Tuesday, November 21, 2006

40 Years of Higher Education

From the issue dated November 24, 2006

After 40 Years of Growth and Change, Higher Education Faces New Challenges
40 Years of Higher Education | By the Numbers | Opinion: 40 Years Later


Winston Churchill, it is reported, would openly weep whenever he heard "Forty Years On," the song of his old school, Harrow. The 40th anniversary of the founding of The Chronicle of Higher Education is a cause not for weeping but for celebration. It is difficult now to imagine the world of higher education without it.

But what of higher education itself over the course of those 40 years, weeping or celebration? That's a more complex question.

Consider, first, the context in which The Chronicle began publication on November 23, 1966. On that day, The New York Times reported that Joe Frazier had knocked out Eddie Machen, that the Soviet Union's emphasis on civil defense reflected concern over China's growing nuclear capacity, that Dick Gregory would travel to North Vietnam, that President Lyndon B. Johnson aimed to reduce federal programs by $3-billion, that the Syrian government and the Iraqi Petroleum Company faced a "crisis," and that the D'Oyly Carte Company opened a run of Ruddigore at the City Center and "delivered it to the avid audience with a sparkling air of wicked innocence."

In that year, Medicare was introduced, the FDA declared "the Pill" safe, a first-class stamp cost 5 cents, and the Oscar for the best movie was awarded to The Sound of Music. Like the present, the country was engaged in a widely unpopular war, but, unlike the present, there was also a student draft. To those who lived through them, the 1960s will always be remembered not only as a time of educational change, but also as the great age of campus disruption. Protests convulsed the campuses.

It is easy to forget just how tumultuous those days were. Led by Berkeley, Columbia, and Harvard, campuses across the nation erupted in strikes, protests, and building takeovers. "Nonnegotiable demands" were presented on an almost daily basis. In 1969-70, at the height of student protests, there were, according to research by Helen Horowitz, a professor of history at Smith College, "9,408 outbreaks; 731 of them led to the intervention of police and arrests; 410 of which involved damage to property; and 230, physical violence." What a time to create a newspaper devoted to the coverage of higher education.

The scene in 2006 is vastly different. In retrospect, it seems remarkable that the nation's colleges and universities emerged relatively intact from those contentious days. But institutions have changed, and it is worth noting some of those changes.

Colleges and universities have continued to multiply to accommodate the nation's expanding population. In 1966 the total U.S. population was 196,560,338; this fall it hit 300 million. In about the same time, the number of colleges and universities rose from 2,329 to well over 4,000, including branch campuses. Each category of institution has seen a growth in newly created campuses.

The net addition of more than 900 four-year campuses and more than 900 two-year campuses represents a remarkable national commitment to higher education. That increase in overall numbers of campuses involved the closure of some existing institutions, as well as the creation of new ones. Some 583 colleges and universities closed their doors during this period, 48 of them public and 535 of them private. Natural selection, it seems, exists in higher education no less than in nature.

For-profit institutions have gained prominence. They now account for about 8 percent of student enrollment in colleges eligible for financial aid. That has been one of the biggest changes in the educational landscape. In 1966 such institutions were largely unknown. Today there are some 908, and the largest, the University of Phoenix, has an online enrollment of almost 116,000 students.

The proportions of students enrolled in public and private institutions have shifted. The percentage of students at private institutions has dropped from about 32 percent in 1966 to 25 percent — a trend that has persisted since the end of World War II.

The demographics of the student body have changed, and access has improved. Female enrollment has increased almost four times as rapidly as male, and the representation of women and underrepresented minority groups continues to increase, especially in fields in which they had earlier been seriously underrepresented.

For example, female degree recipients now outnumber men at every level except the doctorate, but even there women now earn 48 percent of the new Ph.D.'s, compared with 12 percent in 1966. Indeed, the growth in the proportion of women in both graduate and professional schools has been especially marked. In 1966 women earned just over 4 percent of all first professional degrees awarded; this year it is estimated they will receive almost 52 percent.

