Higher education, the 1%’s dependent

American college and university endowments did very well last year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The Council on Aid to Education’s research concludes that

[c]olleges raised $37.45-billion in 2014, the highest amount recorded since the survey started, in 1957. That is a 10.8-percent increase in giving since last year—the largest gain since 2000.

This is excellent news for higher education, isn’t it?  Well, for some of higher ed.  Actually, just a tiny fraction, according to a Vox article:

In all, according to the most recent NACUBO-Commonfund study of college endowments, 82 universities have endowments worth more than $1 billion. (And most of those endowments are in seven figures, not eight — generally worth less than $2 billion.) Those 82 universities, mostly private research universities, own about 70 percent of all college and university endowment wealth. [emphases added]

Recall that there are roughly 4,600 institutions of higher education in the United States.  These 82 count for about 1.8% of them.  They are, in a very literal sense, American higher education’s 1%.

What about the rest of our campuses?

Most college endowments are worth $500 million or less. Those colleges and universities mostly depend on tuition for their revenue. And colleges with endowments in the hundreds of millions still serve a minority of American college students. Forty percent of all college students attend to community colleges, which barely have any endowments at all.

_Excellent Sheep_Needless to say, those 99% do not win the attention of the well endowed.  They don’t have the equivalent of a book like Excellent Sheep, lamenting the challenges of teaching and learning in the 1% zone.

We can take the 1% argument a little further.  These endowments are built less by income and more by wealth – i.e., by the 1%’s capital.  According to the Chronicle, who cites “a fund-raising consultant with Bentz Whaley Flessner”,

the increase in charitable giving can be attributed to wealth, not income. Colleges are “more and more dependent on wealth than on your average graduate getting a raise next year,” he said. “What’s really driving this is a huge explosion of wealth.”

In other words, the gift of a rising graduate making her way in the world, building a life of upward mobility American-dream-style, is less significant for growing these endowments than contributions from the already wealthy.  Our richest families, America’s equivalent of landed gentry, are increasingly the prime movers of their preferred campuses’ business model.  Academia’s 1% are becoming dependents on our society’s 1%.

As Libby Nelson notes, “At Harvard, endowment returns contribute more to the university’s budget than any other source of income: more than tuition revenue, research grants, or donations meant to be spent immediately.”

Meanwhile, higher education’s 99% muddle through in a mix of cuts to public funding, increasing debt, and overall privatization.  Which seems to have been a congenial course of action for America’s 1%, who are the leading spirits of our policy world according to recent political science analysis (pdf).

What does this mean for higher education?

PS: Thomas Piketty came to similar conclusions about endowments, education, and inequality last year.

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America’s shrinking middle class: questions for educators

America’s middle class has been shrinking, mostly because of people dropping down into lower socio-economic strata, according to the New York Times today.  What does this mean for education?

To start with, the data are very interesting.  For example, the middle class used to shrink because some of its members ascended to the upper strata.  That changed starting around 2000:
Middle class decline NYTimes

Moreover, there’s a demographic component  by age:

In recent years, the fastest-growing component of the new middle class has been households headed by people 65 and older. Today’s seniors have better retirement benefits than previous generations. Also, older Americans are increasingly working past traditional retirement age. More than eight million, or 19 percent, were in the labor force in 2013, nearly twice as many as in 2000.

There are other  important findings in the piece, including details of geography (Rust Belt still matters) and family structure (two-income families win out).

How does this connect to education?  There are many ways, and I’d like to phrase them as questions.

  1. To what extent is education to blame?  i.e., does the current structure of American education help drive the decline of the middle class?
  2. If a major purpose of higher education was once to prepare graduates for life in the middle class, what happens now?  (A state university provost told me his institution used to focus on preparing graduates to be middle managers.  He wasn’t sure what their mission had become of late.)
  3. If many college and university graduates fail to rise economically as high as the middle class, can we justify our current price and funding system?
  4. If more seniors are enjoying a middle class existence and younger folks are having a harder time than ever getting to that experience, will we see ageist movements appear?
  5. If we decide that this economic transformation is not education’s fault, what, then, is the responsibility of educators?  Break that down: what should we do in schools, and what should we do elsewhere?
  6. This new socio-economic class structure powerfully shapes the K-12 world.  How should colleges and universities respond?

These aren’t easy questions.

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Two challenges for Ken Robinson

Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to Sir Ken Robinson (now on Twitter) speak in person for the first time. Like many people I’ve watched him on YouTube videos, so this BETT2015 talk was a nice opportunity. And he was very impressive in person: affable, disarming, offering nicely turned phrases, connecting with the audience, full of praise for teachers and learners.
Sir Ken Robinson at BETT 2015
Like many others I appreciated his calls for nurturing creativity, for instructor autonomy, for building up an innovative population to address planetary ecological problems.  These messages resonate with me, not least from my pedagogical practice and devotion to digital storytelling.

