs. 

This is where President Haring-Smith’s distinction comes into play: MOOCs aren’t college, and they never will be. So while MOOCs and more traditional forms of online education may be entirely appropriate solutions for a variety of learning needs for a broad spectrum of learners, they are not a simple answer to the cost of college. Nor are they the answer for the millions of underprepared learners who need a high level of personal interaction and guidance to succeed. They may be part of the answer as we look at the possibilities of blended learning, flipped classrooms and other high-impact learning practices.  

But we must recognize that our single greatest cost is our human capital—and will technology and other learning strategies enable us to produce the same learning and developmental outcomes for the same number (or more) of people with fewer faculty? Can we develop new models of student-faculty interaction and student-student interaction that might actually increase learning outcomes with a lower investment in human capital? Are we willing to give up student-faculty ratio as an indicator of educational quality?

Needless to say, these are the kinds of questions that can induce understandable fear, uncertainty, and resistance among our friends and colleagues, and they’re questions to which we do not yet know all—even many—of the answers. But they are questions that demand urgent attention from all of us; they demand the kind of thoughtfulness, knowledge, insight, deliberation, wisdom, creativity, and risk-taking that characterize the process of discovery that is at the heart of the academic enterprise.


Perception Correction

By The Numbers: Eye on the Industry

It is my hope that if business leaders and policy makers articulate the importance of these critical workplace skills/learning outcomes, the public and the media will listen.