Archive for the ‘Higher Education’ Category

America’s Great Problems

1028_retire-early-education-caps_397x278The verdict is in. I haven’t done any scientific analysis, but I’m confident of what I am about to assert – the American attention span is shorter than the time it takes for Auburn to score a touchdown after a missed Alabama field goal.

In other words – short. Very short.

For a few moments earlier this fall we were consumed by the news of a humanitarian crisis and chemical weapons use in Syria. Then the Obamacare website didn’t work. Then Iran seemed to be coming to the international table to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program and then China started issuing orders about disputed airspace in the Far East. Oh, yes, throw in a train wreck, a few tornadoes and an NFL lineman who is a bully. So much news and so much noise that much of the media and most policy makers seem to consistently miss the truly great issues confronting the nation.

Most of us continue to look – silly us – to our political leaders to help us understand what is really important, but people in elected office, even the smartest, most dedicated seem more victims than masters of the nation’s collective attention deficit disorder. We certainly don’t lack for controversy and crisis. We do lack a leadership that helps define a sense of national priorities. What might we agree on as a nation that would really make a difference?

Syria, Iran, China and inadequate health insurance websites are all legitimate problems to be sure, but they are truly dwarfed by two more fundamental issues that, at the risk of hyperbole, really threaten the nation’s long-term viability. For the most part political leadership is missing in action. The issues are growing income inequality and the profound challenges confronting the nation’s education system at every level. As if to render the issues even more complicated, we need to recognize that income inequality and educational attainment are actually two sides of the same coin.

A few statistics to put the great problems in sharper focus:

State-level funding for education at all levels, and particularly higher education, has been tumbling since the 1980’s and at the same time – if you’re putting kids through college you know this – tuition rates have spiked. In Idaho, in-state tuition is up by about 45 percent in less than a decade. There have been comparable increases in Oregon and Washington. Arizona led the nation with a 70 percent increase in the last five years, while the national average increase has been 27 percent. Little wonder there is a mounting crisis – $1.2 trillion worth – of college loan debt.

The American Council on Education, a respected advocacy group of college and university presidents, said in a recent report appropriately entitled A Race to the Bottom, “The 2011 funding effort [for higher education] was down by 40.2 percent compared with fiscal 1980. Extrapolating that trend, the national average state investment in higher education will reach zero in fiscal 2059. In other words, states are already 40 percent of the way to zero. At this rate of decline, it will take another 48 years to finish off the remaining state support for higher education.”

Another data point: The country’s standing in terms of the number of young people completing post-secondary education is in decline compared to much of the rest of the developing world. As the Washington Post reported in September, “Instead of gaining ground, the United States has fallen from 12th to 16th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It trails global leaders South Korea, Canada and Japan and is mired in the middle of the pack among developed nations.”

The attainment rate for college graduates in the United States has actually crept up to 41 percent, but as the Post noted, “in South Korea, which has become the world leader, the rate has reached 63 percent. Canada and Japan rank second and third, respectively, with attainments of about 56 percent.”

In terms of college attainment the United States now trails Russia, Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Israel and Belgium — as well as Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, France and Sweden, all of whom passed the U.S. in the latest rankings.

No doubt you’ve heard that a college degree, more costly than ever, just isn’t worth all that much in terms of economic value. It’s just not true.

Eduardo Porter, a very well educated fellow, writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times and recently wrote this: “On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong. Despite a weak job market for recent graduates, workers with a bachelor’s degree still earn almost twice as much as high school graduates. College might be more expensive than ever, but a degree is worth about $365,000 over a lifetime, after defraying all the direct and indirect costs of going to school. This is a higher payoff than in any other advanced nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”

Now let’s try to connect the dots of educational attainment and income inequality.

In September – you remember September, we were focused on shutting down the government, I think – the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans now live in poverty and a typical American family is making less on an annual basis in 2013 than it was in 1989. From about 1993 until about 2000, median household income was increasing steadily, but that upward trend ended and has, with the exception of brief uptick in 2007, been headed down…and down.

