A Chronicle Reporter Wrote a Book About the Higher-Ed Crisis. These 5 Things Surprised Her the Most.

September 18, 2014

College is often seen as central to the American Dream, a pathway to upward mobility for rich and poor alike. But the numbers show higher education is a road taken far more often by the haves than the have-nots.

Many Chronicle readers know that, of course, as did I, as a reporter who has covered enrollment and other higher-education issues for more than 25 years. But even I was taken aback when I saw the precise figures: In the United States today, a person from an upper-income family is nearly nine times as likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than is someone from a poor family, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

The size of that gap sticks with me still—a simple and stark reminder of the failings of a higher-education system that spends hundreds of billions of dollars in public and private money annually, aiming to be a meritocracy.

Last year Oxford University Press invited me to write a primer-style book about the "crisis" in higher education. At first I even flinched at the word, resisting it as simplistic and symptomatic of all the doomsday hype I was reading and hearing about the college "bubble" and the impending shakeout in the postsecondary-education landscape.

But as I dug into the data, I concluded that the crisis was very real: The combination of rising costs, mounting student debt, uncertainty of state support for public colleges, and increasingly fragile business models at many private institutions can’t be dismissed. And even if college leaders are inclined to brush off such issues, a restive reform movement, with growing political and financial clout, isn’t going to let them. The reformers want the enterprise to spend less, show better results, and become more open to new kinds of educational providers.

A crisis in higher education, however, isn’t necessarily fatal—or unprecedented. Just consider the work of Earl F. Cheit, a scholar who died last month. His 1970 report, "The New Depression in Higher Education," raised alarms about the financial viability of more than half of all colleges in the late 1960s. Most of the institutions he listed as endangered weathered that and subsequent crises.

And there’s evidence of evolution already taking place at many campuses across the country, and the knowledge that while some colleges are in dire straits right now, many are not.

I honestly didn’t expect to be surprised as often as I was during the 18 months of research for the book, American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know. Here is what struck me most:

1. Higher education has become highly stratified.

The numbers are incontrovertible. From 1980 to 2011, undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled, to 18.1 million. During the same period, the number of students with Pell Grants grew from 2.7 million to 9.4 million. In effect, the size of the undergraduate population got bigger mostly because more needy students joined.

But in contrast to the period before 1980, when six out of 10 Pell Grant students enrolled in a four-year college, many of the new students enrolled in community colleges and for-profit colleges. In fact, the number of Pell Grant students at community colleges increased by 2.7 million during the period, nearly equal to the overall increase in two-year-college enrollment during that time. As for-profit colleges took off about 15 years ago, so too did their enrollment of the financially neediest students, many of them women and members of minority groups.

The view through the racial and ethnic lens paints a similar picture. White students are overrepresented at more-selective four-year colleges—the institutions that spend three to five times more per student, have higher graduation rates, and send more of those students on to graduate school.

Like geography, demography is of course not destiny. But when studies show that, in general, students who graduate from more-selective colleges end up with better prospects for themselves and their children, this stratification demands attention.

2. The many hidden costs of intercollegiate athletics often go unscrutinized.

College leaders and reformers don’t pay enough attention to the financial impact of college sports, not to mention the issues of equity and morality that arise from those often-invisible subsidies. Thanks to USA Today and Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, we know that even among the Division I powerhouses, only about two dozen of 228 public universities take in more from tickets, licensing, broadcast deals, and donations than they spend, according to the latest data.

I was even more struck by the data compiled and analyzed by Jeff Smith, a management instructor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, who has documented how at dozens of colleges—many of them smaller public institutions that serve low- and middle-income students and a high proportion of adults—more than $1 out of $5 in tuition revenue goes to subsidize intercollegiate athletic programs.

As Mr. Smith has noted, for a lot of those adult students, many of whom are also busy working and caring for their children, that’s money for games they will probably never attend. For many of the rest, it’s an expense that could add thousands to student-loan payments for years to come.

Costs for intercollegiate athletics are rising faster than other university expenses, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, with coaches’ salaries and facility expenses growing at "unsustainable rates." Yet if anything, many more colleges are now looking to raise their intercollegiate-athletics profile, rather than rein it in.

3. Higher-education data are often lacking.

You write a book with the data you have, not the data you want. I had never fully appreciated the ways different organizations—and academic researchers—tailor their data collection for their own purposes. For a news reporter covering specific reports or studies, that doesn’t matter so much. You can acknowledge the limitations and write the story.

But when putting together a book that required me to synthesize other people’s work, I found myself searching—often in vain—for studies that I could draw upon to compare trends over similar periods of time.

For a section on racial and economic stratification, for example, an Institute for Higher Education Policy report on low-income students at for-profit colleges showed striking shifts in enrollment patterns. But it covered only the period from 2000 to 2008. Meanwhile, an analysis by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce of enrollment patterns at selective institutions highlighted some similarly striking shifts in enrollment based on race, but it looked at the period from 1995 to 2009. Both helped make the point, but certainly not as seamlessly as I would have liked.

Even for data points as seemingly simple as trends in net tuition prices or levels of state support, the numbers can differ depending on who is providing them. The College Board’s calculation for net tuition, for example, counts the value of tax deductions and tax credits, but the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t. The State Higher Education Executive Officers group, which follows state spending on colleges, adjusts its numbers for inflation using its own formula, which doesn’t necessarily match the approach that other groups use. I managed. And if nothing else, I certainly emerged with renewed appreciation for the academics and policy wonks who wrestle with such discrepancies day in and day out.

4. All is not lost.

For all the problems higher education faces today—not least of which is a shrinking pipeline of 18-year-olds for the next decade, with a growing share of those students expected to need more academic and financial help—lots of promising developments are also emerging. The "big data" movement, which allows colleges to mine students’ digital academic footprints for information that indicates whether they’re going off course, along with courseware and textbooks designed to adapt to students’ individualized learning styles, are already having a positive impact.

Likewise, the push for open educational resources is helping to save students thousands of dollars in textbook costs, while income-based repayment programs like the ones offered by the federal government, and "free college" proposals, like the one enacted in Tennessee and being proposed nationally, hold the potential for keeping at least some of the college debt loads from overburdening students.

Even the new approaches to postsecondary education that have folks so excited these days, like competency-based degrees, hybrid courses that mix online and face-to-face instruction, and apprenticeships, actually do hold beyond-the-hype potential for changing the postsecondary landscape for the better.

5. That potential is fragile.

Despite the fervor over innovations in higher education, there is also the very real risk that some of the same forces that still make it hard for lower-income students to complete college, or even attain the "college knowledge" they need to qualify and apply to top schools, may also undermine their ability to take advantage of those innovations.

For example, something as seemingly simple as broadband access, a necessity for most distance-education courses, isn’t ubiquitous. Only about half of adults with annual incomes under $30,000 have high-speed Internet access in their homes, compared with 88 percent of adults with incomes over $75,000. Similarly, the few studies that have been undertaken on the efficacy of online education and other kinds of courses with less structure or academic support, and fewer opportunities for social connections, found that students tended to become more frustrated and less likely to return to continue their education.

If nothing else, that suggests that before higher education goes all-in on distance education, competency-based education, or some of the other alt-ed models requiring students to navigate the off-piste educational landscape of "badges" and "DIY-U," college leaders need to weigh carefully how they proceed—and what might be lost.

Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle, is the author of American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know, published this month by Oxford University Press.