The American higher-education system has long been seen as a leader in the world, but confidence in its future and its enduring value may be beginning to crack along economic lines, according to two major surveys of the American public and college presidents conducted this spring.
Public anxiety over college costs is at an all-time high. And low-income college graduates or those burdened by student-loan debt are questioning the value of their degrees, or saying the cost of college has delayed other life decisions.
Among college presidents, the rising price of college is not the only worry. They're concerned about growing international competition and declining student quality, with presidents from the least selective, and thus sometimes the least financially stable institutions, the most pessimistic.
But perhaps the most troublesome finding from the surveys is this: More than a third of presidents think the industry they lead is heading in the wrong direction.
Without a change in course, presidents fear, American higher education's standing around the globe could erode. Although seven in 10 college chief executives rated the American system today as the best or one of the best in the world, barely half predicted that a decade from now the United States would be among the top globally.
"We should be worried," said Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system. "We are in a flat world. We are going to have to evolve."
American higher education has never been a monolith, of course, but the findings of the survey of more than 1,000 presidents, conducted March 10 to April 25 by the Pew Research Center, in association with The Chronicle, suggest how deep its divisions are. What's more, those fractures are intensifying just as the country faces formidable and collective challenges, such as meeting President Obama's goal of having the world's highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.
Throughout the survey of presidents, the most positive responses, and justifiably so, came from leaders of highly selective colleges, which have healthy balance sheets, more top-achieving applicants than they can possibly admit, and a strong portfolio of global partnerships.
But they occupy a tiny space in American higher education. The responses of nonelite institutions—two-year, for-profit, and less-selective four-year colleges—largely reflect their more precarious situation. The public institutions among them must grapple with declining state support, while tuition-driven private colleges confront a student market that has said "enough" to paying more. Proprietary colleges face greater government scrutiny and regulation.
All will have to educate a student body that is underprepared, many of whom are from groups that have traditionally not attended college.
"The view from the bottom," said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, outside Detroit, "isn't so bright."
And unless they rethink the way they do business, education experts say, some colleges will be forced to shutter.
"We're staring fundamental change in the face," said Stephen R. Portch, a former chancellor of the University System of Georgia. "Our system is bankrupt, and we've got to have a new model."
It's the Money, Stupid
It's not surprising that colleges with less, or that serve students with less, should strike a more downbeat tone, said David E. Shi, a former president of Furman University, in South Carolina. He notes that the financial pressures faced by many such colleges during the economic downturn have been acute. Their bottom lines were not buoyed by federal stimulus research grants like those of the top research universities, they couldn't make up lost revenue by increasing tuition like elite colleges, and, unlike wealthy institutions, they have little in the way of endowments or cash reserves to fall back on.
"The recession really has had an asymmetrical impact on higher education," said Mr. Shi, now a senior fellow at the National Humanities Center. The system, he said, "has become fragmented between haves and have-nots."
Take Sinclair Community College, in Dayton, Ohio, where the budget has shrunk by 20 percent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from a decade ago. During the same time, the college's student body has swelled with laid-off workers looking for retraining, but its tuition, among the lowest in the state, has been frozen or tightly capped by the legislature. "I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy," said Steven Lee Johnson, Sinclair's president, "but I think we're going the wrong way when it comes to public disinvestment."
To remain in the black, Sinclair officials have ferreted out inefficiencies, put more of the college's courses online, and whittled away at nonessential spending. Still, Mr. Johnson said, "I'm not confident I can keep doing that and offer something of quality. We're starting to cut into muscle."
Sinclair is not alone in its cutbacks. The University of Hartford, too, has reduced its expenditures significantly. But the private college ended up plowing much of last year's savings back into financial aid, says Walter Harrison, its president. "I hear every day from people about how expensive they think college is," he said.