It is not terribly surprising that educational attainment is generally the worst in communities with the worst economic conditions. One example from Las Vegas where, as the Review-Journal reported recently, “With rare exception, school ratings are higher district wide when the surrounding neighborhood has a higher median household income and more college-educated residents, regardless of whether parents have degrees.

“Schools do progressively worse when their neighborhoods have higher rates of high school-only educated residents, families falling below the poverty line, and minorities.” In other words, education equals better economic conditions.

To summarize: state-level support for education at all levels (but higher education particularly) has been plummeting, more Americans than ever are acquiring education beyond high school (in part because the recession sent many folks who were out of work back to school), but most of the rest of the developed world – our economic competitors – are getting more advanced education then we are, and more education is still the surest path to a better economic life, particularly when real family income in the United States is as flat as a pancake.

The progressive “think tank” Think Progress says this about the growing economic divide in America. “Income inequality has been growing since the 1970s, as the richest 20 percent of Americans saw their income grow much faster than the bottom 20 percent. But things have accelerated in the economic downturn. For the past three years, those at the top of the income ladder saw their incomes grow by 5 percent while everyone else’s income dropped. The top 10 percent of the country’s earners took home half of the income in 2012, the largest amount on record.

“And things at the bottom have been declining. The bottom 60 percent of earners have experienced a ‘lost decade’ of wage growth, seeing their compensation fall or stagnate. Many forces have contributed to this trend, but the growth of low-wage jobs that replace middle class work during the recovery has helped it along.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that more education for more Americans – college degrees, technical skills training, even an English degree – is the one sure path to a better standard of living and, I would argue, a stronger, more diverse economy. It is past time that our budget and policy priorities got in sync with this reality.

 

Higher Ed, Lower Expectations

Idaho is about to lose another high value educational asset. The loss is coming, in part I suspect, because the state has engaged in prolonged and systematic disinvestment in education at all levels and higher education has been particularly hard hit.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis apparently will depart shortly for Texas Tech University in Lubbock; a 30,000 student, major research university that competes athletically in the Big 12. Nellis was named late last week as the “sole” finalist for the desirable Texas Tech job.

Nellis’ departure comes four years after University of Idaho supporters prevailed upon him to take the job at Idaho’s land grant university by sweetening the salary offer with private dollars above and beyond what the State Board of Education was prepared to pay. The Nellis move marks the second departure of a high value U of I president to a place where education is clearly a higher priority than it is in Idaho. Tim White, Nellis’ predecessor, left the Moscow school in 2008 to head the University of California-Riverside and since has since been promoted to head the entire 23-campus California State University system. Talk about a brain drain.

(Full disclosure: my firm has had a long-standing client relationship with the University of Idaho and know and admire both Nellis and White. I have also done volunteer work for years with the Andrus Center at Boise State University.)

It’s clear that Nellis was recruited for the Texas Tech job and White’s rapid rise in the huge Cal State system speaks for itself. Both men are quality leaders with national reputations who, in the whole scheme of things, had barely a cup of coffee as they passed through educational penny-wise and pound-foolish Idaho. One can hardly blame them for leaving for states where admittedly educational budgets have been whacked, but where higher education is still seen as the surest path to economic growth.

At California-Riverside White helped open the first new medical school in the state in four decades, while during his tenure in Idaho Nellis launched a major fundraising campaign and continued to grow the U of I’s research budget. Nellis moves to a Texas Tech system that boasts a law school, a health sciences center, a big graduate school and a national/international foot print in agriculture and trade.

(Political junkies will note that the Texas Tech system’s Chancellor is former U.S. Representative Kent Hance, a conservative Democrat-turned-Republican who holds the distinction of having beaten one George W. Bush in a congressional race in the 1970’s. Hance is a major player in Texas politics who, among other things, as a House Democrat, helped then-President Ronald Reagan pass the Reagan tax cuts in 1981.)

