By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute
The San Antonio Express-News wrote an opinion yesterday on the expansion of higher education in Texas. Senate Bill 828, which failed earlier this year, would give authority to expand higher education campuses to meet the growth and needs of the state.
As noted by the state’s higher education commission, Raymund Paredes, building new facilities alone will not solve the higher education challenges in Texas. In Paredes’ testimony before the Senate Higher Education Committee on March 21, 2018, he suggested that constructing new educational buildings while failing to meet the basic financial needs of colleges and universities through public funding could impact the quality of higher education in the state. And he’s correct.
The issue facing Texas is either playing out now or will soon in many states where populations continue to expand. Higher education pushes hard on the demand curve, while state support either remains stagnant or regresses, depending on state.
The primary question for Texas and other states about expansion is simple: what for? The cost of building higher education, including physical plant, plus programs and staffing, is tremendously expensive. States need to analyze what it is they are building and what the future returns are of that public investment. Public higher education has expanded for many reasons over the last 75 years. Some of it was due to incentives provided via public policy. For instance, the GI Bill, the Pell Grant (BEOG), and state subsidies to keep tuition in check. All of these have an impact on demand. Add in the public sentiment and the overuse of data that illustrates the returns to a higher education, and we realize the large trends in enrollment since the 1970s.
Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, higher education has largely been held as a right and as an access issue, especially and appropriately for populations that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, including students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and students with disabilities. In return, and with the expansion of the community college system, the bar for enrollment has significantly lowered. In fact, all community colleges and many four-year institutions are open-enrollment institutions: that is, there are no significant academic barriers to attendance beyond completion of basic GED requirements.
This is not a debate about the virtues of these public policies. It can be stated unequivocally that these policies have helped millions of students over the years. However, the reality is that these policies have considerable costs associated with them. Higher education in the US is very expensive compared to the rest of the world because it has the most leniency. It is a redundant system, to a degree (no pun intended), where students have second and third and fourth chances if they want. The growth of the for-profit industry has relished on these tertiary desires for a degree.
To note, the importance and dynamics of degree attainment have been pushed to hyperbole by the higher education sector, politicians, and employers alike. “Earn a million more than a high school diploma” is a popular advertising soundbite. And many people who earn a BA or higher do, in fact, earn much greater returns. But many people do not. That is the nature of an “average.” Half do; half don’t. In truth, the returns to a BA have flatlined over the past two decades. Only the professional degrees are still experiencing increasing returns, while the return for certificates and associates degrees has decreased. Understandably, there are stories on either side of the argument for all returns to a degree. But when public dollars are compromised, or at least required, to subsidize the system, it is time to take careful stock of the situation and return to the question: what is the purpose of a higher education, to the individual and to society, as a whole?
Although taxpayers and citizens alike will not necessarily like it, higher education, as we know it, will change dramatically in the future. The mission of higher education is a double sword or standard for most institutions. Most missions focus on the importance of serving community and providing opportunity for all, but the truth is that our systems will need to be further filtered by academics and other variables to ensure that those who enroll have a legitimate chance of success. The experiment with open access has been fruitful and we have learned much in the past 50 years. However, our fiscal capacity to keep the doors “open” for all students has hit the fiscal wall. States are either unable or unwilling to support the rising costs of higher education, and that, in the end, impacts those on the lower rungs of opportunity more than any other population subgroup.
For Texas, as well as others, there will have to be more specific analysis to fully define—in realistic terms—what graduates they need for society. Higher education will—and perhaps needs—to become more European: it must start limiting the number of students in particular programs and fields and not keep floodgates open in the name of “equity.” There must be some calculus involved in educating those that can fulfill new jobs and not over-qualify and overeducated people for jobs that simply will not be in existence.
This is not easy work, and the opportunity for argument is large. There will be winners and losers, but there becomes a financial reality for higher education and taxpayers alike: how big a system can we afford? A second is more important: How big a system do we need?