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Afterword by Patrick M. Callan

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Iron Triangle


Higher education has been one of the great American success stories. American colleges and universities, long held to be the best in the world, currently serve almost 18 million people, with 66% of the public saying that higher education is teaching students what they need to know (up from 53% 10 years ago). The country has also had substantial success confronting and responding to challenges in higher education over time. Most notable was the response to the massive influx of students on the G.I. Bill (through which higher education helped create the middle class), and the equally impressive response to the influx of the baby boom generation, which resulted in the creation of a huge bulge of highly educated workers, providing enormous opportunities for women and for some members of minority groups.

Higher education in changing times

Today, higher education faces a new set of challenges, including the following:

  • A new influx of students (the National Center for Education Statistics projects 20.4 million students by the year 2016, an increase of 15%), many of whom are members of minority and recent immigrant populations who have much more uneven academic preparation for college work.

  • An increased price tag for higher education, combined with a much slower increase in family incomes. For a family in the bottom quintile, the share of family income required to pay for a year’s tuition at a four-year public institution has doubled since 1960, from 13% to 27%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Losing Ground, 2004)

  • Intense competition from other countries (such as China and India), which are creating a new pool of well-educated younger workers, along with a stagnated rate of highly educated workers in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of American adults ages 35 to 64 hold a college degree, second only to Canada. The rate is the same for American adults ages 25 to 34, but that proportion is now only the seventh highest in the world. Six other countries have tied or surpassed the U.S. in that age range. Canada’s rate of college-educated adults has increased 14 points, to 53%. (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Measuring Up 2006)

  • Greater demands for accountability, transparency, and assessment in higher education, stemming from efforts such as those of the Spelling Commission. At the same time, state and local funding for colleges and universities haven't kept pace with their enrollment increases in recent years.

These trends suggest that the country and its institutions of higher education will once again face a historic test. In many respects, the nation’s colleges and universities—especially its public colleges and universities—are in the crosshairs of competing social needs and economic realities. The U.S. economy is looking for a new cohort of highly educated workers. Growing numbers of low-income, minority, and foreign-born students are aspiring to the opportunities higher education provides. Meanwhile, state and federal government face increasing costs for healthcare, K–12 education, and decaying infrastructure, in addition to those for public higher education. Parents and students, for their part, are starting to question whether higher tuition costs—and the debt families shoulder to pay them—are always warranted. Taken together, these countervailing trends present an enormous challenge.

Are we headed for dialogue or for stalemate?

So, just how ready is the country for debate and discussion on how to address the changes facing higher education? Are the stakeholders—colleges and universities, the K–12 community, students, families, governments, and industry—prepared for open-minded, practical dialogue on how the country’s educational infrastructure can meet this historic challenge. Or, will the parties find themselves trapped in miscommunication and blame-shifting, resulting in an unproductive stalemate? Will state colleges and universities have a strong voice in shaping their own destiny, or will legislators and regulators who may lack an intimate understanding of the system make decisions for them?

Public Agenda and The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education have been looking at how different groups view the challenges facing higher education for more than a decade. Over the years, we have tracked the views of the general public and parents in a series of detailed public opinion surveys. We have also interviewed legislators, business executives, and other opinion leaders about major issues in higher education.

“The Iron Triangle” is a small-scale exploratory piece of research that adds another dimension to this work by exploring the perspective of college and university presidents. It examines the views of more than two dozen presidents who shared their thoughts with us in lengthy, one-on-one interviews. Those interviewed represent different kinds of higher education institutions—two- and four-year schools, private and public institutions, schools serving different segments of the population in different parts of the country. These interviews are the subject of the body of this report.

A missing pre-condition for dialogue

Although “The Iron Triangle” cannot provide a definitive picture of the views of college presidents nationwide, it does bring some important themes to light—themes that warrant additional discussion and exploration. The higher education leaders interviewed here have obviously given real thought to the goals and responsibilities of their institutions. They are ardent and powerful advocates for the special role higher education plays in the nation’s well-being. Their ideas and observations make absorbing and, we believe, important reading. But the views captured here also suggest that one essential pre-condition for productive dialogue and resolution is not yet in place.

Over the years, Public Agenda has reviewed many large-scale public issues, and we have found one factor that is essential for resolving them: The various stakeholders must agree on the definition of the problem. Once this is established, there is a much greater likelihood of productive debate and resolution. Without it, the parties simply talk past each other, or they find themselves trapped in a repetitive and counterproductive battle of “the facts.” One simple example is the debate over climate change. Until recently, debate in the U.S. has been stalemated by an argument about whether climate change is real and is the result of human activities. As long as there was debate about whether the problem existed, the opportunities for genuine progress and resolution were small. Today, we are starting to see a much broader acceptance of the definition of the problem, with industries, state governments, the federal government, and the general public all voicing various degrees of agreement about the “inconvenient truth” of humancreated climate change. What this will mean in the future remains to be seen, but clearly, finding common ground on the problem makes progress on solutions at least possible.

“The Iron Triangle,” however, suggests that the country has not yet reached a similar stage in its thinking about higher education. Based on our interviews with a cross-section of higher education leaders, our preliminary hypothesis is that most hold a very different definition of the problem than what typically exists among the general public or other leadership groups. Until these groups can coalesce around a shared understanding, they are destined to talk past each other, with the two sides drawing farther apart through rising frustration, rather than coming together for a consensus or compromise.

An investment worth paying for

To understand the disjuncture between the ways different stakeholders see higher education issues today, we can look first at the common thread in the thinking of the college and university presidents interviewed for this project. Two main ideas were shared, in one way or another, by most of the presidents we spoke with.