California’s bizarre budget and spending constraints required that Gov. Jerry Brown take a measure to the ballot last November to raise taxes, part of which he sold as a break with the state’s recent history of disinvestment in higher education.

As the New York Times recently noted, “Governor Brown holds a position on the board of trustees for both Cal State and [the University of California]. Since November, he has attended every meeting of both boards, asking about everything from dormitories to private donations and federal student loans. He is twisting arms on issues he has long held dear, like slashing executive pay and increasing teaching requirements for professors — ideas that have long been met with considerable resistance from academia. But Mr. Brown, himself a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, has never been a man to shrink from a debate.”

Like Idaho, spending on colleges and universities is down in California and in Texas, and enrollment is up. What seems different, however, is that some states in the post-recession period are finally starting, however tentatively, to invest again. And of equal importance these states actually demonstrate a genuine commitment to higher education by exploring real reform. For example, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is pushing forward with a major reworking of the state’s university governance system that will likely lead to more independence and spending flexibility. Other states are linking state support to educational outcomes, hoping to change incentives from merely enrolling students to keeping them in school.

Idaho, on the other hand, seems content not even to discuss new models, while maintaining a top-down command structure enforced by a part-time board that generally sees it’s job as policing the higher education budget rather than growing it. A legislator who might be inclined to dust-off old ideas about a single university system, a chancellor for Idaho higher education or a higher education board devoted to policy would get laughed out of the Statehouse.

As the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) noted in a recent report 20 years ago the United States “topped the world in the percentage of adults age 25 to 34 with college degrees. Our elementary and secondary schools might have been cause for concern but, with students from around the world wanting to enroll, our colleges and universities were above reproach.” No longer.

“Today,” the NCLS report says, “the United States ranks 10th among developed nations in the percentage of young workers holding a post-secondary credential or degree. It’s not that today’s young people are less educated than their elders. Rather, it’s that other nations are doing all they can to boost college participation and attainment and have surpassed the United States.”

Another study, the Times World Higher Education study, concludes that elite United States colleges – Harvard, Stanford, etc. – continue to be among the very best in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up to the rest of American higher education and catching up quickly.

“New forces in higher education are emerging, especially in the East Asian countries that are investing heavily in building world-class universities, so the traditional elite must be very careful,” according to Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education. “In the three years that the World Reputation Rankings have been running, we have clear evidence that the U.S. and the U.K. in particular are losing ground.”

So place all this in this global context and recognize that the bean counters in the Idaho legislature have, after a decade of disinvestment, succeeded in downsized state government to a place many of them have long dreamed about. At the same time they seem entirely content to let higher education patch and scratch its way forward. This year there will apparently be no new money to allow the University of Idaho to expand its law school offerings in the business and government center of the state and no new money to work on critical programs to retain kids in school once they have gotten there. The vast majority of the extremely limited new money for higher education – so far the legislature has approved less than the governor requested – will barely allow the state’s colleges and universities to keep up with new enrollment and occupy a few new buildings. This hardly signifies a strategic view of how to apply the essential grease of quality higher education to the sticky gears of a still lagging state economy.

You have to wonder how Idaho will attract the jobs of the 21st Century when the state continues to have one of the most dismal percentages in the country of high school grads going on to college or skills education. Meanwhile, study after study shows the unmistakable connection between the level of educational attainment by Americans and how well they do on measures of economic security and income. It’s not difficult to conclude that while Idaho education policy in recent years has centered on various “reforms” that have often promised improvements without more money, the state’s per capita personal income has fallen from 41st in the country in 2000 to 49th in 2011.

 Most state policy makers seem entirely content with the steadily diminished status quo and they scarcely speak as another proven higher education leader leaves for a greener pasture. You won’t hear many speeches from Idaho political leaders about how the state should aspire to lead the nation (or even the region) in some academic area or find the resources to build a world-class research capability. Quite to the contrary the view seems to be that things in Idaho are just good enough and budgets and aspiration best be held in check. One doubts Duane Nellis or Tim White heard such sentiments in Texas or California when they made decisions to move on.