Indeed, the general public is fairly shouting its concern about college costs in a companion survey of 2,142 Americans, ages 18 and older, by the Pew Research Center. Three-quarters of those polled said college was out of reach for most people. Twenty-five years ago, six in 10 Americans felt that way, according to a survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
The squeeze is real. College costs have been on the rise, increasing 50 percent over the last decade, Mr. Shi said. By contrast, family incomes actually fell between 2000 and 2009. Ask young adults why they're not enrolled in college or don't have a bachelor's degree, and the overwhelming response in the Pew survey: money.
"The affordability of a college degree—whether it is affordable—is becoming a third rail in the national conversation about higher education," said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education.
The belief that college has become prohibitively expensive is shared across class and race lines, among Americans of all income levels, by those who went to college and those who didn't—by everyone, it seems, except college presidents.
Forty-two percent of university leaders, in fact, say most Americans are able to pay for a college degree, according to the Pew Research Center/Chronicle survey.
Why is there such a divergence of opinion between presidents and the public? For one, there's a certain amount of variance among college leaders, with those who typically serve low-income students more concerned about sticker shock. Nearly two-thirds of community-college presidents, for instance, called tuition unmanageable.
Some educators blame the gap on the failure of college officials to make the case about the whys of higher-education pricing. Students and parents, they argue, have a poor understanding of such practices as tuition discounting and don't fully appreciate the costs that go into a college degree, expenses that include faculty salaries and health insurance, remedial-writing labs, even climbing walls. "If they want to buy a Mercedes-Benz," said Stephen J. Trachtenberg, a former president of George Washington University, "we need to say why it costs more than a cheaper vehicle."
Others say that, despite their complaints about the price tag, the public gets it. In the Pew survey, 84 percent of two- and four-year college graduates deemed their degree a good investment; nearly everyone said they expected their child to get a college education. Meanwhile, enrollments in higher education are at record levels.
"People keep voting with their feet and their wallets to attend college," said Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond.
The question that remains, of course, is will they continue to do so?
Among the warning signs, a quarter of college graduates who earn less than $50,000 a year now say their degree was a bad bargain. A number of presidents say they have begun to see a trend of "trading down," of price-sensitive students and parents opting for more affordable institutions, such as community colleges or local public universities. They worry: Could some of those students opt out of higher education altogether?
One key factor, especially as the country remains in an economic hangover, is whether the public sees real-world benefit in a college degree, said Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity and professor of economics at Ohio University. "The piece of paper has to have more than just symbolic value," he says.
But whether ponying up for a degree leads to a fat paycheck seems to be a little unclear, at least to the average American. While a plurality of those surveyed maintained that the main purpose of college is to learn specific skills and knowledge for the workplace, a third of college graduates said their current job doesn't require a degree. Asked what it takes to succeed in the work world, respondents ranked a college education below a good work ethic, getting along with others, and skills acquired on the job.
"The inconsistency of the public," said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, "suggests that people are not getting what they need."
If Americans are confused, it may also be because there hasn't been enough of a conversation—and a proactive, farsighted one, at that—between university leaders, policy makers, and business executives about the role higher education ought to play in meeting economic needs and aspirations, says Travis J. Reindl, program director for postsecondary education at the National Governors Association. It does no good, he argues, if a state's higher-education institutions are turning out bachelor's degrees, when more community-college training is demanded. "If we're not producing what we need," Mr. Reindl says, "then 10 years down the road, there could be a real crisis of confidence."
Many presidents, however, appear to balk at a more jobs-oriented approach to education. The largest share of respondents to the Pew/Chronicle survey identified promoting intellectual growth as the primary role for colleges to play, prizing it over general workplace skills or specific career training. (Unsurprisingly, community colleges, for-profits, and even less-selective institutions saw a greater role for job preparation.)
That response heartens Paula M. Krebs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, who said she has worried that higher education "could succumb to the language of utility." Colleges shouldn't be judged, she argued, on graduates' first jobs out but rather on the intellectual foundation they provide.
