(This is the “as prepared” version of the speech Dan Greenstein delivered at the Lincoln Project Symposium on May 2, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.)
A Changing Conversation for Changing Times
Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to join this important conversation. Special thanks to the University of Washington, an important friend and partner to the foundation at home and around the world.
I have spent the better part of my career in research universities and I truly appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the future of our important enterprise.
As an historian, I also appreciate the framing of The Lincoln Project – specifically, its grounding in the Morrill Act – an investment in our nation’s future at a time when its very survival was at stake.
In the century and a half since that bold move, our public universities have evolved to meet the needs of a changing nation. They’ve opened their doors to all people, helped to create a middle class, built a research infrastructure that drives innovation, industry, and civic improvement. And they’ve promoted international cooperation and engagement that reflects our belief as a foundation that every person deserves the chance to lead a healthy and productive life.
Throughout, they’ve remained rooted in their founding spirit while recognizing the need for continued reinvention and re-imagination. John F. Kennedy captured it best in a speech at Vanderbilt University 54 years ago:
“We live in an age of movement and change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, both good and evil – and in such an age a university has a special obligation to hold fast to the best of the past and move fast to the best of the future.”
Those words are more relevant than ever to our enterprise. Why? Because I perceive a real and growing gap between the expectations for our universities and their capacity – and let’s be honest, their will – to deliver on them.
Our economy is changing at a breathtaking pace. Many of the jobs that will exist 10 years from now have not been conceived. Most will require some postsecondary education. They already do. Virtually all of the post-recession jobs went to people with at least some post-high school education. What does that tell us? That we need to stop arguing about whether everyone needs to go to college and instead talk about what kind of college people need to go to.
The face of our nation is also changing. Think about this: the proportion of non-white students at our colleges and universities has gone from one in five to nearly half in just a generation. Nearly two-thirds of the students on our campuses work, many of them full-time. More than a quarter of them have children. Four in 10 are at least 25. And one-third are the first in their family to attempt college. How many people in this room can relate to one of those numbers? Two? Three?
We are in a moment of great opportunity and great risk. Opportunity, in that higher education has become relevant in a way that many of us could not have imagined even a decade ago. Risk, because the American people have vested a lot of hope in our ability to deliver, and they are having some real and understandable doubts.
For example, the Georgetown Center has estimated that our economy faces a shortfall of up to 11 million credentialed workers by 2025. That’s about a 5 percent compound annual growth rate…another show of hands…how many of you have set that target in your strategic plans?
The more urgent issue relates to the opportunities we provide for low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults. While I applaud the progress that has been made helping more of these students get to college, we continue to fall woefully short in making sure they succeed.
A high-income student is five times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree by 24 than a low-income student. Disparities in degree attainment across racial/ethnic groups have hardly budged in a generation and in some cases have gotten worse. Is there anyone in this room who thinks that is acceptable? No. It is both morally wrong and economically self-defeating.
The American people are starting to ask hard questions about whether we as an enterprise can deliver what we promise. Public Agenda found that for the first time in a decade’s worth of surveying, that the percentage of Americans who believe that college is essential for economic mobility actually declined. Not by a lot, but a decline is still telling.
And next week, New America will publish results of a survey showing that people believe education after high school is critical, but have hard questions about what it delivers, and they are not satisfied with higher education as it is today.
There is an expectation versus reality gap that we in higher education must own and address if we are going to hold fast to the best of the past and move fast to the best of the future. And bridging that gap boils down to choices, both big and small. There are three choices in particular that I want to highlight here.
First, we must articulate differentiated paths to excellence. We – myself included – too often assume a monolithic view of public universities. But the reality is otherwise, and that has real implications for how we judge their effectiveness. Three key aspects:
One is geographic scope. There are research universities that have national and global reach, like Cal Berkeley; those that have a more regional focus, like Georgia State University or the University of Central Florida; and those that are both regional and global in scope, like Arizona State University. Our prevailing incentive and funding structures tend to value national and even international standing over stewardship of place. This must change.
I see encouraging signs on this front, particularly through the work of the Urban Serving Universities coalition, which is supported by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU). I am especially appreciative of Peter McPherson’s vision and leadership on these issues at the national level.