At the same time, new forces in higher education indeed are emerging. The Chinese, the Koreans and the Indians, just to mention the obvious, understand the links between robust, continually improving higher education and a growing 21st Century economy. Higher education shrinks income disparity, provides one sure path from poverty to a better life and, not insignificantly, creates better, critically thinking citizens. It’s one thing to be ideologically blind to the need for new investment in higher education that might require new resources. It’s quite another thing to be willfully ignorant of the way the world works.

 

It’s the Money

College Football…the Case for Reform

Taylor Branch is a serious historian, a man who has made his considerable reputation as perhaps the most important historian of the civil rights movement. Branch’s superb Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize and it is just about the best thing in print on the politics, history and turmoil that roiled the country as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pulled America forward, forcing us to confront our racist past and our unequal present.

Branch is an outstanding reporter and he has now turned his impressive investigative and analytical skills to the business of college football. His story – the cover piece in the current Atlantic - is an absolute must read for any fan, any skeptic, anyone who even occasionally wonders what big time college football has to do with big time higher education.

The Columbia Journalism Review said, “Taylor Branch’s cover story in the new Atlantic is a devastating indictment of the NCAA…a superb synthesis of the history of the NCAA, the hypocrisy of keeping athletes from getting paid while the commercialization of college sports (football and basketball, that is) runs amok, and why a reckoning may be in store.”

Frank Deford, who has long lamented the crass commercialism of college athletics, devoted his recent NPR commentary to Branch’s article that he called “the most important article ever written about college sports.”

I read Branch’s piece last week and came away with that once-in-a-while feeling that you have just read something really important, truly insightful and that you really learned a thing or two. His distillation of the history of the NCAA is simply fascinating. His insights into the business of big-time college football should be enough to make any big corporate sponsor blush. His characterizations of the scandals rippling through the game should make every college president in America queasy. But, since we’re really talking money and hypocrisy here, it will take something more than Ohio State firing a football coach or Boise State sacking an athletic director, to reform this system. It will happen, Taylor Branch forecasts, in a courtroom. He make a very compelling case.

Branch’s fundamental indictment of college football rests to two pillars: the NCAA is today, and long has been, a corrupt “cartel” determined to control as much of college athletics as it possibly can and that the so-called “student-athlete” is a fiction dreamed up by a long line of NCAA leaders who were determined to treat young athletes as indentured servants, while college coaches and the institutions themselves are enriched beyond the wildest dreams of most of the young men who labor for free.

As Branch says: “The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.”

He goes on to recount, in painful detail, stories where “student-athletes” have been seriously injured playing for respected colleges only to lose appeals that they be granted the basic protections of worker compensation laws.

“The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” Branch writes. “Efforts to reform it—most notably by the three Knight Commissions over the course of 20 years—have, while making changes around the edges, been largely fruitless. The time has come for a major overhaul. And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.”

In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the young president of the University of Chicago, did what a college president would likely get tarred and feathered for today – he dropped football. Hutchins famously said, “To be successful, one must cheat. Everyone is cheating, and I refuse to cheat.”

Hutchins confronted the fundamental question: just what does ultra expensive college football, complete with lucrative sponsorship deals, high rolling boosters who play by high rolling rules and inevitable scandal have to do with education, scholarship and research. Hutchins answer was just as valid in 1939 as it is today – nothing.

Since reading Taylor Branch’s piece, I’ve read to other pieces of reporting on college football that strangely make his fundamental point in vastly different ways. The University of Chicago, Maynard Hutchins long in the grave, resurrected its football program thirty years after it was eliminated.

As the New York Times noted recently, “In 1969, football returned as a varsity sport, oddly enough during the Vietnam War era when many rebellious students were comparing blocking and tackling to bombing and strafing.

“Since then, the game has been thriving on its own measured terms in N.C.A.A. Division III, free of the highest level of competition. Winning is a preference and not an obsession. Players, though zealously recruited, are not given athletic scholarships. Championships are won but little noticed.

