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Toward Continuous Improvement
Rebuilding the compact between higher education, the public and our elected officials

By Larry R. Faulkner

Public transactions concerning the development and operation of our nation's universities, especially our public institutions, sometimes remind me of mud wrestling with the family treasures in an open shirt pocket. The universities win some of the rounds, but in every one we get dirtier, and we might not be able to find the valuable things again after each new tussle is over.

We are just not in the right game. There is too much risk that a mistake, by us or by public leaders, will be grievously damaging to long-term community interests. We need to change the game. We need rules that create a healthier environment for the public business of higher education. We need a new compact between the public, our elected representatives, and our institutions of higher learning.

Much easier said than done, not least because there is no one to define the public side of the compact. And because that is true, the responsibility for changing the environment rests with us, the leadership of American higher education. It needs an idea.

This is a big subject, worthy of long and serious conversations; but I offer five points that, in my view, must be on any agenda. Two are about recovering faith; two more about reducing fear; the last about gaining stability.

First, we must work to rebuild a broad understanding in the larger society and its leadership of what our institutions do, and how they establish-through their several missions-public benefits for a healthier present and future.

To a remarkable extent, folks see only one mission when they look at us. To a very great fraction of the American public, including most legislators I have encountered, we are strictly about undergraduate education. To much of Washington, we are about research and occasionally about graduate education. To other segments, our mission may be athletic entertainment, or the arts, or extension, or regional economic development, or libraries or cultural preservation.

The power of America's institutions of higher education lies in the total of what we do and how the parts fit together. Because the public and public leadership are not grasping that reality, they become frustrated by our segmented financial picture-about "why resources over there can't be used for my concern"-and they see us as afflicted by foolish lack of focus.

A related, very important matter is the loss of recognition for higher education's contribution to the common good. Over the past three decades, our work has been largely redefined in the public mind as yielding mainly private benefits, in the form of undergraduate and professional degrees having personal economic value. This one misconception is central to the erosion of support from state legislatures across the nation.

We must address these perceptions immediately and with effect. Our associations can help to organize national efforts, but there is local work to be done, too. The paired ideas of multiple missions and the common good deserve a place in nearly every Rotary Club speech, but they also merit delivery to audiences close to us, such as our students and their parents.

The second item in my five-point agenda is this: We must work to restore trust that we are genuinely committed to serving our students and our larger society and that we work daily with competence and quality.

With public leaders and elected officials, we have to do a better job of establishing regular contacts, engaging in honest, mutual development of long-term and short-term goals, frankly discussing financial tradeoffs, and reinforcing the balance of missions that we must undertake.

Now, I know that most of us think we do this, but in my experience, we really don't. Our contacts with public leaders are typically driven by a single issue or the exigencies of a legislative session. Greater texture is needed in the relationships, especially with key leaders. We also need to be thoughtful and collaborative in working toward that end, because it is not possible for every institutional president in most states to establish relationships such as I have described. Public leaders have many mouths to feed, and we must always respect that reality.

To build trust with the public at large, we need to sponsor accountability, not just to accept it grudgingly. We ought to help to define indices of performance that make sense, and we should help to found a credible reporting center. We need to be forthright about shortcomings, and we ought to embrace a culture of continuous improvement.

Third among my five points: We must work with public leaders and among ourselves to establish sound, credible mechanisms for continuing the national tradition of ready financial access to higher education by middle-class students.

Let us not underestimate the depth of fear that exists in the country over this one point, and let us not discount the threat to our democracy. In my judgment, the worry is not misplaced. Now, I realize that there is a well-documented misperception among the public concerning the facts about college costs-that on average the public thinks of college as costing two to three times what it actually does-but I also think there is plenty to be concerned about in the truth.

At the typical flagship public institution in America, the academic cost of attendance (mandatory tuition and fees) is now in the range of $5,000 to $7,500, or about 11 to 17 percent of median family income. If the trends of the past 15 to 20 years continue, the share would rise to something like 30 percent of median family income by 2020.

In our current system, middle-class families, representing perhaps one to three times the median family income, do not get much mitigation of these costs. The impact on these families of a large rise in cost of attendance as a share of income would be enormous; consequently, I do not believe that it would be allowed to happen. Political leaders would react by capping our charges and draining resources from our missions other than undergraduate education. These actions would inevitably degrade the quality of public-sector institutions and would cause a fractionation of quality in this country strictly along public-private lines. I do not need to go further into what such a result would mean socially and economically, given that the public institutions serve three-quarters of American students.

