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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.