“Chicago presents its own kind of parable: going from all to none before settling on a path in between.

“We’re just a teaspoon in a larger sandbox,” said Dick Maloney, the team’s head coach since 1994. “There are places where football is more like a giant shovel, but I prefer it when everything is kept in perspective.”

In a front page piece, the Times also reported on the latest trends in college football uniforms, noting that the University of Maryland has done a deal with edgy gear manufacturer Under Armour to create a series of game jerseys, pants and helmets that the team will surprise fans with every week. Of course, four of the new jerseys are on sale by the college.

Just to connect the dots, as Branch does in his reporting, while the University of Maryland and dozens of other schools make a bundle on deals to sell college football jerseys and other team goodies, Ohio State University players are serving suspensions and have had four figure fines imposed for selling their own jerseys, rings and awards.

As Branch, Deford and others have pointed out, the NCAA never really goes hard after a big time football program. They’re simply afraid that real sanctions to clean up the college football cesspool might force the Ohio State’s and Miami’s to pick up their footballs and unite under a different banner. The NCAA can’t stand that thought. It needs the money. So, the NCAA spends about one percent of its budget on enforcement and typically only gets really snarly with some kid who may have trouble scrapping together the cash to get the oil changed in his car.

The University of Chicago’s Hutchins once joked that a student could get twelve letters in college without learning to write even one. Today the University that produced the first Heisman Trophy winner and then abandoned the Big Ten Conference is best known for its 85 Nobel laureates.

The entire system of college football – the organization, the big money, the ruse of the “student-athlete” – is eventually going to come tumbling down. There is truly a scandal here and like almost every scandal its ultimately about money and what the corruption of too much money and too little integrity can do to even the noblest of intentions.

 

Educated?

How Educated are State Legislators?

The Chronicle of Higher Education is out with fascinating new research about the educational attainment of all of the country’s 7,000 state legislators.

Key nuggets in the report: while only about 28% of adult Americans have an undergraduate degree, in no state – New Hampshire is dead last as a percentage – do less than 53% of legislators have a degree. It also doesn’t make much difference to a legislator’s support for higher education where they went to college and most, like most college going Americans, went to a public school.

The Chronicle also ranks the most and least educated state legislatures. If you think your elected officials have to be the best (or the worst), you can now confirm or deny that opinion. By the measure of having earned at least a bachelor’s degree, California has the most educated legislature with nearly 90% of lawmakers have a degree. Oregon checks in at 84.5%, Utah is nearly 80%, Washington at nearly 75%, Idaho just over 73% and Montana, Nevada and Wyoming are all in the mid-60% range. The Chronicle’s profiles of each state are fascinating including detail on the schools where most lawmakers attended and how many stayed home for college and how many went out of state.

The Chronicle says: “Like most American students, the vast majority of state legislators went to public colleges. And most of them stayed close to home. In Louisiana, four out of five legislators never went to college outside the state. Across the nation, many lawmakers attended community colleges. Over all, about one in four don’t have bachelor’s degrees.”

This finding will send a shudder down the back of any president of a public college or university: support for higher education budgets seems to have very little to do with where lawmakers went to school.

More than a third of South Carolina’s state legislators went to the University of South Carolina, but it hasn’t stopped them from cutting the university’s budget by 25% over the last five years.

As Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg told the Chronicle: “My conclusion is that higher education has won the academic argument with policy makers. However, we haven’t been able to convert the academic argument into political action. The big question is, Why not? One Utah legislator answered that he simply doesn’t hear from constituents about supporting higher education, because they’re more concerned with roads, unemployment, and taxes.”

All this insight from the Chronicle just makes the dilemma swamping higher education all the more obvious. Shrinking state budgets have forced colleges to turn to higher tuition and fees in a wicked race to keep current. Meanwhile, financial aid is dwindling, with loans picking up the slack. As one observer noted recently, it is not inconceivable that today’s college students will be paying off loans when their kids are in school.