A second choice is student reach. Some public research universities are committed to taking the strongest applicants and preparing them for unparalleled challenges. Others are committed to taking students coming up along different paths who face different but also unparalleled challenges. We must have both, more of the latter, frankly, because a system that celebrates only institutions known for who they exclude is a system that’s neither sustainable nor just.
That is why I am so encouraged by the mission and work of the University Innovation Alliance. This is a group of 11 research universities that have committed to increasing their graduation rates – graduating nearly 70,000 additional students by 2025 – without raising admissions standards. It is my hope that through their efforts, the Alliance will set a standard of excellence that is grounded in inclusion and student success, not exclusion and selectivity.
Third is research intensity. This can be a tricky topic, because it can lead to unproductive debates about what constitutes “good” or “important” research. At the same time, our universities have to engage in honest conversations with themselves and stakeholders about the appropriate degree of emphasis on research relative to teaching and public engagement, as well as identifying and focusing on areas of comparative advantage.
We have lived long enough under the tyranny of a single incentive system – one prizing inputs over outcomes, exclusion over inclusion, sticker price over value.
Second, we must choose to focus more research and analytical capacity on our own institutions. I’ve always found it curious that for an enterprise so given to knowledge and discovery in so many facets of human life, higher education’s research on itself has so many gaps. This is especially true when it comes to the efficacy of interventions designed to increase student success, as well as the impact of policies designed to promote the same ends.
I recognize that behavioral research around postsecondary outcomes isn’t exactly the most handsomely endowed segment of R&D. But it is critical work, important enough to be done on overhead. And, done well, it can pay for itself. That is certainly the story for Georgia State and the University of Central Florida.
Georgia State’s journey started with a desire to understand the root causes of their dropout situation, which was significant. Through careful analysis of thousands of student records, a pattern began to emerge, one that pointed to some relatively simple fixes, such as correcting course registration mistakes early and standing up an emergency grant program to help students with small but unplanned expenses. As many of you know, these and other actions have helped GSU to close the graduation gap by race. They also discovered that each single point increase in the retention rate was worth an additional $3 million in revenue.
UCF’s story, while somewhat similar, went in a slightly different direction. There, campus leaders were seeking to reduce student slowdown and attrition near the end of their degree programs. Again, a careful look at the analytics revealed that there were in fact bottlenecks in certain areas, so the decision was made to create online and hybrid courses to provide students more flexible options for finishing their programs.
These efforts are paying off in a graduation rate that is 10 points above the national average for peer institutions and in lower instructional costs for comparable student performance, and in the massive expansion of credentialing productivity. And the investment – $20 million – was a fraction of what a brick and mortar approach would have cost.
Third, we must choose to engage in authentic public dialogue about both our value and our values. Americans have become increasingly skeptical about many of their social institutions, and higher education is no exception. I noted earlier the survey findings from Public Agenda and New America that suggest some softening of public confidence in our enterprise. Those and other surveys also telegraph concerns that colleges and universities are more self-centered than student-centered, and that significant change is needed.
The two questions that logically follow are: “How did we get here?” and “Where do we go from here?”
The first question is easier to answer because hindsight is always 20/20. I believe that the state of our public perception relates to both value and values.
Let’s talk first about value. The good news is that a majority of Americans see education after high school as a necessity. At the same time, they are growing more concerned that they will be priced out of it. Tuition at public universities has increased an average of 3.5 percent per year after adjusting for inflation.
And students are footing more of the bill – about half of their total tuition, up from a third a bit more than a decade ago.
These trends are taking their toll on how we are perceived by the public. It is showing up in the increasing number of mainstream media stories asking, “Is college really worth it?” It is showing up in the growing appetite among students, policymakers, and employers for data on graduates’ employment and earnings. And it is showing up in the comments of frustrated young Americans who feel they’re being left behind, like the young gas station attendant I met while biking in Iowa last fall. He asked me pointedly, “Why would I spend money I don’t have to go to a community college where no one graduates?”
Less discussed but just as important is public questioning of our values as an enterprise. A number of surveys in recent years have found that a significant percentage of Americans believe that colleges and universities are more interested in their reputations and bottom lines than in the needs of their students. What might have given rise to such a sentiment?
