The Mischaracterized Ills of Higher Education

No doubt about it: our colleges today face serious challenges. But those who promote pessimism about the future of U.S. higher ed should think again.


In a recent Houston Chronicle op-ed, Ronald Trowbridge blasted higher education both in the U.S. and in Texas specifically for what he claims are its gross failings. He characterized colleges as “agents of class warfare,” and concluded his summation of their current ills with an ominous prediction that, very soon, “much of the higher ed establishment will be destroyed.” Both in his conclusions and his claims, Trowbridge has got this one wrong.

Unquestionably, our colleges today face serious challenges. Billions of dollars have been wiped from the budgets of public campuses as a result of the harsh economic realities in most states. Consequently, campuses have laid off tens of thousands of employees, eliminated thousands of positions and postponed faculty hiring, and closed or scaled back hundreds of academic programs. The degree progress of untold numbers of students has been impeded, at a time when the U.S. faces unprecedented global competition in the race to develop the human capital that nations will need to fuel their knowledge-driven economies.

Those who promote extreme pessimism about the future of U.S. higher education should more closely study the history of this remarkable industry. America’s colleges and universities have not only endured, but also thrived, in the wake of wars, economic depressions and vast social changes, often surprising each generation of critics who had foretold the institutions’ imminent demise. Merely a few decades ago, doom was foreseen in shifting financial, demographic and technological trends, leading some critics to prophesy such cataclysms as the collapse of liberal arts colleges and the ruination of research universities. None of the predictions came true: History has time and again exposed their shortsightedness.

One reason is that U.S. higher education actually has been quite adaptive to new market demands and societal pressures. Higher education also plays an indispensable national role. The long-term contributions of colleges and universities to state economic development, scientific and medical discovery, and work force development clearly outweigh their near-term costs.

But there is an even more troubling aspect to Trowbridge’s writing: much of his portrayal is based on sensationalized or misleading claims. His figures inflate by more than 25 percent the costs of attendance at the University of Texas at Austin for in-state undergraduates, while failing to note that the large bulk of these expenses are for housing and transportation – living costs that every American adult faces. Only two-thirds of undergraduates at the university pay full academic charges ($9,792 for 2011-2012), with the other third receiving significant scholarships and grants. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the school ranks third in its cohort in the share of its undergraduates receiving federal Pell grants, the program that assists low-income students.

What clearly is missing in these kinds of distorted representations is a reasoned understanding of the concept of value in higher education. UT-Austin today is one of the nation’s best values in public higher education, meaning it offers high levels of academic quality at comparatively low costs to students. At less than $10,000 a year for state residents, undergraduate tuition and fees at UT-Austin are among the lowest of the 12 institutions that comprise its peer group of national research universities, a group that includes such other heavyweights as the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Michigan and UCLA.

And costs are only a part of the story. UT students enroll in some of the nation’s finest academic programs and study with a faculty that is both highly engaged in undergraduate instruction and renowned for its contributions to research and scholarship. They also earn more after graduation. UT ranks among the top 25 public research universities in the earnings of its graduates; Texas’ other public Tier 1 institution, Texas A&M University, ranks even higher, indeed, among the nation’s top 10 public research universities.

In light of these factors, it isn’t surprising that UT-Austin ranked 14th out of the “100 Best Values in Public Colleges” in 2011, according to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. It scores even higher in the 2012 U.S. News and World Report rankings of the nation’s best public colleges and universities.

If we are to improve higher education’s capacity to serve the public good, we need balanced appraisals of the conditions of campuses, systems and states, instead of rhetoric that foments public misunderstanding. Texans deserve an honest conversation about college quality, affordability, access and governance – an effort currently being undertaken by a special legislative oversight committee. Misinformation, mischaracterization and cheap shots taken at some of the state’s best universities only undermine the prospects for mature public dialogue.

With ongoing challenges to our economy and our global competitiveness, the focus in Texas, as elsewhere, should be on finding constructive ways to sustain and improve our campuses, rather than on destroying them.

McLendon is a professor of public policy and higher-education studies at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. This op-ed was first published by the Houston Chronicle. File photo by Val Cook.

Editor’s Note: As the magazine of the Texas Exes, The Alcalde strives to lead the discussion about higher education from the point of view of proud advocates for the value of all higher ed all over the state, beginning at The University of Texas.


Tags: , ,


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment