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Vying for Viability

July/August 2019

By Michael T. Nietzel

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Campus leaders must reevaluate established trends in higher education to ensure that institutions remain sustainable and meet expectations of the future.

America’s colleges and universities are facing myriad challenges that threaten their viability. Institutions are ever negotiating the equation of how to deliver a high-quality education at a price that families can afford. Despite this effort, many schools have veered away from the core priority of delivering a quality education to students, instead focusing on ratings, amenities, and athletics to the detriment of the communities they are intended to serve.

Campus leaders are familiar with the complications and challenges that have arisen at their institutions, but these same leaders can be hesitant to confront challenges fully and are often slowed by campus inertia and resistance from multiple constituencies—including faculty, students, alumni, and policymakers—each with entrenched interests to protect. In the end, by clinging to outdated policies and practices, institutions are ultimately safeguarding the very inefficiencies that threaten to be their undoing.

American Academic Traditions

Reforms are necessary, but they must exist within the framework of those essential values embraced by Americans and their institutions, while recognizing and responding to the new realities facing higher education. Campus leaders must consider some of the underlying factors that have led to these problems in order to reconcile them with possible solutions.

The goals of our colleges reflect basic American values, those core characteristics of our temperament that include a preference for autonomy, a belief in competition, and admiration of entrepreneurs. Americans value individuals who chart their own course, free of governmental controls. We admire people who trust their common sense more than expert opinion. Likewise, we celebrate competition, confident that social striving strengthens all contestants. And we respect entrepreneurs—those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps to lead more prosperous lives. American heroes—the sturdy folk who stand up to authority and best their rivals—embody all these qualities.

Our colleges have embraced these same attributes over their three centuries of development. For the most part, these qualities have served higher education well. Without centralized governance, American institutions have been free to expand in any direction they chose. This freedom accounts for the greater innovation in our colleges compared to elsewhere in the world, and it helps explain the remarkable diversity of sizes, missions, and students at our institutions. However, the values of autonomy, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship often come with downsides. Unchecked, they can lead to institutional ambitions that are simply too big.

Michael T. Nietzel

Unsustainable Trends

It is within the context of this American academic ethic that higher education must acknowledge and address the substantial set of challenges it is facing. In order to facilitate change, it also is essential for campus leaders, including business officers, to understand how four common goals and practices among colleges and universities are exacerbating, if not actually creating the unsustainable situations in which many institutions find themselves.

Many colleges have been undergoing mission creep as they attempt to emulate institutions with perceived prestige and pursue top scores in college ranking systems. When universities grow their missions beyond capacity in pursuit of this recognition and prestige, they inevitably divert resources from their original priorities. These aspirations usually focus on adding graduate programs and building research portfolios, but they can also involve the proliferation of undergraduate programs and the protection of duplicative and undersubscribed majors. Mission creep has ramifications for admissions decisions, financial aid, and university expenditures. Grander missions almost always cost more than anticipated and often shortchange undergraduate students.

College for all reflects the growing expectation that young Americans will pursue higher education, regardless of their economic or family backgrounds. Formerly a privilege enjoyed largely by the well-to-do, attending college is now the goal of most high school graduates. If, in the worthy interest of increasing access, colleges admit students who are not academically or financially prepared to succeed, they should also be obligated to improve remedial education and revamp financial aid policies to help those students stay in school and earn their degrees. Instead, many institutions cling to ineffective forms of remedial education and award their scholarship dollars to students with high test scores, attempting to win higher ratings by appearing more “selective.”

College success means more than just being handed a diploma; it also requires gaining the knowledge necessary for building a productive life overall. Making a college education rigorous with high standards for learning is a fundamental obligation for college leaders.

Tenure has been the sine qua non of academic freedom and unfettered inquiry for American faculty for more than a century. But tenure is gradually disappearing, replaced by increased employment of part-time and contingent faculty. Without a viable alternative to existing tenure policies, the quality of the faculty will decline, academic freedom will be diminished, and opportunities for students to meaningfully engage with faculty mentors will decrease. Tenure needs to be revamped, but how to do so while maintaining academic freedom and assuring faculty protections remains a daunting task.

American colleges are spending more money on campus amenities and intercollegiate athletics, investments often justified as building a brand or winning the competition for students. Consequently, students increasingly are thought of—and think of themselves—as consumers rather than learners. On campuses today, entertainment and enjoyment are taking precedence over academic expectations and standards. In addition, the payoffs for these investments are elusive, outnumbered by surging debt, shrinking academic expectations, swelling entitlements, and scandalous athletic practices. Furthermore, the overindulgence of intercollegiate athletics often lacks a sound financial footing and compromises the integrity of the academic mission.

How colleges respond to the challenges stemming from these trends will determine, to a large degree, their future viability. But strategically reforming higher education does not require rejecting the values that animated its evolution. These values are too well established and too distinctly American to be brushed aside.

Different values aren’t needed, but different expressions of those values are needed. The good news is that many institutions have shown they can make the necessary adjustments—promoting better student success and fuller student access, insisting on higher standards and better student learning, and ultimately building a more solid financial footing.

