Now Everyone Has a Solution for Higher Education

The Hamilton Project, Brookings

The Urban Institute's Sandy Baum discussed Pell Grants with Columbia's Judith Scott-Clayton at a Brookings Institution event.
November 25, 2013

Rarely does a week go by without an announcement or three of another forum, summit, or—lately—"convening" that proposes to shake up higher education or predict its future.

The New America Foundation explores the potential of competency-based education. National Journal examines demographic change. College Possible shares research on serving low-income students. The Charles Koch Institute defines the "diploma dilemma." And that's just this month. As a go-to presenter on innovation, Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, estimates having traveled to 30 speaking engagements so far this year.

While the direction of higher education has long been a hot topic among campus leaders and industry lobbyists, now everybody wants in on the conversation. The sheer pace of activity has stepped up, as think tanks, advocacy groups, and even media companies produce a steady stream of events and reports, all on some challenge or other facing the industry. What's driving all of this attention to higher ed?

For one thing, more people are going to college, and parents overwhelmingly expect to send their children. Yet the public has doubts about affordability and value. College is seen as important but flawed. Ripe, in other words, for an overhaul. The president is scrutinizing higher education even as he's promoting its importance.

It's also an appealing topic because the current conversation about public schools focuses on applying new policies, less interesting than dreaming up new ideas, says Andrew J. Rotherham, partner and co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm. "Things move on and off the agenda," he says.

While consumer interest and politics have prompted this wave of attention, so has money. Big foundations—notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation—are making major investments in higher education. And with certain ideas they'd like to see take hold, they are looking to steer government spending, too.

It's not simply a matter of how much money is in play. As many observers have noted, philanthropy has shifted from a model that supports recipients' broad operations to one that backs short-term, results-oriented projects. It's no surprise, then, that the flow of reports and events has been increasing.

Foundations' appetite for policy-ready ideas has also changed how think tanks operate, say several scholars who study them. In this environment, the groups have generally moved from a pure research model toward more advocacy, says Holly Yettick, a postdoctoral fellow at the Buechner Institute for Governance at the University of Colorado at Denver. They need to to churn out—and draw attention to—a steady stream of work, and are looking for a cost-effective way to do so. Punditry, she says, is cheaper than research.

Even if events draw a small audience, or reports few readers, reporters cover them, raising their profile. And on the Internet's level playing field, information from any source, presented in any way, can travel far. A comprehensive, carefully conducted research study and a hastily written brief can wind up getting the same amount of buzz.

However think tanks and other groups go about it, they hope to set the parameters for debate. If the public keeps hearing about the same issues, the proposed solutions can start to feel inevitable. And if the message repeatedly reaches policy makers, those solutions might even become reality.

Outsiders' Ideas

While some groups seek grant money to probe higher-ed issues, others are after profits. That's true of the media outlets, says Stephen Burd, senior policy analyst with New America's education-policy program (and a former reporter for The Chronicle). "U.S. News has shown how much people are interested," he says, "and how profitable this is."

The public's belief that college is indispensable, coupled with skepticism over cost and quality, means higher education won't be trusted to solve its own problems. There's an appetite for new ideas, especially from outsiders.

Student-loan debt and a tough job market for recent graduates have led to frustration with the status quo, says Andrew P. Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform and a resident scholar in education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. (AEI opened its center this year, in recognition, Mr. Kelly says, that higher education will be a long-term public-policy issue.)

"It seems highly unlikely," he says, "that a critical mass for a reform movement would come from the institutions that are to be reformed."

That movement has united thinkers from the right and left against the higher-education establishment. When more-conservative AEI and more-progressive New America make similar points about what needs to change—albeit sometimes both with Gates money—it can make colleges seem entrenched.

Professors who study higher education need to bring their expertise to a wider audience, Kevin R. McClure, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland at College Park, argued this fall in an online column for The Chronicle.

"The questions surrounding higher education's future," he wrote, "demand input from academics whose livelihoods are tied to rigorous scholarship, imbued with an understanding of history, theory, and data, not from policy centers pursuing a political agenda or entrepreneurs shoring up business."

The urgency of those questions might subside as the economy improves. If college graduates quickly find good jobs, worries about costs and debt will most likely become less pressing.

Still, some of the extra attention is probably here to stay. It gets hot under the spotlight, but higher education may have to get used to it.