Minority groups have also made significant gains. African-American students have grown from 5 percent of the freshman class at four-year colleges 40 years ago to more than 11 percent today. We have no adequate data from 1966 for Latino students in the freshman class, but they now make up 7 percent. Asian-American students make up 8 percent, compared with 0.7 percent; American Indian students 1.7 percent, compared with 0.6 percent.

Colleges and universities are becoming increasingly international. More than 500,000 international students — about a quarter of all international students worldwide — were enrolled in American institutions in 2004, although other countries now outpace the United States in growth in that market. The number of American students studying abroad has exploded from fewer than 25,000 in 1965-66 to nearly 206,000 in 2004-5. American institutions offer degree programs in at least 42 other countries.

An increasingly well-educated population has arisen from those changes in enrollment patterns. Between 1960 and 2000, the percentage of the population age 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher more than tripled to almost one-fourth. By 2005 more than 18 percent of American adults held bachelor's degrees, and about 10 percent held graduate or professional degrees.

Developments in information technology have transformed colleges and universities. The rise of computers has had a huge and largely beneficial impact on instruction and learning, research, student life, and countless other aspects of higher education. The world and all its knowledge are now literally at the fingertips of today's undergraduates. The relationship between such computerization and the quality of learning is not easily quantified, and the impact on college costs continues to be a matter of debate. Distance learning, however, is here to stay and will only continue to influence our institutions in the future.

Student backgrounds and attitudes have shifted. The survey of freshman students at four-year institutions conducted each fall since 1966 by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles depicts in strong relief the gains that women have made in higher education. The percentage of freshmen whose mothers had college degrees grew from just over 20 percent to more than 52 percent, and the percentage with mothers with graduate degrees increased more than fivefold to 18 percent. Such trends have been accompanied by a striking decline, from 35 percent to less than 10 percent, over the last 30 years in the percentage of students who listed their mother's occupation as homemaker.

Similarly, the aspiration of freshman women to pursue graduate and professional work shows a fourfold increase between 1966 and 2005 in the percentage of women aspiring to law degrees, an almost fivefold increase in interest in medical and dental degrees, and an almost threefold increase in doctoral degrees.

Student attitudes show striking changes over the past 30 years, with declining support for laws prohibiting homosexual relationships and for those who believe the activities of married women are best confined to home and family. Today's students appear to have more intellectual and social self-confidence and a greater belief in their abilities in many areas, including leadership and motivation. Fewer expect to be satisfied with college, but more expect to graduate with honors and more expect to work to support themselves in college.

The numbers of students applying for admission to three or more colleges has more than doubled since the mid-60s. Meanwhile, the reasons for deciding to go to college have changed in emphasis, with many more students attending because they are following their parents' wishes or hope to make more money.

The percentage of students expressing enthusiasm for cleaning up the environment has waned by half since the early 1970s, to 20 percent, while the percentage of those saying they desire to develop a meaningful philosophy of life has plummeted from 86 percent to 45 percent, and of those wishing to keep up with political affairs has fallen from 60 percent to 36 percent. Meanwhile "being very well off financially" has become far more important (75 percent of students compared with 42 percent in 1966). In terms of political views, somewhat fewer of today's students than their predecessors in the early 1970s characterize themselves as liberal (27 percent compared with 36 percent) and rather more as conservative (23 percent compared with 17 percent).

Few data are available that allow us to compare the broader cultural landscape in higher education over a span of 40 years. There are, no doubt, marked differences between various types of colleges and universities, and even perhaps within them. But a number of continuing trends seem to raise general concerns.

The public universities — especially the flagships — have suffered from a prolonged period of shrinking state support as a portion of their revenues. The University of Michigan, for example, now receives only about 8 percent of its total annual revenue from the state, and the University of California at Los Angeles only 15 percent. Although the situation has somewhat improved recently, the long-term tightening of state budgets has led increasingly to what several writers have called the privatization of public universities. But that "privatization" is one-sided: The universities have been required to raise more of their support from private sources, including tuition, but are still not allowed much freedom to manage their own affairs. The fate of the flagships should be a matter of public concern because their contributions to higher education — graduate and professional, as well as undergraduate — are major. It is time for the states to give them the freedom they need to develop their programs and to then hold them accountable for reaching specific goals.

Collegiality within academe seems to be a vanishing trait. Instead "the university community" has become a euphemism for an assemblage of conflicting interests. Perhaps "community," like youth, is never what it was, but the practical effects of the loss of meaningful dialogue and collegiality are serious. In education, the increasing departmentalization and fragmentation of the curriculum represent a growing threat to the quality of the undergraduate experience. Meanwhile, the great overarching challenges of our time — climate change, energy supplies, sustainability, poverty, hunger, conflict and war, health and disease — sprawl across the boundaries of the disciplines. With faculty appointments and awards jealously preserved within the confines of traditional departments, the academy is ill equipped to bring the full weight of its expertise to bear on such vital issues.

Faculty members' allegiances to their institutions have eroded. Such loyalty has been replaced by a greater commitment to the invisible scholarly guild: the professional associations, scholarly societies, and online scholarly conclaves. Some will argue that this change is an inevitable reflection of the scholarly fragmentation I have just described and of the relative reduction in the proportion of tenured or tenure-track faculty members, which has slipped from 57 percent to 35 percent of the academic work force over the last 30 years. Perhaps. Others will claim that it is less of a problem in liberal-arts colleges than in research universities. I hope that is so. But if I am right, both our institutions and our students are the poorer for the change.

Structural reform remains elusive in the academic culture. The structural imbalance between goals, tasks, and resources seems to have shown little improvement since 1966. The rigidity of departmental structures of faculty appointments continues to limit the ability of colleges to adapt and respond to new circumstances. Any change tends to be laboriously incremental, with a significant time lag between the decision to make it and the ability of the institution to carry it out.


Respice, prospice. Surveying the landscape over the past 40 years, we can find much to celebrate, much to praise. But looking forward, our celebration must be calibrated against both the situation within our own society and the achievements of the rest of the world. Against that background, recent commentators have found little about which to cheer.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, commenting on the report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, for example, has declared:

"Our universities are known as the best in the world. And a lot of people will tell you things are going just fine. But when 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require postsecondary education, are we satisfied with 'just' fine? Is it 'fine' that college tuition has outpaced inflation, family income, even doubling the cost of health care? Is it 'fine' that only half of our students graduate on time? Is it 'fine' that students often graduate so saddled with debt they can't buy a home or start a family? None of this seems 'fine' to me. Not as a policy maker, not as a taxpayer, and certainly not as the mother of a college sophomore.

"The commission drew a similar conclusion. In their words, 'Higher education has become at times self-satisfied and unduly expensive.' In fact, times have changed. Nearly two-thirds of all high-growth, high-wage jobs created in the next decade will require a college degree, a degree only one-third of Americans have. Where we once were leaders, now other nations educate more of their young adults to more-advanced levels than we do."

The four major issues raised by the Spellings commission — accessibility, affordability, accountability, and quality — have all increased in significance since 1966. They will never be "solved" but must continually be confronted if colleges and universities are to play their fullest role, continue to enjoy the public trust, and retain their independence. Although there will be federal and state efforts in each of these four areas, real change, if it is to come, must come from within institutions.

Distinctively American Aid

Do past events encourage hope for such change? Consider, for example, the closely linked concerns of affordability and access. Looked at over a 40-year time span, America's higher-education institutions are now as accessible as any in the world to all students, providing they can afford the tuition charges and demonstrate their competency to perform the work required. Virtually all our colleges charge for their services and require certain minimal standards of academic preparation, in contrast to countries with free tuition and open admission. Over the past four decades, that has produced a pragmatic and distinctively American pattern of financial aid, with a mixture of grant aid and student self-help in the form of loans and work.

Tuition and fees have been steadily rising, which is scarcely cause for surprise. What is a matter of public concern is that they have risen so sharply. Over the last quarter-century, average tuition and fees have increased more rapidly than rates of inflation, per-capita personal income, consumer prices, prescription health care, and health insurance. And that has a direct bearing on access. The unmet financial need of students from the lowest family income group (less than $34,000) has grown by 80 percent since the early 90s.

Colleges are quick to respond that higher education is labor intensive, that at public institutions those sharp increases reflect substantial losses in the proportion of state support, that at private institutions the fastest-growing expense has been financial aid. All that is true. But there is also nagging public concern, forcefully expressed in the Spellings commission report, about what seems to be declining teaching loads, a growing emphasis on buying bright students with merit awards, and an increase in the proportion of students taking more than four years to graduate.

We in higher education would be unwise to ignore such concerns. We shall see a steady increase in the number of high-school graduates over most of the next decade, but the changing geographic distribution; age range; racial, ethnic, and economic characteristics of those students; as well as their level of preparation, will place substantial new demands on higher education. We should respect warnings and complaints from colleges about ill-advised demands for increases in efficiency and productivity, but the problem of costs is real and will not go away.

Closely related to the issue of access is the academic preparation that students need to enter college and succeed there. If that is to improve, the states, the federal government, businesses, and colleges must all play a role. We can argue forever about who is responsible for failing schools, and there is enough blame to cover all of the players. But the urgent task facing the nation is to improve school performance. Better teacher education, partnerships with elementary and secondary schools, cooperation in curriculum planning, distance learning, remedial programs, and advanced placement will all enhance academic preparation. And improving that will, in turn, improve all levels of work in the schools.

Accountability is the other big "A." The Spellings commission urged institutions to make graduation rates, time to degree, and other performance measures available to the public. There will be legitimate debate as to the wisdom and effectiveness of using various assessment instruments, but the call for greater academic "transparency" is not one that colleges should neglect.

What about quality, the fourth issue the commission raised? Although no simple test can compare the achievements of the graduates of our 4,216 colleges, there are troubling signs. In surveys employers have raised questions about the critical abilities of recent graduates, and whatever surveys of student ability that do exist are also cause for concern. America has some of the world's best colleges: The sweep of the "scholarly" Nobel prizes this fall by our nation's faculty members confirms that. But we need to take seriously the call for quality and accountability. If we in higher education do not find some way to demonstrate the effectiveness of our programs and represent the abilities and skills of our graduates, others — for instance, the federal and state governments — may determine to do it for us.

Finally, we are constantly reminded that we live in a global economy, in which science, technology, invention, and innovation are the keys to survival and success. Thirty-five to 45 years ago, we led the world in the proportion of our adult population holding both high-school diplomas and college degrees. No more. We now rank seventh internationally in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds holding college degrees.

Of special concern is the lack of a significant increase in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology graduates. According to The Economist, India graduates 400,000 engineers and 200,000 IT professionals each year, and the cost to employ an Indian graduate is about 12 percent that of an American one. Talent, as it has been remarked, is now the world's most sought-after commodity. Ranking in international educational comparisons may well indicate future rankings in national economic success.

Even as we celebrate the achievements of higher education since The Chronicle's founding in 1966, we should also confront the issues the Spellings report has raised. Our national interest and our people's well-being, our growing population and its rapidly changing demography, our depleted planet and its changing climate, all create an added sense of urgency.

"The task of a university," Alfred North Whitehead once declared, "is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue." Forty years on, we should welcome, embrace, and reaffirm that high calling.

Frank H.T. Rhodes is president emeritus of Cornell University.

Section: Special Report
Volume 53, Issue 14, Page A18

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