Thursday, December 16, 2021

Public higher education: more than an experiment

 As we prepare to close out another year, I hope we will all take a moment to reflect on and acknowledge our tremendous accomplishments. Their most vivid instantiation is in the graduates who are walking across our stages (whether physically or virtually) this month. Drawn from all walks of life, they prepare to advance into our world with blessings bestowed on them by their first-hand encounter with the power and very real promise that is public higher education—that is our State System universities.      

Every graduate’s experience of higher education is unique. This cohort is no exception. Their experience was flavored by navigating extraordinary times marked by pandemic, unprecedented levels of political and societal upheaval, and then some. Despite this, they are as well prepared as any of our graduating cohorts to make their way—drawing upon the soft skills and hard skills they developed—and are able to sustain themselves and their families, contribute to their communities, and pay it forward to the next generation. And they are well prepared because of all that our faculty and staff do on a daily basis to ensure our students are cared for, challenged intellectually and critically, supported in developing deep and lasting friendships, and prepared to engage thoughtfully and constructively in a complex world filled with people of diverse backgrounds and world views. This is the promise of power and public higher education. To our faculty and staff, I say thank you for everything you do for our students, their communities, our universities and this Commonwealth.             

And it is in this vein, in light of this enormous potential, that I’ve been thinking a lot about the decline of public higher education—state divestment, marked decline in the public’s trust, doubt cast with an increasingly wide net on students’ return on their investment—all aspects. I am not proposing here to debate the reasons. They are multifaceted, and—yes—we inside the academy own our fair share of responsibility for these disturbing trends. I’ve been thinking far more about impacts than causes, at least lately. Who suffers from that decline? Where are the impacts felt? And why should we care?      

Beginning with the end in mind, we should care because postsecondary education is still the most reliable pathway into a sustaining career and a healthy and productive life. Education attainment levels don’t just track with salaries. They track with better health outcomes, civic engagement, family stability, less exposure to unemployment, and a whole host of other indicators that support the proposition. Yes, of course degree attained, program of study pursued, and institution attended materially affect outcomes, and the recently published report of the so-called values commission presented data showing a disturbingly large minority of college graduates not earning the “wage premium” that applies on average to degree holders (shame on us all—higher ed leaders, policy makers, and accreditors—if we are not taking corrective action especially where those results are returned at the taxpayers’ expense). Overall, the proposition holds in general, and it certainly holds for graduates of our State System universities as demonstrated in last month’s blog.      

We should care, because public universities and colleges are among the last venues where people have an opportunity to engage directly with and develop understanding of and empathy with those unlike themselves—people from distinctive backgrounds, with different experiences and aspirations, political inclinations, and world views. Our universities—those in this State System at any rate—have so far been able to buck trends in which people surround themselves exclusively with others who share their backgrounds, political ideologies, and world views. 

Those trends show up geographically in where people choose to live; they show up politically in the rapid growth of “safe seats” (political districts where one party is consistently returned to office with 7 percent or more margin of victory); they show up in audience engagement with social and other media in which people tend to follow only those information sources that align with their own world views; they show up (sadly) in political and civic discourse through which small, like-minded, and tightly knit groups define themselves by disparaging others—something I’ve seen framed as the tribalism of shared hatred. I am not wholly optimistic that we will find a way to overcome the differences that have emerged to define us, and to do so in a way that protects and preserves our fragile democracy. But I am convinced that any chance of our success relies on the continued strength of our public universities and colleges where people engage with one another and learn to appreciate diversity and the role democracies play in protecting, defending, and leveraging our differences in advancing the public good.

So who suffers from the decline of public higher education?    

