Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

A Crisis of Confidence in Higher Education

Sean Decatur
December 8, 2017

In 1946, as thousands of World War II veterans transitioned back into civilian life and returned to their studies, President Harry S. Truman established a commission to examine the objectives of higher education and its purpose for a functioning democracy. In the first volume of its report, the commission highlighted the crucial role that education plays in developing engaged citizens, writing,

“Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation’s enterprises. Long ago our people recognized that education for all is not only democracy’s obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.”

Nearly 20 years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 (photo above), rightly noting that the law would “swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open — the door to education.” These words rang true a half-century ago, as they do today. This view led to the concept that society as a whole has an obligation to invest in educational institutions, and that government has a role to play to encourage such investment.

A recently proposed overhaul of the Higher Education Act, however, points toward a shifting view of the value of higher education, from one focused on nourishing minds for the broad advancement of society to an approach centered exclusively around salary outcomes — and that also backs away from a 70-year commitment to expand educational opportunity to low- and middle-income students. New legislation would relax regulations on for-profit schools that have long been culprits of piling debt on students and stranding them without academic support or positive career outcomes. Importantly, this new version of the HEA also would exacerbate a gap in access to a college education, eliminating the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (widely used by lower-income students), placing limitations on the ability of families to borrow money for college and threatening resources for institutions focused on serving underrepresented minority students. And while the proposed HEA aims to increase attention on post-graduate success — a laudable area to examine closely — it misses the mark on its process for this, measuring success only in terms of dollars earned.

Even as research points to the promise a college education holds, access to higher education is increasingly restricted, nudged along in part by federal policies such as the newly proposed HEA under consideration in the House and new tax bills recently passed by the House and Senate. Earlier this month, the House approved a bill that would tax tuition waivers for college employees and graduate students; tax investment revenue for colleges and universities (but not other nonprofits); tax endowment earnings for some colleges and universities; eliminate tax credits that help students afford tuition; eliminate the ability for students to deduct student loan interest from their taxes; and disincentivize charitable giving to schools by eliminating itemized deductions for the vast majority of taxpayers. A Senate bill approved last week similarly taxes endowment earnings for some colleges and universities and discourages charitable giving to schools through changes in the tax code.

These policy proposals are concerning, but perhaps more alarming is the context in which they have arisen. Faith in higher education’s ability to lead the nation in a positive direction is declining; a survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this year revealed that a majority of Republicans believe colleges are having a negative effect on the state of America. A separate survey, conducted by the think tank New America, showed younger Americans are losing confidence in the higher education system. This disinclination toward higher education is not limited to selective private colleges such as Kenyon; cash-strapped legislatures in a number of states have slashed funding for public universities.

With each of their recent bills, legislators add cracks in the foundation of higher education as a core virtue of American society, vital for building strong workers as well as engaged citizens. (The House proposal to tax tuition waivers for graduate students would do more than chip away at the institution of higher education; if passed in final legislation, the proposal would devastate graduate education and hurt approximately 145,000 current graduate students, about 60 percent of whom study in STEM fields.) Colleges have a societal obligation to make education as accessible as possible, but their efforts cannot exist in a vacuum; institutions depend on laws and policies set forth by government to back their mission. When legislators signal their desire to withdraw support for institutions of higher education, dominoes begin to fall; donors lose incentive to bolster colleges and universities, international students look to other countries where they can contribute their talent (and their tuition dollars), and American students find it harder, and sometimes impossible, to further their learning.

What these legislative efforts and these surveys also signal is a lack of effectiveness among higher education leaders in communicating the continued purpose and value of colleges and universities. We know that our nation’s institutions of higher learning have led the way on scientific innovation and research, and our schools have served as vital testing grounds for progress on some of society’s most pressing and complex problems — from issues of sexual misconduct and gender inequality, to the protection of free speech, to the need to boost equality of opportunity for all bright minds. All of this critical work may have its value diminished, however, if we fail to make it relevant and accessible to our greater world.

Discussions about the state of higher education tend to neglect work done by public and two-year institutions that serve the majority of students and instead center around a limited sample of schools: private, selective institutions (such as Kenyon) that enroll a small number of students but gain outsized public attention. When colleges such as these promote themselves as “elite,” and when the cost of their tuition increasingly seems too far out of reach, it’s no wonder that many Americans might feel a disconnect with these institutions.

What can elite institutions do to address this identity crisis and encourage confidence in their practices and their missions? We can start by dissecting what it means to be “elite” — and how closely this perception hews to being “elitist,” a reputation that tends to alienate and exclude the most economically disadvantaged in our population. Because status as an “elite” institution is typically defined not in terms of academic excellence, but rather within the framework of a competitive ranking system, selective admissions practices and high costs that deny access to growing numbers of students, we should not be surprised that institutions such as Kenyon are labeled as “elitist,” and we may not be able to overcome this label until we define “elite” schools as those who are most effective at creating opportunity for talented students and producing alumni who make substantial societal contributions. It is imperative that we break down steep barriers of access and affordability and be more inclusive in our conversations and actions. We must also better explain the purpose of our research and its relevance — and necessity — for advancing our society. None of these efforts entail watering down our core work; rather, we must maintain our pursuit of academic excellence all while better connecting with the fabric of America.

In announcing the release of his commissioned report on higher education, President Truman remarked, “We are challenged by the need to insure that higher education shall take its proper place in our national effort to strengthen democracy at home and to improve our understanding of our friends and neighbors everywhere in the world." This vital work continues today; we must all make greater efforts to not only boost higher education in America, but also to prove its worth.

Photo: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Higher Education Act at Southwest Texas State College on Nov. 8, 1965. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe.