The American Higher Education System: May it Rest in Peace

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime recently the US Higher Education System passed away, quietly in its sleep, of causes undisclosed to the public. The System, which leaves behind an over-bloated four-year system, an underdeveloped and underskilled two-year system, and an illegitimate proprietary system, had not been well for quite some time. To those closest to The System, they knew it was coming; they just didn’t know when.

The System was born in the early 1600s, first with Harvard University; second with the College of William and Mary. The purpose of those institutions was to educate the future leaders of the New World and bring enlightenment equal to their British peers. They also began the first system of financial aid to ensure that it would not only be an aristocratic system. It was to serve all.

By the time the United States incorporated in the late 1700s, the System had grown in all of the states. One century later, the US Congress created broad legislation to ensure that public universities were accessible in every state of the Union; a few years later providing access through institutions for African American students.

A mainstay of the US system were the agricultural and mechanical institutions, or A&Ms of the system. The US quickly became a leader in research and development which changed how people farm and revolutionized the industrial age. We became better at designing, creating, and manufacturing than any other industrialized country in the world, in large part due to the university system.

In the early 1900s, the government began to put increasingly large sums of money into university-based research. Much of these funds, in partnership with private companies, helped create the war machines that helped the US and its allies win the Second World War. Immediately after the War, the US created the famous GI Bill which exploded the size of higher education, resulting in an expansion of higher education the world had ever seen. Only two decades later, the community college system evolved and The System was known as the best in the world. It had some of the best universities on the globe, created more scientific-based inventions and achievements than any other country, and provided more access and opportunity—by far—than any other system of education. It was a marvel of government creation, oversight, and management.

However, like the lifeline of any living organism, the health of the system began to deteriorate rapidly in the 1980s. Although enrollments continued to increase at magnificent rates, so began the spiraling increases of college costs and student prices, pushing the need for more federal and state financial aid, which, in turn, pushed further the costs and prices of higher education. It is no wonder that, upon its death, the US system was the most expensive system in the world. The best costs money, proponents say, but at what cost?

At the same time, universities realized the growing importance of research funding to help balance their budgets. The university president, once an education leader, now because a fundraiser and lobbyist. We now live in a day when the president may not even have a Ph.D.—a thought that would have not been even whispered at The System’s zenith only a few decades before.

In a growing society, institutional and system growth is not an unnatural or unwanted direction. But the US economy and its role in the world has been on a free-fall slide since the War in Vietnam. Today the growth is in Asia, where we can see, in real time, the creation of the largest higher education systems in the world, based, in large part, on our own system. The problem in the US was the growth of The System in a declining society. Higher education, perhaps more than anything else beyond winning wars and Olympics, is a status symbol for a nation, and governors and politicians have kept the push on growing the system. Without it, we risked losing ground in the world economy.

Tragically, we did lose ground. Our system, still showing some of the prowess that propelled it to the top, began a slow process of deterioration, measured mostly by quality. The two issues described previously—access and research—are largely accountable. Regarding the former, access was a correct and appropriate direction for US Higher Education. The System was built on the premise of opportunity and has always steered that course. Unfortunately, access, often poorly orchestrated and legislated, began to impact the quality of students, faculty, and institutions, to the point that there has been significant discussion about the quality of students coming out of these institutions and their collective impact on business and industry. While most agree that higher education spurs the development of society and its workforce, let alone its global competitiveness, we also must understand the ramifications of poorly constructed education. We have seen it in our K12 schools; and we are now seeing it in higher education.

The focus on research has also attributed to the demise of higher education. Not financially, but in terms of quality control. When academic study becomes the second tier of an institution, we have a problem. This has led to significant mission creep at the four- and two-year levels. Everyone wants what the others have, whether it be research funds or degree-granting reputation. We want more, regardless of the cost.

The evolution of higher education has also had a strong impact on society and on the family unit. Just as colleges and universities want to “creep,” so do families. The growth of US higher education was not in the higher economic brackets; it was first in middle class and then in low-income brackets. Everyone wanted access to the residential institution; the opportunity to mature in an institution as far away from home as possible (or close enough for an occasional visit), to experience the friendship and camaraderie of college life, and to build skills to better themselves for a more complex world.