It is partly about price. But it is also about how higher education shows up in the public arena on critical economic and social issues. Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, recently wrote a very thought-provoking piece on this for Inside Higher Ed. In it, she argues that as an enterprise, we have become more self-referential and risk averse, absorbed in our own affairs and afraid to speak out at the risk of offending politicians or donors.
Yes, that is a generalization and yes, we can point to good examples of public mindedness. But let’s also acknowledge an element of truth. Where is our voice on issues such as combating poverty, climate change, race relations? To many, we are too busy launching new capital campaigns, pursuing the next Division I championship, or grappling with the misdeeds of students and administrators to pay much attention to the world beyond the campus.
This brings us to the second and more difficult question – where do we go from here? I believe there are opportunities for higher education to engage its stakeholders on both value and values.
When it comes to value, there are two separate but related needs. One is to be more transparent about the outcomes of our graduates. I am fascinated by the work of Raj Chetty and colleagues on the economic mobility of students at different types of institutions. It underscores for me the importance of our less selective institutions in promoting social mobility and the need for our public policy to prioritize access to quality education for the most economically vulnerable.
The other is to end the pointless and counter-productive argument about the purpose of higher education. For too long, we have been locked in a debate over college as career preparation versus college as preparation for engaged and enlightened citizenry. It is both, they are equally important, and they depend on one another. Getting and keeping a good job requires many of the same competencies that make a good citizen. At the same time, it is difficult to be an engaged citizen if you lack the skills to get a good job – or if you live under a bridge.
Engaging values is more complicated, because each college and university in this country faces a different set of choices about what matters. But after a bruising campaign and transition, I hope we agree that informed and civil discourse is perhaps the most important thing our institutions can give back at this time. And note that I said informed and civil, not sensational and reactionary. Our institutions should be safe places for difficult conversations, not staging grounds for the ignorant and inflamed. Evidence still – and always – matters.
The danger in all of this is that dialogue becomes soliloquy. The latest Inside Higher Ed survey of college and university presidents found that nearly 9 out of 10 campus leaders feel that the public does not understand what higher education is about. The natural response to that is to mount a campaign to explain what we do and why, speaking more loudly and more slowly. It won’t work.
It won’t work because the goal posts for higher education have shifted. When I began my career in academia, access and revenues were the critical benchmarks for colleges and universities. Today, the conversation focuses on things like student success, institutional spending, and return on investment.
It won’t work because people are interested in what higher education does for them and not in what higher education does more broadly. Put more bluntly, we need to stop telling people what we do and start telling them what they get.
And it won’t work because there is evidence suggesting that the more people know about our enterprise, the less satisfied they are with it. In focus groups and surveys we have done on attitudes about higher education, the toughest criticism comes from the stakeholders with the most knowledge of what we do, namely, students and opinion leaders.
So what will work? Here’s three possibilities:
One is spurring innovation for student success at scale. The use of predictive analytics to improve student advising and retention, as well as online and active learning to improve student access to and success in college, are prime examples. We have good and growing evidence about the efficacy and the cost of such innovations. The task now is to deploy them to reach many more students.
A second is supporting collaboration across institutions. Higher education is an enterprise more known for competition than cooperation. But a growing number of colleges and universities – including research universities – are realizing that reinventing the wheel when it comes to strategies for managing inputs and improving outcomes is not a sustainable proposition.
We are seeing phenomenal examples of universities working together as part of reform networks – committed to implementing, integrating, and sharing policies and practices that increase student success and close equity gaps, and by doing so they accelerate their improvement.
Because innovation and collaboration require a supportive environment, incentives are the third core area of our work. More specifically, we are interested in policy advocacy that promotes student success and rewards colleges and universities that increase access and success and close equity gaps.
In so many respects, public higher education really does reflect the best of America’s past, propelling a young nation through the Industrial Age and the Space Age and into the Information Age, creating a robust middle class along the way. And this enterprise can also represent the best of our country’s future, provided that we have the will to evolve so that we may meet our changing demographic and economic needs.
As an historian, I have discovered that real and lasting social change is usually the product of a convergence of people, ideas, and time. When it comes to the evolution of the public university, we have the ideas. You are the people. And now is the time. So I’m excited to get to work.
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