After all, says Ms. Krebs, now an American Council on Education fellow at the University of Massachusetts, "no one thinks high school should be training for the work world only. No one advocates a high-school curriculum of just shop classes, or just computer-science courses. You have to take English, math, history."
An emphasis on work-force readiness isn't necessarily incompatible with a broad education, of course—a case a growing number of liberal-arts institutions have been trying to make. Under Mr. Shi, Furman put in place a program to help students think more deliberately about their professional aspirations and how they related to their studies. The College of New Jersey collects statistics charting the real-world accomplishments of its alumni, such as how quickly graduates advance to management positions.
Private Gain, Public Good?
If those approaches tend to focus on the individual, it probably isn't a coincidence.
Americans appear to view higher education as a private good, says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute, not as a wider societal benefit. In the Pew survey, they were more than twice as likely to contend that college had been a worthwhile investment for them as they were to say it would be a good value for students in general. Nearly half thought students or their families should pay the largest share of college expenses, rather than rely on governmental aid or scholarships, with those in high-income brackets more likely to place the responsibility with the individual student.
That singular outlook emerges again in the survey of presidents, a majority of whom also thought college costs should be paid by the student. It's not so much college leaders' stances on particular issues, said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, as it is their pattern of response. On question after question, where a president sits—and that institution's financial concerns of the moment—seemed to color the attitudes of presidents.
"Clark Kerr once said that college presidents only really know how to think of higher education one institution at a time," Mr. Callan said, referring to the late, pathbreaking president of the University of California. "It is a strength of the American system, but in this case, it's also a weakness."
While the American educational system has become a mass one, charged with preparing a wide swath of the population, college leaders frequently point to institutional measures of success, like U.S. universities' domination of international rankings, as a sign of its strength.
For the United States to achieve global goals, like Mr. Obama's challenge to improve college completion, it will take a more systemic effort. Acting in a united manner could be challenging, however, when leaders from different sectors don't even see eye to eye. Nearly two-thirds of presidents say achieving Mr. Obama's goal is not too or not at all likely.
"There is no system, just individual units, individual stars in the sky," Mr. Trachtenberg, the former George Washington president, said of American higher education. "Only an astronomer with a telescope could look at it and see a solar system."
The president's graduation goal may be broad, but the heaviest burden will most likely fall to the very institutions already bowing under financial strain. Most new students won't head to flagship research universities or the Ivy League but to community colleges and for-profits, public branch campuses and less choosy private institutions, says Peter M. Smith, senior vice president for academic strategies and development at Kaplan Higher Education.
Already, the signs are there: In Ohio, for example, enrollment at four-year public universities has climbed 20 percent over the last decade. At state community colleges, the growth topped 80 percent.
Expanding access very likely means serving students who are less prepared, who are the first in their families to attend college, and who are juggling classes with work and family, said Mr. Smith, whose book Harnessing America's Wasted Talent calls for unclogging the college pipeline to improve American competitiveness. "If we want to get the numbers up," he said, "colleges are going to have to deal with people they've never seen—or who they've seen and failed."
To meet both the academic and financial challenges, colleges will have to rethink how they do business, Mr. Smith and others said. Among the ideas discussed: three-year degrees, year-round classes, online courses, adopting learning outcomes tied to real-world standards, and changing federal financial-aid policy to meet nontraditional students' needs.
What the conversation can't be about, said Nasser H. Paydar, chancellor of Indiana University East, is more money. "Universities just aren't going to get much more of it," says Mr. Paydar, who overhauled the budgeting process at his state university, putting spending decisions in the hands of deans and giving them incentives to be more entrepreneurial in seeking new sources of funds.
As a "mature industry," change won't come easy to higher education, adds John Immerwahr, a professor of philosophy at Villanova University and a senior research fellow at Public Agenda. But it needs to come.
Mr. Immerwahr points to a cautionary tale from another well-established American industry, one that was the best in the world, until it wasn't—auto manufacturing. "We don't want to be Detroit," he says.