Facing the Nation: The Role of College Leaders in Higher Education Policy

By David W. Breneman

David W. BrenemanMeasuring Up 2008, the fifth edition of the National Center’s biennial reports on state performance in higher education, arrives at a time of great uncertainty and concern about the nation’s economy, as the financial credit crisis has spawned bank failings not seen since the Great Depression. As the country lurches toward recession, most state and local budgets are in serious deficit, families continue to lose homes to foreclosure, jobs are being lost by the thousands, and a massive $700 billion federal rescue plan has yet to demonstrate its success. The luxury we may have had in prior years to ignore the warning signs of current problems has now expired. We have no choice but to focus intently on solving these economic problems, casting aside the behaviors that helped bring us to this critical moment.

That higher education is central to future economic progress is beyond dispute, but a decade of Measuring Up reports paints a worrisome picture about how well this vital sector is performing: participation in higher education remains flat at best, affordability has declined sharply, and graduation rates continue to be a disgrace. Whatever lead we enjoyed over other countries in the last half of the 20th Century has been lost, as both our participation and completion rates have declined relative to other advanced nations. Far too much effort and too many resources have been devoted to enhancing institutional prestige, at the cost of balanced development of a high-performing system of colleges and universities able to serve the diverse educational needs of the next generation. We have increasingly relied on market forces to shape higher education, and the result has been a vastly widening resource gap between a small number of exceedingly wealthy institutions and a much larger number of poor ones. In a sense, the Measuring Up reports can be read as assessing the average performance of our colleges as a whole.

In earlier reports, Robert Atwell, Jane Wellman, and I have remarked on the absence of college and university leaders from the national policy debates about higher education. One result has been an unfortunate, if understandable, tendency for state and national political leaders to dominate the discussion. Let me be clear in what I am saying; college and university leaders have certainly worked hard on issues of institutional self-interest, as they must, but few have provided strong voices on policy matters that transcend the local campus. To default to those outside higher education on such substantive issues as academic preparation for college-level work, access for the poor and disadvantaged, success in retention and graduation, and the serious and growing problem of affordability is to limit the nation’s ability to make headway in improving the performance of our system as a system. One result, as external parties have criticized and advocated for changes, has been a growing defensiveness on the part of higher education leaders rather than an active engagement with legislators and policy analysts in seeking solutions. We are all the poorer for this failed conversation, and as noted earlier, such failure is a luxury the nation can no longer afford.

One concrete example from the National Center’s experience may clarify this point. The Measuring Up series has been criticized by numerous college leaders for reporting failing grades for virtually all states in making higher education affordable for students and their families. In private conversations, university leaders have told me that these failing grades have made it more difficult for their institutions to achieve tuition increases. Another response has been to attack the methodology used in Measuring Up to assess the affordability of higher education. In short, many university administrators, rather than addressing the state and national challenges that Measuring Up emphasizes, perceive the reports themselves as the problem.

None of us associated with Measuring Up would argue that we have the perfect instrument for measuring the complex issue of affordability in higher education. However, we all agree that keeping college affordable is a serious and growing problem, potentially much worse for the next generation of aspiring college students. We also agree that there are limits to the share of educational cost that can be shifted to students and families. Furthermore, if state and national leaders fail to improve upon this situation, the economic prospects for the United States will be grim. Yet, so far, we are failing as a nation to address this issue squarely and honestly.

The National Center is committed to developing a forum in which college and university leaders can meet with political leaders and knowledgeable policy professionals to advance a conversation about the enduring challenges of preparation, participation, affordability, completion, and accountability in higher education. The problems are now so serious and the stakes so high that the most experienced educators and political leaders must work together for policies that will enable higher education to continue to serve the millions of Americans whose well-being depends upon it.

Prior years' commentary.