  • In the view of many college and university presidents, the three main factors in higher education—cost, quality, and access—exist in what we call an iron triangle. These factors are linked in an unbreakable reciprocal relationship, such that any change in one will inevitably impact the others. Most of the presidents believe that if one wants to improve the quality of higher education, one must either put more money in the system or be prepared to see higher education become less accessible to students. Conversely, cutting costs in higher education must eventually lead to cuts either in quality or access.

  • A corollary to this view, again shared by many higher education presidents, is that in order to meet the educational demands of the future, much of the heavy lifting will need to be done by governments reinvesting more money in higher education, by students and their families paying more in tuition and fees (offset by more financial aid), and by private industry shouldering more of the burden through partnerships and philanthropy. Although many of the presidents conceded that there are inefficiencies in higher education—just like any complex system—most seem to believe that colleges and universities have already done much of what they can do to become cost-effective. Colleges can and should be more accountable and more efficient, they seem to say, but if the country is serious about remaining competitive, and about providing education for a new generation of students, we must recognize the high value of higher education and be prepared to make the investments needed to pay for it.

Are you listening to us?

Previous research by Public Agenda and the National Center has suggested that the above definition of the problem is not shared by other stakeholders: The public, for its part, does not accept the idea that there is necessarily a reciprocal relationship between cost, quality, and access. More than half of the public (56%) say that colleges could spend a lot less and still maintain a high quality of education. Fifty-eight percent also say that colleges could take in “a lot more students” without affecting quality or increasing prices. While people stress the importance of higher education and recognize and respect its role as the gateway to the middle class for millions of Americans, they also have little sympathy for higher education’s problems. Indeed, a small majority (52%) regards colleges and universities primarily as a business, with an eye on the bottom line, and four in 10 Americans believe that waste and mismanagement is a factor in driving up the cost of college.

Earlier studies have also suggested that many business and government leaders do not share the vision of the iron triangle. As far back as the 1990s, more than six out of 10 government and business leaders believed that higher education was too bureaucratic and resistant to change, and that colleges needed to become leaner and more efficient. More recent qualitative interviews with business, media, and philanthropic leaders suggest that these attitudes have, if anything, intensified. For example, we have found enormous frustration among state legislators who often feel that state higher education institutions are unresponsive and lack accountability. One legislator put it this way: “There’s a feeling in the Legislature that the university is relatively arrogant. They’re not going to listen to anything you’re going to say. They just say, ‘Just send us the money. We’re too smart for you to tell us how to spend it. We’ll spend [any way] we think is right.’ Many times they go in the direct opposite of [the needs of] our region.”

A dangling conversation?

The disparate perspectives laid out above reinforce our hypothesis that neither the public nor leadership, especially state legislators, shares the definition of the problem most often articulated by college presidents. In effect, the college presidents are saying that it is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect higher education to maintain quality and improve access without a significant reinvestment of funding. The leaders and the public are saying almost the exact opposite. They question whether colleges and universities are using the money they already have as effectively as possible. And they are saying, with some passion, that there are simply limits to how much they can pay.

What will be required to move the debate along to the next stage? Some college presidents reminded us that higher education needs to do a better job telling its story, and, perhaps, as in the issue of global warming, one side will eventually win the debate (assisted by real events on the ground that buttress the argument). Another possible scenario, however, is that both sides will need to redefine their initial positions, with significant changes from higher education and simultaneously more support from the other players. How the debate will progress is not something that we can predict. Even so, we are convinced that progress in addressing the historic challenges that higher education now faces will be piecemeal, limited, and repeatedly delayed unless and until debate and dialogue proceed from a common starting point. For most Americans, getting a college degree is the key to social mobility, the entry point for building a decent middle-class life. But college costs are rising dramatically, and Americans are increasingly worried that rising tuitions and fees will mean many qualified, motivated young Americans will not have this opportunity. This public dilemma was strikingly captured in “Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today,” a report prepared by Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and published in 2007.

To understand how higher education leaders at the highest level perceive this challenge, Public Agenda interviewed more than 30 college presidents from all sectors of the higher education universe. In candid and confidential one-on-one interviews, we asked these institutional leaders how they perceived three related factors: the cost of higher education, the quality of education provided by colleges and universities, and the challenge of providing access to higher education for a new generation of students.

Expected and unexpected views

Three key insights emerged from these conversations—one expected, the other two less so. The first is that, as one might have anticipated, our respondents were incredibly thoughtful, informed, and articulate; they drew from a wide range of experience from their own institutions, from other institutions where they had served, and from their participation in national and regional professional associations. The second factor, initially less anticipated, is that none of them was the least surprised by our questions. Indeed, we began each interview by asking the respondents to list his or her issues of greatest concern. For the most part, the presidents began by listing some version of our three main topics: college costs, access, and quality. In some cases, the presidents even conducted parts of the interview for us, following up their own statements by saying, “But you will probably ask me…” The third observation is that there was a great deal of commonality in the way the presidents perceived the issues. Just as it’s possible to put a number of photographs together to create a composite picture, the college presidents’ responses—taken together—can be summarized by a composite view. While few of the presidents would wholeheartedly agree with all of this composite (and some would endorse very little of it), most of the presidents we interviewed resonated with much of it.

In what follows, we have tried to let the college presidents speak for themselves for the most part, selecting representative quotations to illustrate main topics. Because the interviews were given under a pledge of individual confidentiality, we have not identified the nature of the institution of the speaker. The quotations have been lightly edited, and in some cases, two remarks have been combined in order to delete the moderator’s questions or an irrelevant side issue. We have also edited quotations to mask the identity of the speaker.


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