As the presidential nomination races for both the Democratic and Republican parties get underway, public higher education has once again emerged as a topic of interest and debate. The role of elected officials in the oversight of higher education is regularly evolving and changing, but today but state and federal government bodies have a great deal of sway in the management of postsecondary institutions. In this interview, Thomas Lindsay discusses the role of federal and state governments in postsecondary reform and shares his thoughts on the need for change at public higher education institutions.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How active a role should the federal government take in reforming higher education?
Thomas Lindsay (TL): This is the 50th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—the beginning of an increased federal role of what under the constitution is exclusively the responsibility of the individual states. The results are mixed at best and perhaps even poor when we look at the statistics and the gains that have been made or not made over the last few years of federal involvement. We’ve increased access but there’s no evidence we’ve increased student success or learning outcomes. It’s time for us as a country to take another look at our very well intentioned program begun 50 years ago and ask whether or not America’s founders had it right when they placed responsibility for education within the individual states themselves.
Evo: Conversely, how active should states be in pushing reforms for public higher education, especially when it comes to the administration and management of public education?
TL: Under the constitution, it’s entirely the responsibility of the states and after all, we’re talking about public, taxpayer-funded higher education. What I’m proposing would not apply to private universities. If you step back and look at higher education in the United States, you get a distressing picture. We know from the Collegiate Learning Assessment that 36 percent of college students across the country, after four years in education, show little to no increase in critical thinking or complex reading and writing skills. That’s disastrous because we know that half the students never finish. Of the other half that do finish, we know from Academically Adrift, that only 64 percent of them get the learning that you would hope to acquire in college. Therefore when you step back, you see that under the current system only 32 percent of those who start college come away with both a degree and the learning that a college degree is meant to signify. That’s a broken system.
We have other indicators. We know from studies of grade inflation that in the early 1960s, 15 percent of all grades given were A’s, today that number has nearly tripled–43 percent of all grades given in college across the country are A’s. In fact, an A is the most common grade given in college. We see that students are studying about half as much as they used to but they’re getting triple the number of A’s.
Higher education reformers like us see this as a broken system and say we just can’t continue to do more of the same.
Evo: What are some of the most important changes that higher education institutions can or should make?
TL: As a former university professor and administrator, I can tell you that universities cannot be reformed from within. This means that the only alternative to change them is to somehow incentivize reform from the outside and we’re doing this through government bodies, be they state or federal. The best that we can hope to do under that current circumstance is to better inform prospective students and their peers about their choices—the investment they are about to make in education, what the likely learning outcomes are, what the likely competitiveness outcomes are, what the student loan is going to entail and what an average starting salary is projected based on the major they have chosen.
In Texas we have a transcript transparency policy. On all official transcripts for students from public higher education institutions here in Texas, next to the letter grade that each student receives on the course will be the average grade that the professor gave to the entire class. Employers have been complaining for a couple decades that transcripts have become virtually meaningless. This transcript transparency measure would at least tell graduate school admissions committees and prospective employers what the grade meant.
Monetary inflation devalues the dollar. Grade inflation devalues the transcripts.
Evo: What impact would a national roll-out of the America’s College Promise plan have on higher education in the United States?
TL: The President’s proposal for free community college is very well intentioned, but I don’t think it would have very much effect. The majority of the students who attend community college in this country right now—roughly 8 million students—are from low-income families. As such, they are already eligible for already existing federal programs and state programs that cover the whole cost of community college tuition.
That said, even though that money is already available from the students that go to community college, statistics show that only about half of these low-income students are getting full tuition waivers right now. When you look further at it, what you see is that while these students qualify for federal Pell Grants, which give them up to $5,730, those funds unfortunately at this point don’t get used. The problem here is that since the money already exists but only half of the students are using it, the President’s program is redundant.
Evo: What impact does the federal government truly have on higher education?
TL: On the one hand, the federal government has a great impact on higher education. Were it not for federally subsidized student loans, we would not be suffering the tuition hyperinflation and its crushing student loan debt that we’re currently experiencing. Back in the 1980’s, then-Secretary of Education William Bennett issued what has since come to be called the Bennett Hypothesis. He said increasing the federally subsidized student loans every year will allow the universities to increase tuitions because they know the dollars are there. When you look at the accompanying numbers, it’s pretty clear in the last quarter century, tuitions nation-wide have increased 440 percent—almost four times the rate of general inflation.
As a result of these historic tuition increases, students and their families are amassing historic debt, which now is close to $1.3 trillion. For the first time in our history, student loan debt trumps even national credit card debt.
So, does the federal government have a big impact on higher education? Absolutely. Has that impact been beneficial? That’s another question.
Evo: To your mind, what higher education issues should be top of mind for the candidates in both parties pursuing a nomination for presidential candidacy?
TL: The public’s focus, understandably, has been on the economic aspect, but there’s a deeper crisis that is plaguing higher education in the United States. We’re beginning to see some federal measures to try to address it and that is the crisis of academic freedom. Academic freedom is something that we cherish so that we can speak our minds and investigate truths that are sometime uncomfortable without political interference. It’s to protect the academy from politics and politicians. What do you do when those who would suppress speech, stifle debate, come from within the university themselves? That’s the new crisis we have encountered. With the speaker dis-invitations, the trigger warnings, the restricting of free speech to tiny free speech zones on campuses, this is the deepest crisis facing US higher education. It’s the universities themselves that are clamping down on free speech. Now we’ve come to the bizarre upside down situation where we now need to look to the political branch to force universities to rise above politics.
In addition to restoring academic freedom on our public college and university campuses, I would hope that the candidates in both parties would address the need to give public colleges and universities more “skin in the game” when it comes to outcomes. That is not to say that colleges and universities should be held responsible—and have their federal funds tied to—student employment post-graduation, which is a largely a function of the macro economy, and hence largely beyond schools’ control. But what is under their control is the “academic value-added” while students are enrolled on their campuses. Therefore, focusing performance-based funding on gains in the CLA during college would be something I’d like to see all the candidates address.
Up until now, virtually all of the performance-based funding proposals nationwide focus on graduation and completion. But, given that we now know from Academically Adrift that 36 percent of students nationwide show little-to-no increase in fundamental academic skills, as measured by the CLA, after four years invested in college, any policy that incentivizes enhanced graduation and completion does not get to the root of the problem, which is poor student learning. Indeed, defining and rewarding “performance” merely as graduation and completion threatens to dilute further the already-lackluster learning that is going on at too many colleges and universities.
This interview has been edited for length.