Obviously – and the Chronicle research supports this – there are a lot of smart lawmakers in state capitols. Yet, all these college grads turned state legislators seem, through their votes at least, to devalue the very higher education that most of them have used to help get ahead in life. I continue to wonder how we build the 21st Century economy we say we want, and create the next big wave of good jobs, without a national commitment to invest more and more wisely in higher education.

 

Our Disinvestment in Higher Education

No 21st Century Economy Here

The United States has been engaged over the last 20 years or so in a systematic disinvestment in higher education. It may be the least understood and most profound economic issue we face.

Google “disinvestment in higher education” and you’ll find it is a story in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Iowa, California and nearly everywhere else.

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis was part of a panel at Montana State University recently. He talked, as he always does, about the connection between a growing – in quality and in students – higher education system and a vibrant economy.

As reported by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “Nellis said one of his biggest challenges as a leader today is communicating to the public how important the university is, at a time of state ‘disinvestment in higher education, at a time we’re losing our competitiveness in the world.'”

The University of Idaho, along with other state institutions, the newspaper noted “has had a 23 percent cut in state funding in two years, and it’s worse in California, Washington and Oregon.” State universities, Nellis said, are “critical to economic development and quality of life.” Exactly.

(Full disclosure: my firm has a long-time relationship with the University of Idaho and two family members are grads.)

As much as the state of Idaho needs to step up its funding game, the need to improve higher education attainment – the numbers attending and completing postsecondardy education – is a critical national need that is profoundly effected by public and private spending on higher education. According to the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based outfit committed to improving the percentage of Americans with some higher education, less than 38% of us in 2008 had a two or four-year degree. Lumina’s goal is to get that number to 60% by 2025, but at the current pace we’ll never make it.

Lumina pegs Idaho’s current percentage meeting the two or four-year goal at less than 35%, nearly three percentage points below the national average. Every state bordering Idaho, except Nevada, is doing better. Some states, like Washington – 42% with some postsecondary degree – are doing substantially better than Idaho.

Why is it so important to get more Idahoans – and Americans – in postsecondary education and on a path to a degree? Another recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce provides the answer. By 2018, 61% of Idaho’s jobs will require some postsecondary education. The math here is easy, if disconcerting – no skilled workforce, no 21st Century jobs.

Idaho’s task of improving postsecondary performance is even more daunting when you consider that our high school dropout rate remains unacceptably high at about 23% and the number of Hispanic youngsters, one of the fastest growing segments of Idaho’s population, who don’t make it through high school is even more unacceptable. So too the number of Hispanic youngsters who don’t go on to higher education. Other recent analysis in Idaho shows that we can’t even agree on how to calculate the dropout numbers. Not a particularly encouraging fact.

While the U.S. struggles to improve higher education attainment numbers, the rest of the world is catching us in what has always been a reliable strength – science, technology and engineering. China and Korea, to name just two global competitors, are granting engineering degrees at five times the U.S. rate and university research by these rapidly developing economic competitors is leaping ahead with much of the research funded by the private sector.

Boise State University’s wise and politically savvy president, Bob Kustra, recently called for an Idaho Consensus to “appreciate and support higher education.” Kustra is precisely correct. The Idaho higher education leadership, the political class, the Idaho business community, alums and everyone who cares about the economic and cultural future of Idaho need to get it together. We need a consensus about what to do, what to spend, where to invest and how to compete.

It is an old cliche, but that doesn’t mean that its not true, to say that Idahoans can wildly value the football accomplishments of Boise State’s Broncos, but can’t seem to muster anywhere near the same enthusiasm for an equally accomplished higher education system backed by a smart investment and attainment strategy.

No football in Korea or China, I guess, but if we keep calling the same plays here those skillful and aggressive competitors are just going to run up the score. No one is going to like that game plan or where we’ll rank in a intellectual poll that will mean a lot more than who plays for a national championship on the gridiron.