Tuesday, December 13, 2016

What happens to the American Dream during the College Meltdown?

American cultural outlets are slowly recognizing just how unequal society has become.  Traditional images of the American Dream and the values of meritocracy are being challenged by more critical discussions about a dangerously unequal society, including the increasingly corrupt and caste-like nature of  higher education.  The following quotes highlight this slow change in consciousness:
"...Public universities and colleges no longer offer the same degree of opportunity they provided to low and moderate income Americans as recently as a generation ago (Dr. Suzanne Mettler in "Degrees of Inequality").
"...Mergers are a hot topic for all kinds of schools, regardless of race and mission. They are presented by legislators as a way to save taxpayer money, strengthen research and educational opportunities, and to increase visibility in a hyper-competitive rush for student enrollment. But beneath the surface, it is part of a far more dangerous plan to divide the haves and have nots..." (Jarret L. Carter, HBCU Digest).

36% of colleges with endowments under $25 million are spending more than 5% per year from their endowment. It's unsustainable. (Dr. Robert Kelchen, Seton Hall University)

"If current trends continue over the next few decades, most state university systems would soon lose all funding from their states....In 2025 Colorado would become the first state to allocate zero funding to higher ed; Iowa would follow in 2029, then Michigan (2030), then Arizona (2032).  Most states wouldn't appropriate any university funding by 2050." (Alia Wong, The Atlantic)   

"You just have to walk through the Yale campus to see what money will buy you, which is a country club, right?...But we have to look at this in the big picture: There are tons and tons of other students at other colleges who are carrying enormous debt loads through their 20s and even into their 30s because school has gotten so expensive." (Malcolm Gladwell, NPR's Weekend Edition)

"...with the higher education industry growing faster than nearly any other industry in the world, we can probably expect its corruption and cronyism to grow just as fast." (Jesse Nickles, College Times)

There is also a growing body of literature critical of US higher education and specifically its institutional financing, service delivery (including the exploitation of adjuncts), student access, student outcomes, and accreditation.

The US college meltdown is deeper than most critics know.   How many people are examining Student Loan Asset-Backed Securities (SLABS) and higher education construction bonds?   

How many citizens really know how their local university and college endowments are getting consistent double digit returns?  Has your school received a valid stress test (NACUBO, 2015)?   

Powerful critics such as Bain Capital (Denneen & Dretler, 2012) and the New America Fund (Selingo, et al, 2013) argue that colleges are spending beyond their means, using outmoded teaching methods, becoming less accessible to students and their families, and refusing to be accountable for student graduation and default rates and “gainful employment” numbers.

Other sources have called the US higher education system's ancillary student loan businesses and accrediting agencies as either criminal or immoral.   For decades now, the student loan industry has been a racket: a scheme between corporations and government resulting in debt peonage for millions of working Americans.   

These harsh judgments are coming at at time of increasing government austerity towards higher education and college tuition costs that are out of reach for many students and their families.

While some may invite the US college crash as a form of “creative destruction” (Johnson, 2014, Economist, 2014), working families are discovering that higher education is an expensive if not risky proposition, sewing “seeds of discontent” among students as well as teachers (Frey, 2013, Chomsky, 2014, Mettler 2014, Lawler, 2015).

Knowing the perils that colleges, students, and families face, this briefing is a starting point to
  • Identify whether your school is “at risk” (stress testing)
  • Identify where changes can be made, and
  • Discuss the importance of being personally and socially involved in making changes
Truthfully, most major "elite" schools are growing in power in wealth.  But this is education for the few.  My purpose here is to educate and agitate people about the college meltdown which is now underway at for-profit colleges, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges, schools with endowments below $50 million, and academic programs, such as law schools, at public colleges and universities facing state budget issues.

"For decades, bad actors in this (for-profit) industry have engaged in awful abuses, and for five years we’ve seen steady revelations of such misdeeds, including blatant deceptions by for-profit colleges to students and government overseers." (David Halperin)

"After reviewing the data compiled by several researchers...community colleges are pretty much a mess.  They get far too few of their students on the road to good jobs or four-year college degrees.   Many of their classes are poorly taught.  many of their programs are poorly organized.  Even their best effort are poorly funded."  (Jay Matthews, Washington Post)

"The problem (with community colleges) isn't tuition.  It's guidance and teaching.  Students are turned off not by the cost of community college but the frustrating entrance standards and classes that do not take them in the directions they want to go.  They are given little assistance in navigating the confusing requirements." (Jay Matthews) 

According to Johnny C. Taylor, president & CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 50 to 60 percent of HBCUs don’t have a long-term optimistic outlook and about 10 percent are in imminent trouble.

"HBCU dorms have fallen into serious disrepair. Classrooms are in need of updating, and academic programs have suffered. Some schools have had to reduce faculty and staff. To be blunt, it’s the result of years and years of financial neglect. Some of these schools are in need of a major infusion of cash." (Lynette Holloway in The Root).

"These (tribal) colleges not only have high costs per graduate, but also weak educational results. The reasons are complex, but they start with the fact that many reservations are places of despair with levels of alcoholism, drug use, suicide, out-of-wedlock childbearing, violence, and unemployment that would shock the average American. Despondency rules."  (Tom Burnett)

"Law schools face real business challenges. Demand has declined every year since 2010—not just a little but by nearly 40 percent. The same number of law schools have 33,000 fewer prospective customers than they had five years ago."