And Americans, at least those with some economic wherewithal, bought into the dream full heartedly. They started saving for college, legislated special savings plans (529s), and lobbied government for more money. They wanted The Dream, too.

The Quest for The Dream has resulting in many families, with household incomes between $75,000 and $175,000, being willing to pay six figures to send their child to college, without much assurance of what he or she will gain or the quality of the education. They want the experience. Parents will spend countless sums of money traveling across the country, at least once a year, to the parent’s day festivals put on by the institutions. They send money and even “will” their wealth to the institution upon death. They advertise for their college or university through bumper stickers and license plate designs. They wear their school colors and hang college flags on their car’s antennae to show their love and compassion for the institution.

This has largely happened because parents will do anything to support their children, and The System propagated The Dream. To the point that families either give up almost everything to send their children to the “chosen” place, or retreat, demoralized, because they simply can’t give that Dream to their children. While society has worked to eliminate the gap between the Haves and the Have-nots, the gap has only expanded. If we consider quality into that equation, it has expanded broadly. There are those who go to college; those who do not. There are those who attend ‘good’ colleges; and those that do not. There are those that have the residential experience; and those that do not. The system is not equitable; perhaps it can be argued that it shouldn’t.

In recent years, the lack of access to The Dream has resulted in the growth of the two-year system, which is much more affordable and occupation-focused than its four-year peers. As the four-year System falls in decay, the two-year system, as well as the career college system, emerges as a Phoenix, presenting itself as The New American Higher Education. More two-year schools will attract more students and more government-supported research funds. More of them will offer bachelor’s degrees at two-year prices, although many will significantly raise their tuition and fee charges when they do that, not because they have to, but because they can. For those that say our public system of higher education is not market based, they are dead wrong. It is incredibly competitive and market driven. If they can raise revenues, they will. And that starts with tuition charges.

So, while saddened with this news of The System, we can perhaps find the silver lining in that there always exists hope that something good will come out of something bad. Perhaps we are at a stage where we can build a new system, based on the old System, to mutually increase quality and equity in higher education for all, pointing society toward better economic times, a greener society, perhaps, and a better partner for all the world’s nations. The System has allowed us to look at what works and what does not; it has shared insight into the nature of society and the role that higher education plays within that societies’ development. We have learned much; we have much more to learn.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the charity of your choice to help rebuild our public K-12 system. Only with a retooled system of public elementary and secondary education can we properly construct a new higher education in America.

Author’s note:


I hope readers take this commentary as a fantasy indulgence. I clearly understand arguments against some of these assumptions. I can argue with myself for hours. Please note that I grew up in the Canadian system of higher education, which is a hybrid of the British and US systems; the University level is a cross between US and British, and the college system is a carbon copy of the 1960s US two-year system.

I didn’t attend residential university, because almost nobody did. We commuted. We studied. We didn’t go to football or hockey games (usually about 250 people did, at the time). We did have beer bashes. But we studied. That’s what we did. I didn’t go to graduation, because it didn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t a big deal. Nor did my brother, nor did many of our friends. We got the education and got on with it. It was work to us. We worked in the summer to afford to go to university; we paid for it; our parents didn’t. We didn’t go to homecoming. Most of these things, like sports and homecoming, have evolved in the last two decades as Canada has pined for a more-American system of higher education (yes, send in your emails; I’m right). Even Europe wants it.

Thus, I occasionally look at the US system, and at what my friends and colleagues do for their children, and am amazed. I get the Holy Grail they look for, but I don’t get the cost. I have friends who have paid, literally, over $300,000 to send their children to college. I make a lot of money; I can’t do that. I have friends who sent their children to Harvard, MIT, and UVa (out of state), and other institutions, spending between $100,000 and $200,000 to do so (per child), and now see some of those children unemployed a few years out of college. I know people with their children in Ivy League institutions, who have lost their jobs and taking on massive debt to keep their children enrolled. All because we will do anything for our children. That is the system we have created.

When the outside world looks in, they think we are crazy. They aren’t altogether wrong. We are crazed by this fascination with higher education. All because we want The Dream.

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