Eight Recommendations for Reform

For every challenge facing higher education, good solutions are at hand. Leaders know what should and can be done. The task is to summon the will, push through the resistance, and scale these solutions so they become standard practice, not merely intriguing exceptions.

Here are eight reforms that will enable American colleges to address the major challenges facing them.

  1. Regulate institutional missions. The desire of colleges to pursue ever-larger missions in order to boost their ratings is a costly, often misguided, aspiration. Mission creep can be contained if:


  1. Reward institutional performance. Public institutions have typically been funded based on enrollment numbers or allocation history, models that reward institutional growth but largely ignore student progress and success. An agenda focused on student success can be advanced best through:


  1. Revamp financial aid. The increasing costs of college are leaving well-qualified, low-income students behind. Convinced that college is unaffordable, many students opt out or drop out of advanced education, forfeiting their dreams of participating in a well-educated American workforce. Income-related disparities in college attendance and completion can be reduced if:


  1. Restructure remedial education. Traditional academic remediation fails to help underprepared students succeed in college. Remedial education is a dead end for many students who, with the right assistance, could be successful in college. Students will be more likely to succeed when colleges:


  1. Rejuvenate student learning. Too few students are learning what they should. Academic expectations are modest, grading is lenient, and students’ intellectual engagement is meager. Undergraduates are often regarded more as customers than as learners. Colleges can reestablish the priority of student learning if they:


  1. Replace tenure. Tenure is meant to protect academic freedom and intellectual independence for faculty who are excellent teachers and scholars. However, tenure also can enforce orthodoxy rather than safeguard controversy, and it can lessen an institution’s flexibility to add faculty with fresh ideas in new areas of study. Regardless of historical justifications, tenure is disappearing, replaced by more appointments of part-time and contingent faculty. Here are some alternatives for revising tenure:


  1. Reduce spending on amenities. Competing for students and pushing for higher status have lured colleges into capital spending sprees for campus amenities such as residence and dining halls, recreation centers, and student unions. These projects have saddled institutions with debt just as enrollments have flattened or declined. Colleges can slow the amenities race if they:


  1. Regain control of intercollegiate athletics. Universities in NCAA Division I —particularly the Football Bowl Subdivision—have allowed “big-time sports” to run large deficits, accede to hypocritical NCAA definitions of amateurism, exploit student-athletes, and undermine academic integrity. Adequate regulation of intercollegiate athletics is missing, with the NCAA’s attempts at oversight often doing more harm than good. Meaningful reform of intercollegiate athletics will be difficult. The need is obvious; the will, much less so. Here are options for regaining better control:


These recommendations —coremediation and active learning pedagogy—have proven track records. Institutions not promoting these strategies bear the burden of proving why they remain resistant. On the other hand, the jury is still out for policies like performance funding and “College Promise” programs. They have shown potential, but questions remain about the conditions that would make them most successful or assure their continuation. Other recommendations—such as ending tenure or professionalizing “big-time sports”—are largely untested. They are bolder than many college leaders will prefer, but the problems they address are substantial and growing more serious.

Changing for Good

The responsibility for coming to grips with higher education’s challenges rests on the shoulders of diverse constituencies that generally prefer the status quo. Administrators may acknowledge the need for changes but remain reluctant to push them aggressively because of the difficulty of building support among faculty—and possibly with students, alumni, and policymakers as well.

Each of these groups wants to protect its own vested interests and has well-organized means for doing so. Traditions of shared governance, requirements by regional and professional accreditation, mandates from government, demands of donors, and protests by students can all inhibit—or prohibit—the very initiatives higher education should be attempting to implement. How can the inertia be countered?

First, presidents must take the lead, making the case for reforms they know are needed. They must bring candor to the table, openly discussing the problems facing the academy and calling on their institutions to embrace essential changes. Governing boards should expect this leadership and then back their presidents when they step up.

Second, policymakers must make the investments necessary to sustain higher education. The cyclical uncertainty of public funding for higher education is sometimes cited as a useful prod for institutions becoming more efficient. Disinvestment isn’t a source of reform; it’s a force for failure.

Investments are needed in two areas: adequately funding public institutions so they can accomplish their missions and providing financial aid to students who cannot afford college without it. These investments should be accompanied by policymakers holding colleges and universities accountable for results. Performance funding is one such mechanism, but several others—financial audits, program reviews, maintenance of effort agreements, periodic site visits, coordinating board oversight, and statutory controls—can also be used to good effect.

Finally, the constituencies of higher education—faculty, students, alumni, and friends—must play a constructive, rather than defensive, role in developing well-informed alternatives to business as usual. Necessary changes are thwarted when these groups cling to traditions, delaying good solutions by searching for perfect ones. Debating options is one thing, digging in to resist them is quite another.

Ultimately, these constituencies must also come to grips with the imperatives for change, much like college administrators are being called to do. Reforms stand the best chance for success when tried, and refined, by people who believe in higher education. Now is the time to get on with the task.

MICHAEL T. NIETZEL is president emeritus of Missouri State University, Springfield, and author of Coming to Grips with Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

Related Topics

The good news is that many institutions have shown they can promote better student success and fuller student access, insist on higher standards and better student learning, and build a more solid financial footing.

The responsibility for coming to grips with challenges rests on the shoulders of diverse constituencies that generally prefer the status quo.