Those who are sufficiently concerned need to read more about this issue and must follow up with their own homework and social action.
Elite private schools and State Flagship Universities that possess multi-billion dollar endowments, perpetual tax breaks, and renewing government grants promise to get wealthier and more powerful, leaving hundreds of poorer schools in peril.
 Institutions at Risk (“Stress Test”)
If higher education administrators, accrediting agencies, and teachers union officials refuse to be transparent and accountable to students and former students, alumni, adjuncts, and communities, the US college meltdown promises to be more cataclysmic.
Denneen and Dretler (2012) identify at least 13 metrics to identify whether your school is in financial trouble. If your school is not an elite private or public university with a large endowment, you might be at risk if your school is experiencing:
  1. Falling admissions
  2. Median salaries of graduates are flat
  3. Reductions in funding
  4. Taking on more debt
  5. Tuition increases
  6. Reducing faculty head count
  7. Cut backs on financial aid
Best and Best (2014) argue that public universities that rely on out-of-state and international students may also be taking on risk that is not readily apparent.

Where to Make Changes
Daneen and Dretler (2012) outline four major areas to make changes.
  1. Developing a clear strategy focused on the core of the institution (places that clearly add value)
  2. Reducing support and administrative costs (fragmentation, redundancy, unneeded hierarchy, need to outsource some functions—caution reducing instruction costs)
  3. Freeing up capital in non-core assets (real estate, physical assets, intellectual property)
  4. Strategically investing on innovative models (flexibility for students)
Selingo, et al (2013) mention similar strategies and add several more options in reforming colleges, including:
  • Stronger partnerships with community colleges
  • Online offerings, hybrid courses
  • Data driven student advising system
  • More flexible and effective learning systems (online tutorials more effective than lecturing, personalized systems)
  • Targeted financial aid
  • Peer tutors and supplemental instruction
  • Forging partnerships with business and government
  • Make transferability more accessible
  • Performance based funding

Exemplars of Innovation
No one can tell a community and its colleges what they must do to save resources and generate long-term resources. But there are exemplars of schools doing the right thing for their communities and their student bodies.

Coops are innovative partnerships that allow students to gain work experience before graduating. While coops have been an integral part of wealthy schools such as Drexel University, they can also be used to provide people with needed skills to serve a community. In another briefing, I highlight the growth and success of training at Working Class Accupuncture.

In Rockville, Maryland, nine public colleges and universities are housed in one campus--called the Universities at Shady Grove.  The program began 16 years ago  to "produce an educated workforce and encourage college completion among populations that traditionally struggle to get their ­degrees."

Innovative projects may require some pain, but may lead to even stronger and more mindful and sustainable programs.

Spelman College, for example, saved money by removing interscholastic sports, but replaced them with wellness programs that are an incubator for a "wellness revolution."
Social Involvement
Getting institutions to cut administrative fat, reduce cronyism and “dead wood”, and become more innovative will often result in resistance, even as other schools become more innovatative (Lederman, 2013). According to Daneen and Drettler (2012), in order for change to occur, an institution must
  • Bring in key stakeholders to make needed change
  • Acknowledge that change is necessary throughout the institution
  • Address not only cost cutting, but adding value (e.g. consolidation can improve efficiency)
  • Be clear about roles and accountability (functional accountability)

People in the US are living in times of increasing government austerity and declining percentages of traditional college-age students. These are political and social realities that are not going away soon. These realities make it vital that students, families, teachers, educational support staff, administrators, business people, taxpayers, alumni, and community members be actively involved in making colleges accessible, accountable, and responsive to society.

Strategic plans require informed input from an array of stakeholders who must be willing to sacrifice and to innovate. Without this, communities should be prepared for their schools to fail financially. Colleges should pay attention to their core missions, be wary of fads, and be able to adapt as their communities and their economies change. I hope that some of the ideas have prompted readers to think about what they can do to promote change in their colleges.

If you are not a member of an elite institution, how will your local school or alma mater listen and respond? Will they keep their heads buried in the sand, or will all stakeholders work together to be more socially responsive and responsible? If administrators and political leaders are unwilling to offer substantive changes, will students, teachers, and communities take a much larger and more active role in governing institutions, as they appear to be starting to do?

Epilogue: A Sincere Effort from Everyone
There is no shortage of knowledge about what works in US higher education. However, politics and power often get in the way of change (Habley, Bloom & Robbins, 2012, Mettler, 2014).

Those in power hoping to keep critics at bay by offering stakeholders a voice--but not actually considering any of their substantive or "radical" ideas--put themselves and their institutions and communities in peril (Hogan, 2003). It may give breathing room for those on the way out, but it doesn't ensure that the institution can survive for the longer run.

Let's get real. Political officials, regents, board members, and administrators know about lucrative and shady business deals, crony administrative positions, and high-priced pet projects. Teachers and teachers unions know about boring, uncaring, and unprofessional teachers who should be fired. Students know about ill-prepared disinterested peers and those who are cheating their way through school. Citizens know about the lack of access for particular people in their neighborhood and the maldistribution of resources. But it takes courage (and outstanding organization) to get everyone working, and struggling together, before a college fails in its mission.
While those with power may argue that others are at fault, they cannot disregard their own duties to facilitate the education and betterment of their communities.
[First edition posted as "The US College Meltdown," April 13, 2015.]

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