Understanding Public Higher Education: Old Structures Never Die, and They Don’t Fade Away Either
A half century ago the tripartite system of higher education served the United States reasonably well based on what it was intended to do. Every state had a flagship campus and/or system that was the pride of the citizens. Granted, some were exemplary—the University of California system, the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin chief among them– but even the less nationally renowned elites (like the University of North Dakota, Ole Miss and Alabama) garnered a good deal of state pride. The second tier sector, the large regional and comprehensive state universities, educated the bulk of the state’s students. Even if they were derided because they were known more for what they were not—not research universities, not pillars of academic excellence—than what they were, they largely achieved what they were supposed to do: Millions of students earned a postsecondary degree from them. And the community colleges educated millions of part-time and adult students. To be sure, the dropout rates were atrocious and the transfer rates to four-year institutions abysmal, but even community colleges’ role was not seriously questioned.
The sociologist Burton Clark once talked about the “cooling out function” of community colleges, and that is precisely what they did. Students entered with the ambition to gain a four-year degree but their aspirations “cooled out” however much well meaning administrators and faculty tried.
What has changed? A half century ago American public higher education was the envy of the world and the pride of every state. Today, barely a day goes by without the shortfalls of public higher education being discussed and bemoaned. Costs are too high. Graduation rates are too low. Transfer rates are atrocious. Students do not learn enough and the faculty do not teach enough. Institutions are too focused on providing lavish amenities and not on educating students. Students are not ready when they enter college and they are not prepared for the job market when they leave. Boards of Trustees are either asleep at the switch or have a single-issue focus that is largely irrelevant to the general wellbeing of the institution. Presidents earn too much and accomplish too little. Colleges have too many administrators and operate inefficiently.
Easy answers certainly exist about the causes of these problems, and as with all generalizations, there is a degree of truth to them: Public funding is less available which makes serving students more difficult. The price students and families pay has risen so the worth of the degree is evaluated more closely. State funding may comprise smaller portions of institutional revenues but the overall cost of supporting public education remains a significant part of the state budget so legislatures and governors are more circumspect in their praise. A college education was once seen as the goal for a select few, and today it is the goal for almost everyone. Credentialism has increased the importance of earning a degree for economic success. Yesterday’s students were better prepared than today’s. Globalization has made the competition for jobs harder, so what one learns in college is that much more important.
While all of these explanations have the ring of truth, there is no one reason that public higher education is no longer the shining exemplar of a half century ago. Another way to think of academe’s ills is to have a thought experiment: Assume that a state was to create a postsecondary system today. Would that system look like the one that exists now?
So what might a public sector look like, if it was invented today?
The sharp differentiation across sectors probably would not exist. Community colleges that were strictly transfer institutions would largely focus on the first two years, and research universities would only have upper-degree and graduate students. Transfer would be synthetic. Time to degree would be much less because some form of dual enrollment would be the norm rather than the exception. Online education and a centralized design of entry-level course curricula would likely be embedded in the fabric of postsecondary systems. Many fewer institutions and faculty would be doing research. Graduate education, the costliest component of the postsecondary sector, would be less prevalent. Community colleges that focus exclusively on job training and earning a terminal AA degree would be distinct from their transfer counterparts. The general educational and enrichment activities intended for extramural consumption would likely be eliminated from community college offerings. Administrative bloat would diminish; administrative salaries would be brought more in line with what they were a generation ago rather than trying to mirror corporate compensation.
Any number of plausible such recommendations exist. Our point, however, is not that one or another change will bring public higher education back to its glory days. Rather, those of us in academe need to recognize that the challenges we face are structural. We have stitched together various solutions onto problems that would not exist if we reinvented the system. Stopgaps will not sufficiently align the postsecondary system with society’s changing needs and goals. The evolution that has occurred in the American and global economies necessitates an evolution in the structure of our colleges and universities.
The time is upon us that if we wish to regain the momentum that public higher education once had in the United States, then we will need to invent that system for the 21st century rather than remain wedded to notions of what served our citizens in the last century.