Leadership & Governance

A Longtime Force in Higher Education Reflects on the Changing Landscape

David Longanecker, president, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

May 25, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

David A. Longanecker, set to retire as president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, talks about the “radical” changes he’s seen in higher education over his career – and his plans to drive a truck when he “grows up.”

The demographics of today’s student body are changing, says Mr. Longanecker, a former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education. Yet too many colleges continue to chase the students – white and well-off – who were traditionally part of their base. Institutions must become more “friendly” to low-income and first-generation students, Mr. Longanecker argues, as well as those from minority backgrounds.


KARIN FISCHER: Hi, I'm Karin Fischer, a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm here today with David Longanecker, who is going to be stepping down as the head of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education after quite a long career both in the States and in D.C. Welcome to The Chronicle.

DAVID LONGANECKER: Good to be here.

KARIN FISCHER: I wanted to start by asking you, I've been reporting on higher education for quite some time and you've been working in it for some time, and it feels like we have a lot of the same conversations about some of the same issues like affordability, like access. Why is it you think we have such a hard time grappling and finding solutions to some of these things that bedevil higher education?

DAVID LONGANECKER: I think there are two or three reasons why it's difficult. One is that new people come into the field and they haven't been through it before. And so when you're a president of an institution and you're going through the trauma, particularly a downturn in the economy, which only happens episodically, then it's going to be like the world this is collapsing under you, not fully realizing that this happens every once in awhile. So that's one is that the world changes. The other is that we keep learning new things and the nature of the enterprise changes. So the students we're serving are different students; the size of the enterprise overall is substantially different than it used to be; the nature of the providers has changed a lot. We didn't used to have a real significant number of for-profit institutions. It was primarily public and not-for-profit institutions.

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And the way in which we're educating students is changing fundamentally. The use of technology has fundamentally changed the nature of higher education. So I think there are really legitimate reasons. Some of it is we just don't get it on occasion, but then others are that the world turns, new people come in, they have to learn the ropes and learn the research and what research tells us about that. Because the way in which we finance the enterprise and we do the enterprise isn't all intuitive. I mean, there are some things that we know that aren't obvious.

KARIN FISCHER: You mentioned how today's students are changing. And one of the ways they're changing is that we have many more low income students, we have a lot of first generation students, we have a lot of students from a minority background as our country becomes increasingly diverse. How well equipped to think colleges are to handle those things?

DAVID LONGANECKER: I think that's been one of the toughest things for higher education to get, is that we have to change the nature of who it is we are serving and find ways to serve them. And I think there are two really radical changes in the culture of higher education that we haven't quite made the transition to as we need to. One is that we used to say that we were an egalitarian society, but for all practical purposes higher education was meritocratic. And we'd say, everybody should go to college who can benefit, but let them prove they can benefit.

Today we've got to be much more hands on. We've got to make sure that these students benefit from higher education for a couple reasons. One is the economy requires that we educate a lot more. But the second is the basic nature of our culture was not friendly to students of color, and from other cultural environments. And so we have to find a way to change. And so I think part of it is just that we haven't caught on to how much we have to change. And the second, and it's related, is that our institutions still want to chase the small, declining number of advantaged, privileged students that were our traditional student body.

KARIN FISCHER: That is the case. That's kind of almost a structural part of higher education, this prioritizing of selectivity. Do you think higher ed is doing a good job, then, of being this agent of equality, of providing equitable access to--?

DAVID LONGANECKER: No, I don't think we are at all. And it's one of the areas we need to change radically. And I think we need to change in two ways. A lot of our benevolence is ill directed benevolence. The things we do in many cases to help students don't help them. We encourage them to go part time rather than full time. That doesn't benefit them. We need to find a way in which they can go full time. We offer them free tuition, but it's not free college. And so what it does is it rapes the institutions of the resources they need to do a good job, for the sake of "affordability," when we provide neither affordability nor sufficient capital for the institutions to do the job. We do a lot of things for the right purposes, but we do them wrongly.

And then the other is that we are still infatuated with the best and the brightest. And so when we have constraints on how many students we can serve, who is it we reach out to, it's the best and the brightest, not the ones who most need our help.

KARIN FISCHER: You talk about doing things for the right reasons, and obviously there's kind of a strong belief now, I think, that everybody should go to college. Do you think that's true? Are we doing right by low income students who we know are going to struggle to stay in school and to earn that degree, are we doing the right thing by them to encourage them to go to school?

DAVID LONGANECKER: I think we're doing the right thing by encouraging them to go on to postsecondary education. I don't think college, as we think of college, that is a four year degree, or even the two year associate degree, is necessarily best avenue for all students. I think applied technology degrees, certificates, are really valuable to some students. But I still think we have an unfinished agenda in serving low income students who we traditionally have not served well in the collegiate environment. I've just seen far too many examples, and it's well beyond anecdotes, of the students who are fully capable of having the best of the good life, which by and large does come with a full college education, who could do that, who don't. They either go and don't complete, or they don't go in the first place.