This is a serious problem, and it needs attention now. I believe that a solution can be achieved. That solution could also become the central point on which a new social compact is founded.

The key is to strive for a consensus among public leaders and the leaders of higher education concerning a target for the out-of-pocket academic cost of attendance at public institutions of various kinds as a fraction of median family income. This is what matters to people, and this is what will determine the evolution of public policy concerning higher education. Note the focus here. The conversation should be about what people actually have to pay to go to school. It should not be conflated with living costs, which can be addressed in various ways and may not be limiting to opportunity. If there are scholarship or grant programs, or if tax benefits exist, or if there are habits of discounting, these factors should be reflected in the out-of-pocket academic cost.

On the basis of information available to me, I cannot propose exactly where the target should be set, but my instinct says that for a flagship institution the upper limit should be something like 20 percent of the median family income. Of course, that would be 10 percent of twice the median family income, which is probably a better benchmark for the middle class than median income.

If consensus on the target can be achieved, the annual discussion with all players-institutional administrations, students, parents, governing boards, legislatures, executive leaders of state government, Congress, and relevant federal officers-can be consistently pointed toward realizing it through actions that are much more thoughtful and concerted than today's.

But I do need to be clear about something: The states will continue to have the definitive role here. A stable, healthy pattern can be achieved only if legislatures and governors make a sustained commitment to affordability with quality.

The fourth point in my agenda is this: We must find a way to make a college education seem essential and more reachable to the parents of the most talented students from lower-income families.

Over the past seven years, I have spent a good deal of time in Texas high schools as we have worked to use the state's "top ten percent" admission law to rebuild minority representation at The University of Texas at Austin. We have succeeded, I am glad to say. But my experience in something like a hundred schools-mostly urban, mostly minority dominated-has taught me something about the challenge that all of us face in elevating college-going rates of students from lower-income families. And that's important, not only from the standpoint of justice, but also because college-going rates of these students must be elevated to preserve even the current level of educated adult talent in our nation.

When I talk to a top-ten-percent audience in these schools, I am speaking to the best students, not the average ones. Most likely, they are the top three percent of those who entered in the ninth grade, because two-thirds of their entering class have already dropped out. Every single one of these students should be going to college somewhere. Only about a third does so.

Why does this dreadful waste of talent occur? For two reasons, I think: The students do not grasp the value of a college education to their future, and they do not believe us when we say that we can make college financially possible.

We in higher education must develop a more coordinated, more effective strategy to reach talented students from lower-income families. I do not have a recipe, but here are some elements that ought to be in the picture:

  • Families, as well as students, have to be recruited. The attitude of impossibility runs deeper than the student.

  • We need to identify strong talent in middle school and work with talented students and families to target college all through high school. Research shows that decisions about going to college are generally made before high school or early in high school.

  • We need to help students and families to understand how the finances can be addressed much earlier than when the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form comes out in the student's senior year.

  • We need to simplify the packaging of the finances. They are typically much too complex now to inspire confidence in these families, who are mistrustful of promises and debt.
  • There is a fifth and final point in my agenda: We must address costs. More specifically, we must mount serious, effective efforts to limit the rate of growth in the educational cost per student. It is in the range of 4.5 percent per year, a substantially inflationary figure, but more important, a figure significantly larger than the long-term growth rate of the economy.

    We all know that there are good reasons for it: There is intrinsically high inflation in salary costs for our labor-intensive business built on rare talent, and there are progressively added costs associated with the growth of knowledge and the facilities required for teaching.

    But it is very likely that a growth rate of 4.5 percent cannot be sustained indefinitely. Of course, we can reduce the growth rate of costs by degrading quality. That is not the answer. We need to look for ways to take that growth rate down while sustaining quality, so that whatever advances are made along that line can become broadly shared among us. This is hard, but it is important for the stability of our mission and our work. It merits serious initiative, both collaborative and local.

    This is my five-point plan for rebuilding the compact between higher education, the public and our elected officials. But it still requires a willing effort on all sides. We in the universities must tell our story-that our institutions continue to serve our students and benefit our society at large; that we are striving to make a college education valuable, accessible and affordable-and we must plainly act toward those goals to the greatest degree that we can. After we demonstrate our commitment, we can hope that our public leadership-in homes, schools and statehouses across the land-will pick up the partnership once again, in the interest of America's future.

    Larry R. Faulkner is president of the University of Texas at Austin. This article was adapted from his 2005 Robert H. Atwell Distinguished Lecture, presented at the 87th Annual Meeting of the American Council on Education.

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    National CrossTalk Spring 2005



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