  • Low- and middle-income families suffer. Badly. In looking at students enrolling in a PA State System university more or less directly out of high school, 53 percent come from families with household incomes of less than $75,000 annually. (The median household income in the state is about $61,000.) Those students have been suffering quietly for years. As state funding lagged, responsibility for paying university operating costs shifted to students whose net price of attending a State System university increased by 53 percent since 2010-11. The greatest impact fell onto students from families earning at or below the median household income. 
  • Students from rural communities suffer. Badly. It is too easy to assume—and I have often heard it said—that people will travel to seek opportunities not available to them near their homes. This used to be the case. It isn’t any longer. Residents of rural communities are less likely than residents of non-rural communities to move in search of better economic opportunities—a “better” life—and are, as a consequence, conscious of being “left behind” (Mckinsey, 2021). Hmm. Let’s consider this for a moment in our context. The majority of our State System universities are located in more rural communities. The majority of their students come from the surrounding four or five (also mostly rural) counties. They are typically among the State System universities experiencing the greatest enrollment decline and the most severe financial challenges. Their challenges reflect regional demographic trends, to be sure, but even the more accelerated population decline experienced by Pennsylvania’s rural counties cannot account for more than a third of the steep enrollment declines we are seeing. Increasing net average price of attendance is much more to blame given its impact on families hailing from communities where the average household income is well south of the statewide average. As the most affordable four-year postsecondary option in the state drifts out of reach for people in these communities, they are left behind. Sadly, given data on the benefits that accrue to college graduates and the declining levels of geographic mobility, this sense of being left behind is more than just a perception. It is a reality.
  • Republicans and Democrats suffer badly, about in equal measure. In Pennsylvania, college access and attainment are non-partisan (or maybe bi-partisan) issues, at least according to the data. Layering the 2020 presidential electoral map by county onto county-level enrollment and university employee data shows that about half of State System universities’ Fall 2020 enrollments came from PA counties voting for Biden where about a third of all State System employees lived. One needs to be careful so as to not commit the dreaded “ecological fallacy.” Not all students enrolling or employees living in a particular county will claim the party affiliation of the county majority. Accordingly, the data are indicative but not definitive. Still, it stands to reason than in a swing state like Pennsylvania, the decline of public higher education ramifies more or less equally for both major political parties.
  • Students who have historically been underserved by higher education suffer. Badly. State System universities are not equally diverse as one would expect at institutions that draw primarily from and thus reflect the demographic composition of their surrounding counties. The System overall, though, evolves continually to reflect the demographic composition of the state. But there is another dimension of public higher education’s diversity that is underplayed and potentially undervalued. Demand for and experience of postsecondary education in 2021 is a lot different than, say, in 1990. Today, the number of students—and thus demand from those seeking to participate—in a full-time residential undergraduate education directly after high school is declining. At the same time, demand is growing amongst people who are:
    • working and/or have families and are accordingly not open to or available for a fully residential experience;
    • seeking short course, non-degree credentials that help them get a leg up in the labor market, and may eventually accumulate into something looking like a baccalaureate degree;
    • in possession of a baccalaureate degree and seeking to improve their standing in the labor market by pursuing a post-graduate degree or certificate. 
  • Employers suffer. Badly. It is useful to remember that State System universities were created to meet pressing workforce demand, notably for teachers. If they replicated the quadrivium in part it was because components of it were deemed to be essential professional knowledge. While our universities have changed considerably since their founding, their role as an engine of workforce development has not. Today, degrees in STEM, health, business, and, of course, education make up more than half of all those minted by State System universities and considerably more than half of all new programs of study that are created. The trend reflects changes in workforce need and the Sate System universities’ continued responsiveness to them. This is everything one would and should expect from institutions with our birthright—especially those that are owned by the state and are provided as a public good. There’s more, of course. Our universities ground undergraduate degrees in a general course of study from which students gain the “soft skills” that employers routinely tell us they require most from graduates—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and the like. As an aside, this is precisely why I have never been fond of or participated in debates that rest on false dichotomization of career-oriented and liberal arts education.
  • Communities suffer. Badly. Economic impact studies conducted in 2015 and 2021, respectively, show the enormous contributions State System universities make to the communities in which they are located. That economic impact has declined considerably in the intervening years (from $11 for every one state dollar invested to $8.50 for every state dollar invested). Why? The largest single factor had to do with enrollment decline, which is as much as 40 to 50 percent in our more rural schools. Impacts are exacerbated by the fact that our rural communities rely on their local university to produce their next generation of business and political leaders, health care professionals, teachers, and more. Turns out it can be challenging to recruit some people to live and work in more rural communities (though it will be interesting to see whether the trend reverses itself to some extent in the aftermath of the pandemic). As the net average price of attending a State System university (remember, that’s the most affordable four-year option in the state) exceeds what rural students can reasonably afford, communities as well as potential students are left behind.

Readers will at this stage have identified the fundamental flaw in the argument so far. None of the above suffer—badly or otherwise—if there are alternative postsecondary options that substitute for decline in the public sector. And that of course is the problem. There are alternatives, but they cost more, and the cost falls disproportionately on the people and families who are least able to afford them.     

More and more, they are left behind: Democrat and Republican Pennsylvanians from low- and middle- income families, residents of our more rural communities; black and brown people who have been underserved by higher education historically; adults and others who are seeking to advance their education level but not available for a fully residential education or even, necessarily, for a full BA or MA degree. Further, as I have argued recently in this forum, the decline of public higher education places upward pressure on the net price of attendance charged elsewhere to low-and middle-income students and the historically underserved. The tendency diminishes opportunity faster, further, leaving more and more people unable even to have, let alone pursue their version of the American dream.    

During graduate school, I attended a talk by the eminent British sociologist and student of education and social mobility, A.H. “Chelly” Halsey. He framed his talk as a question: Could democratic societies function peacefully and with high-performing economies if half or even more of their citizens were structurally denied opportunity; confined as it were to the lower rungs on a socio-economic ladder that was dramatically shortened in length? His answer was “yes, it could.” As you would expect, attending students were appalled, and we pushed back vigorously, drawing on a diverse array of academic authorities, data points, and theoretical constructs as befitting our intrinsically inter-disciplinary group. No doubt some emotion was involved as well. Chelly was undeterred and un-swayed.     

I think of him often of late—of that evening. I remember it as if it happened yesterday, not forty years ago. I’d hate to think he was right. One thing I know for certain: The decline of Pennsylvania’s public higher education—whether it is a matter of deliberate intent, neglect, or simple inaction driven by the complexity entailed in crafting politically acceptable solutions—sadly is creating a living laboratory, a natural experiment that will test Halsey’s disturbing proposition. 

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