April 12, 2003

Higher Education Challenges and Opportunities


I have recorded below a number of challenges to higher education that were identified during the April 6-8 AGB National Conference on Trusteeship which I attended. While each of these challenges will require modifications as to the way we view and deliver higher education, they all offer opportunities for enhanced efficiency and effectiveness in our desire to be responsive to public purpose. Taken together, they indicate a need for major changes in our perception, policy, and practice of our educational performance.

The principal challenge for higher education is to respond to more competition, more scrutiny from inside and outside the academy, an uncertain economy and hence diminished public appropriations, more demands for increased health benefits, better financial aid, updated technology, and increased security. In view of all this , the greatest challenge facing American higher education is to remain focused on what we do best--educating undergraduates, training professionals, and adding to the knowledge base through research and practice.

To achieve this end, collaboration between higher education leaders and public officials provide the most important key to success in advancing a state's public purpose. The challenge is to proceed beyond agreements in principle--to forge the working partnerships and action strategies that allow a state to make headway on these issues. As one presenter said, "For nearly 30 years, most states have tended to solve short-term budget problems by curtailing their rates of investment in higher education and then allowing institutions to augment their revenues by increasing tuition and fees. The result is that universities and colleges have become market enterprises increasingly dependent on their own ability to compete for student enrollments, research grants, and service contracts to fulfill their own agendas. What public officials need to recognize is that markets reward individuals and enterprises and only very indirectly public purposes. The most difficult question officials must ask themselves is: If a state is not prepared to allocate the resources it does invest more directly toward the achievement of public purposes, can it realistically expect higher education institutions to include such goals among their own priorities?" We are evolving and clearly, as a board of regents, we need to renew the social compact between higher education and our state. What do Governors and state leaders want back from higher education? Given the pattern of funding, can we provide what is desired? It was often said that education is the glue that holds society together, but the consensus was that the glue is coming apart.

Another challenge and opportunity is the pattern of behavior that is emerging for the baby-boomer generation, and their progeny. Older generations followed a linear progression--from birth to school to marriage-kids-work to retirement--in that order. These predictable life stages were tightly linked to age: people knew exactly what they were supposed to do based on how old they were. Times have changed. We have new challenges in a world economy. Life expectancy has skyrocketed to 77, and promises to edge even higher. New generations of highly educated self-reliant men and women are seeking challenges, adventures, relationships and meaning throughout their life, at every age. The idea of living life through a series of age-driven linear life passages is being significantly modified. People now live in cycles, go back to school in their 30's or 50's, change careers often, "unretire" in their sixties, intertwine protracted leisure time between job cycles, and desire life-long learning. Clearly, there are many opportunities to bring educational experiences to these newer generations as they change jobs, or pursue academic interests later in life.

Another challenge is to determine who will pay the cost of higher education. Students and their families are paying higher tuition than ever, and institutions are subsidizing students at record levels. Even if state economies were to rebound to normal levels, higher education would continue to face strong competition for resources from other state-supported programs. It was noted that the cost of health care is going up nationally about 10% per year, and is being made more of a factor in state budgets due to the increasing numbers of elderly. The rapidly escalating costs of Medicaid, more than anything else, explain why total state and local spending for health care is projected to grow faster than spending for higher education. For a variety of reasons, our country also has a very large prison population that is expensive to incarcerate. These increasing demands on state budgets are long-term trends.

State and federal financial aid has not kept pace with the rise in the cost of education. I noted above the reduction in state budget support. In seeking expanded sources of revenue to pursue new opportunities, universities and colleges have helped shift a greater share of the cost of higher education to students and their families, effectively raising the barriers of affordability for many. The amount of student debt is a large factor, as it may determine whether a student stays in the state following graduation, and a student may even avoid a career field due to projected debt levels. We clearly need to address whether some students are not showing up due to the projected cost of education. Our board, as with many others, is faced with the prospect of raising tuition at a time of greatest economic difficulty when families, like our state, are having trouble balancing revenue with expenses. One approach to better gage results is to closely tie tuition with student aid.

There is much written about the cost of education but any answer must account for: (1) Significant societal changes including the advent of the knowledge based global economy, and (2) The growing population in the United States approaching college age. This large growth is concentrated in twenty states, starting with Washington and proceeding down to Oregon, California, across the southern states and then up the coast to Virginia. However, it is mostly concentrated in the southwest. These are also states with child poverty. If these citizens are to have educational opportunities, the overall question of "who pays" must be answered. One solution offered is to treat education like health care, make the user pay. This approach was rejected as it will further increase the disparity in educational opportunity, further "privatize" higher education, and diminish opportunities for our disadvantaged citizens.

Philanthropy was comprehensively discussed by Mr. Ian Davidson and Mr. Bill Gates, Sr. The reauthorization by Congress of the Higher Education Act that regulates federal student-aid programs, among other things, will not only affect who receives federal student aid, but also the need for philanthropy. Further, there are broad differences of opinion at the national level as to the advisability of allowing charitable deductions for tax purposes. In light of these events, the importance of getting the message of the importance and benefit of higher education to all citizens was emphasized. Mr. Davidson used the example of the Alliance for Montana's Progress as the type of campaign that was informative, and that should be continued as a long-term effort. I suggest our Board enter into discussions with persons conducting the "Alliance" project, to explore continued support for their efforts.

Almost all of the issues discussed at the conference are affected by uncertain fiscal realities and policies. Among other issues discussed were:

  • Homeland Security. Our institutions must implement three new costly and complex federal laws.
  • Affirmative Action. The Supreme Court is expected to resolve the legality of affirmative action in admissions, student aid, and faculty hiring.
  • Institutional Ethics and Values. It was asserted that it is the board's responsibility to see that, in all our endeavors, we comply with the law, represent ourselves truthfully, deal fairly with individuals, treat the environment with respect and care, and take seriously our leadership role in our pursuit and guardianship of truth.
  • Surging Numbers and Influence of Students. The college-going population is growing larger and increasingly diverse. Shifting state fiscal priorities are placing a greater burden of the cost of education on students--and their influence has accordingly increased. There were a number of student representatives at the AGB Conference. Our Board should also consider sending student representatives to subsequent conferences.
  • Assessment and Accountability. There is an increasing demand from federal and state governments to have our institutions prove their educational results, and legislators are devising stringent tests to hold us accountable.
  • Scientific Research. The scientific community faces challenges in the areas of maintaining balanced federal investments across all scientific disciplines, procedures for bringing research results to market, the ethics of cloning and stem-cell research, and the protection of human research subjects.
  • Intercollegiate Athletics. The issues of control, finances, equality and the presence of continued scandals call into question the board's oversight responsibility.

There is considerable literature on each of these topics; I will make available whatever documents I have for anyone interested.

All these issues were discussed in the midst of what may be the most tumultuous times in our lives for the nation and the academy. All these challenges demand a new advocacy from those of us who hold the public trust, and at the same time offer new opportunities for governing boards to bring even more higher educational opportunities to our citizens.