The Higher Education Arms Race Escalates

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

We just have to be number one. In everything. In GDP, technology, Olympic medals, and pollution. And we must be the best in education. If you ask anyone in America about higher education, they quickly note that “we are the best.” And this is largely true. Over a third of the top universities in the world are on US soil, according to the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s World Rankings. About half of these are public universities and half private. We are the best. And we’re still the biggest.

Earlier today, reported on a presentation at the ongoing ASHE conference in Vancouver, BC, by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation (CMSF). I won’t get in to the ‘nitty gritty’ data details of the presentation, but essentially CMSF staff Andrew Parkin and Noel Baldwin showcased OECD data to show that Canada does a much better job of graduating college students than the US. But it all depends on the numbers, as Cliff Adelman and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) showcased earliest this week in a new report.

Take on the new initiatives by both Arne Duncan at the US Department of Education and the Lumina/Gates Foundation joint initiative, and we have a renewed focus on getting most students to college. Lumina’s goal is to have “60 percent of the American population to hold high-quality college degrees or credentials” (Merisotis, 2009). I think a society definitely betters itself by increasing college attainment. But two questions emerge: attainment to what? And how much is enough?

When I consult and speak with colleges and universities in the US and Canada, my first rule is “beware the numbers game.” In other words, be very wary of putting big numbers on the table as future goals. Specifically, this is akin to a President saying, “I want to increase our four-year graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent.” The problem is that if the goal is too lofty, then no one believes it. Then no one supports it. I believe in incremental goal setting; being a little better than we were the year before.

Sixty percent of Americans with a high quality degree? I’m not sure I buy that one. First, let’s define high-quality degree. At our 4,000+ two- and four-year institutions, how many serve “high-quality” education? I can’t answer that question. No one can. The CLA can’t, and there is no other mechanism to suggest which is high quality. The only indicator we have is the traditional measure: incoming SAT/ACT, the number of articles/presentations, and the research dollars. And, as readers fully understand, these are extraordinarily limited in telling us anything about quality. It’s like using income as a proxy for IQ: it is a proxy that follows logic, but not a very dynamic one that tells us about the true story.

Twenty-one percent of the jobs in the US (and about the same in Canada, I suspect) require a BA. That leaves 4 out of 5 jobs not needing one. These statistics, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (part of US Census), do not suggest a massive upturn in the need for BAs. Most of the growth is in food industry and health care, but not the type of health care that needs much or any college.

I’ve said this before: I’m not about the number, but about the quality. That’s where the metrics need to be in place; the funding positioned. I am pleased to say that Lumina is funding a new community college initiative that looks directly at that issue, so hopefully their findings will propel the quality issue. But numbers for numbers sake? No.

We already have three quarters of the US going to some form of college. The problem is that half of them leave before getting a degree of some type. So student retention is the challenge, not college access. That stated, student retention will always be piss-poor if we have such an open access policy where we let students who are ill-prepared for higher education into higher education institutions that are ill-prepared to teach them. It’s about quality, at all levels.

So, all of this comes directly back to K-12 education. We can’t do much of a damn thing about college access and student retention until we start tearing down the walls of K-12 education. We do a decent job of education our youth in America. Other countries do it much better and we need to learn from them. We need to acknowledge that age-based education has never made much sense, especially when gender is pushed into the formula.

Are international comparisons useful for exposing who we are? Yes, to a degree. But as Adelman pointed out, the comparisons only take us so far because apples and oranges, taken together, do not necessarily make a nice cocktail. But they do provide a mirror for who we are.

Do we need to be number one? To me, that’s how we set ourselves up for failure. I truly don’t give a damn about being the best; I care about us doing the best. Semantics, yes, but carefully phrased nonetheless. If we reach higher to our individual and collective potential, we’ve succeeded. It’s like the famous quote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars.” If that doesn’t make us number one, so be it. We’re still better than we were. Incremental improvement. That’s the true name of the game. Do we need large targets? That’s arguable. On one hand, yes. On another, no, if it is a number that doesn’t make sense.


Also this week was the new report of college presidents who make more than a $1 million per year. I had some friends email me with their thoughts on that issue. There are two positions: (a) this is outrageous; (b) whatever. I’m with the second group. If Dave Beckham can make $50 million per year, pre-endorsements, for kicking a ball around, if a really overweight defensive tackle can earn a multi-year $100 million contract in the NFL (yes, that would be the Washington Redskins), and if Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees can have a $198 million contract ($33 million/year; the top five Yankee players gross $105 million/year, collectively), I’m not sure why we’re really complaining about a CEO of, in some cases, a multi-billion dollar company (an IHE) making a seven-digit salary. People balk at a college president getting $300k. Let’s get real. They should be getting that kind of money. The problem isn’t that they are; the problem is who we LET do those jobs. I’m all for paying them the big bucks; I just can’t believe who we pay these big bucks to. I have said it before, half (that’s probably a bit high) the CEOs in higher education shouldn’t be there. They aren’t prepared, aren’t knowledgeable, and can’t do the job. But they’re there largely because they know people. Not because of what they’ve done. The truth hurts. But you don’t see us doing ANYTHING about that issue. It isn’t about the money. It’s about the quality. Same issue — different pile.

CODA (College Fairs)

Last week I spoke of college fairs and their relative importance and use. Typical to my style, I was argumentative (hey, I’ve got opinions). My commentary did solicit responses and I’d like to share some of them with you.

* * * * *

Unfortunately I have to say that I somewhat agree with some of the points that Swail makes in this article.  I’ve been to enough college fairs to know that the students in attendance aren’t the ones who really need to be there and I personally don’t think that it helps to recruit any more students to a certain college aside from their regular recruitment efforts. 

* * * * *

My first thought is WOW, but my second thought is that he does have a point.  Every year there is a college fair that we take the XXXXX students to. It seems like it would be a good experience for students to meet with the different college representatives, but many of the scenarios listed below happen. The students are texting, milling about, trying to make new friends, or there are a few that listen to some great sale pitches. I have to agree that these fairs seem like a great idea and seem like a place to expose students to many different campuses, but in practice, the students get very little out of it.

* * * * *

Just a quick comment about your college fair commentary.  I agree with you that the mad-house impact of a large fair really serves little purpose in the long run… but I have 2 points for you to consider.

1.  Don’t mix College Goal Sunday with a college fair.  The purpose of CGS is to help low-income students complete required (and often very complicated) financial aid forms so they can continue to move along the college admissions process.  It’s a genius idea that brings together financial aid officers and low-income communities to overcome one of the biggest hurdles in the whole college process. 

2.  Some fairs – on a small scale – can work.  It’s all about connecting the admissions folks with the students who don’t typically meet them.  With the work I do at the XXXXX we try to connect admissions officers with students in schools where they typically don’t see many recruiters.  A targeted fair – like the outreach work that the XXXXX group does around the annual NACAC conference, can indeed, be important networking opportunities for low-income kids in underserved schools.

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