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Afterword by Patrick M. Callan

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The Iron Triangle


It would be highly surprising if university presidents, leaders outside of higher education, and the general public saw eye-to-eye on all the diverse problems and issues confronting American higher education. Tension and differing perspectives between these groups are not only inevitable, but important. Difference among stakeholders can be healthy if they are the basis for constructive engagement that ultimately leads to new or renewed consensus about the role of higher education and responsibility for its support.

At the most abstract level, there is general consensus in the United States that higher education is more central than ever to maximizing individual opportunity and securing the country’s prosperity in the knowledge-based global economy. However, this report, and other studies conducted by Public Agenda and the National Center over the last decade and a half have documented widening gaps between the perceptions of civic, governmental and business leaders, higher education leaders, and the general public about the most fundamental issues confronting American higher education. To paraphrase the introduction to this report, the absence of consensus about how problems are defined undermines the quality of discussion and debate. Solutions are unlikely when the public, leadership groups, and higher education leaders each accept only the solutions that match their particular definition of the problem.

Throughout the history of higher education in the United States, from the founding of the colonial colleges to the era of mass higher education and the modern research university that emerged after World War II, the perennial goals of American higher education have been access, quality, efficiency, and accountability. Each era has reinterpreted these goals in the context of societal needs, public purposes, and the aspirations and capacities of colleges and universities. Today, the issues are framed by the expansion of the knowledgebased global economy and the demographic and economic challenges of the 21st century. History suggests that neither the definitions of—nor the solutions for—these problems are likely to be resolved in a neat or linear process. But simply muddling through has serious costs. The contemporary gap in perceptions between the public, civic, governmental and business leaders on the one hand, and college and university presidents on the other, has already eroded public confidence in higher education and its leadership. Equally important, these differences often impede constructive discussion and debate.

The positions can be summarized as follows:

  • College and university presidents (as this report shows) tend to view cost-quality-access as an “iron triangle,”—critical values locked in a zero-sum relationship. While they believe they can and should and will work for greater efficiency, they are convinced that the greatest efforts and contributions to assuring higher education’s effectiveness must come from students and parents, K–12 education, government, and the private sector.

  • The public does not see it this way. As our surveys have shown, more than half of the public say that higher education could spend a lot less and still maintain high quality. Almost 60% believe that colleges could enroll a lot more students without compromising quality or increasing tuition. Much of the public doubts whether institutions of higher education are making serious efforts to control costs. Many believe that higher education today is placing economic self-interest about educational values.

  • Similarly, many civic, business, and government leaders voice concerns that higher education institutions have, at best, only begun to address cost-effectiveness, and—as the presidents themselves report—are urging that higher education be more productive and more accountable.

Consequently, at a time when the performance of higher education is more central than ever to the success of our society, the public discourse reflects the lack of consensus about the definition of core issues and the responsibility for addressing them. The public and leaders outside higher education do not accept the issues as seen by many higher education leaders themselves—and vice versa.

For resolution to come about, the stakeholders inside and outside higher education will first have to find common ground on the nature of the problem. This report’s description of the “iron triangle” is, I believe, a contribution to that process. While we cannot yet anticipate what shape the consensus and compromises will take, we hope that this report can at least frame the problem and open the door to more constructive and effective dialogue.

Patrick M. Callan


National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education


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