There is an established American enterprise that makes those students very welcome. Those same students. Those high achieving, low income, students of color. And that's the military. They say to those students that they want them, and that they need them, and that they will help them mature. We say, come and prove yourself to us. It's a very different story. And so many of those students are, in fact, serving our country and helping the military in great ways. But I think they ought to also have a much more receptive environment in the collegiate environment as well.

KARIN FISCHER: In some ways this is almost the message we send to students, right? I know you, yourself, did not come from a family where people had gone to school. I wonder, you know, reflecting on your personal experience, what difference does the messaging, the expectations that the people around you are sending to you? What effect does that have?

DAVID LONGANECKER: Well, there's always danger when you use yourself as an anecdote, but I will. There were plenty of people who said that because my dad was a carpenter, I should be a carpenter. Because my folks didn't go to college, I should really try to find something that was more modest in my expectations, even though I was near the top of my class. Now having said that, my parents never said that. They said, you're absolutely going to college. And all of their children went to college and graduated. And so, adults can be -- significant adults -- can be terribly important students. Teachers and administrators in high school are terribly important to students by the subtle, and the not so subtle, messages that they send to students about whether they're likely to succeed, whether they can succeed, and whether they should try to succeed. And I think an awful lot more than we serve today can.

Now it's true that some of the students that we try to reach out to, we know are not going to succeed in college. And if that's the case, we ought to find a more appropriate avenue for them. Many of the adult students we're currently reaching out to -- the research by the National Center for Higher Education Management systems and others shows that if a student hasn't ever gone to college, if all they've done is graduate from high school, or they haven't even graduated from high school, and they return after they're age 26, their probabilities of ever completing a college degree are very remote. About 3 to 4 percent. That's basically saying nothing. So why, not in those cases, put those people into a postsecondary experience that gives them the kind of blend of vocational and academic skills that will help them get a living wage job. That's what adults come back to college for. Part of this is a real change in culture. When I went to college, the primary purpose of college was to move children to adulthood. That's still a significant role for many, but we have an awful lot of students, older students, we're not trying to civilize them anymore. We're trying to get them prepared for a more productive economic future for themselves and their families.

KARIN FISCHER: I know you've spent the last part of your career in the States, working with the Western States, and one of the real story lines throughout this time has been the real removal of the public from public higher education. Real declines in state funding. I'm wondering, generally, how you think it's complicated this debate over equity? And more broadly, how you think the declines in state funding have affected higher education?

DAVID LONGANECKER: Well, two things I'd mention, and I really encourage you to take a close look at the [State Higher Education Finance] report that comes out on financing. What really occurred is there was a decline, but it isn't nearly what most of us in higher education believe. There was a decline during the two recessions at the beginning of the century in state support per student. But there was an equivalent increase in the number of students. So it's not that the states really walked away from higher education.

What happened is the states couldn't keep up with the increase in demand. Since 2000, the increase in demand has increased 31 percent. Our enrollments have increased 31 percent nationwide, a little more than that in the west. And so, given that, you have -- the degrees have actually increased more precipitously than that. What you have is a substantial decline in the funding per student, and not so much of funding over all. States haven't really walked away. They haven't been able to keep up. I think that's sometimes not reflected quite accurately.

Two things, I think, are really problematic with that, though. One is that we made up all of the difference and then some, on average, with increases in tuition. And that has put a tremendously different price structure in front of students, particularly the middle income students. The second is that it also means that we got no more efficient in the process than we should have. Today the funding per student, when you add the two together, is at the highest period of any time in history of man. Any economist would say that means we're less productive than we have ever been before. I thought that when we had those recessions, we'd find ways to do the business less expensively. All we did was shift the cost. And I think that's a huge issue for us. We've got to find ways in which we can do this less expensively. We know a variety of ways in which we can do that. They're not popular within the academy, but they're quite doable.

KARIN FISCHER: Some people in retirement play golf, others travel around the world. That's not what you've got on your agenda, right?

DAVID LONGANECKER: No, no. A lot of my friends say, well course you'll do part time and you'll be on boards and commissions and do that. I do play golf, and I plan on doing that. But I also plan on getting my truck driver's license and driving a truck. That's what I've always sort of want to do when I grow up, and I figure this is a good point to say that I've grown up.

KARIN FISCHER: Well now that you've grown, I wish you good luck in your truck driving endeavors. And thank you very much for joining us at The Chronicle.

DAVID LONGANECKER: Pleasure to come by today. Thanks.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.