And yet as the talk went on two problems occurred to me.  Over time they seemed more like blind spots in Sir Ken’s presentation.  I can’t recall him addressing* either, and so I think they are worth considering.

1. No politics?

Asked what we should do to improve education, Robinson advised us to transform our individual practices.   He cited Gandhi (maybe) about our being the change we want to see in the world. He repeated this advice several times.

Interestingly, Sir Ken did not recommend any social or political activity.  He did not ask us to get involved with a national political party**, or to lobby a state or local government (keep in mind he lives in LA, which just had a spectacular K-12 educational technology fiasco).  He didn’t ask us to influence our professional membership organizations, like goading the MLA to stop supporting the overproduction of PhDs, or working with our unions, should you have access to one.  He didn’t call us to organize by social media, or even to peer up for mutual assistance.    This speech left us with a tend-your-own-garden call to action, quietism instead of collaboration. Continue reading

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Notes from BETT 2015

BETT Show 2015I’m participating in the 2015 BETT conference, or “show”, as the organizers call it.  Here are some observations noted on the fly.

1. Jimbo Wales, Wikipedia’s leader, offered a fascinating and important observation.  I didn’t transcribe it word for word, but here’s the gist.  Formal education is not growing, but is stable; informal education is growing like mad.  Obviously Wales is an interested party, not least because of formal education’s longstanding and often ill-thought-out opposition to Wikipedia.  But if he’s right, that’s a major big-picture observation for 2015.

2. The New Media Consortium released its Scandinavian nations Horizon Report (pdf, wiki).  I’m fascinated by both the commonalities with Europe and the rest of the world, and the differences.

Scandinavian Horizon big chart

3. My first presentation outlined four scenarios for the future of higher education.  It was fun casting the US-centered ones in the European/global context.  Readers will probably be familiar with some of these, but this is the first time I’ve Webbed up this particular quartet: Fall of the Silos, Health Care Nation, Peak Higher Education, and Renaissance.

4. The vendor hall at BETT is enormous, a vast chamber of exhibits.  There were far too many for me to annotate individually (at least while my battery and WiFi are low), but I can note some themes which predominated: robotics, STEM (far more than humanities), an emphasis on primary and secondary education, hardware and networking providers.  A very multinational crowd, too – offhand, I saw vendors and presenters from Russia, Korea, China, the Middle East, southeast Asia, Scandinavia.

More as I get the chance to share.

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Mercyhurst considers a queen sacrifice

Mercyhurst University sealMercyhurst University, a Catholic institution in northwestern Pennsylvania, is preparing to cut academics.  According to a local news report, MU’s president announced he was ready to reduce spending on anything, including academics, which brings this story into queen sacrifice territory.

The outlines are familiar, starting with the cause: a financial shortfall brought about by low enrollment. “Times are changing; demographics are changing; pocketbooks are strained,” observes president Gamble.  The Go Erie account adds: “Mercyhurst’s overall enrollment dropped by about 5 percent across all campuses from 2013 to ’14, to 3,938 in 2014-15.” If Mercyhurst is primarily a regional institution, the northeast’s K-12 decline is clearly a major factor.

In the classic queen sacrifice pattern, certain academic fields appear as culprits, especially the humanities.  President Gamble identified these, which suggests their status as more likely departments to face cuts:

the university’s enrollment is declining primarily in education, arts and humanities and among undeclared majors.

“The current worldview makes people afraid to major in arts and humanities, in which Mercyhurst has always been strong,” according to the minutes’ summary of [president] Gamble’s comments.

Once again the humanities are in the target zone.  Note, too, education, which makes sense if the local/regional K-12 population is shrinking.

This may lead to expanding certain fields, while cutting others:

faculty and administration are working to identify possible areas where reductions and shifting of resources could occur as Mercyhurst tries to reshape its curriculum in the short and long term. [emphases added]

I can’t tell which departments would received increased funding.

There are unusual aspects to Mercyhurst’s potential queen sacrifice. Continue reading

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When states cut public education funding: the problems with _Unmaking Education_

In December I took to social media with a research query: what’s a good historical account of how American states have defunded public higher education?  Helpful people came up with one leading candidate: Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2011; Goodreads).

Newfield_UnmakingthePublicUniIt’s an ambitious and powerful book, deeply researched, and offering a vital, carefully developed account to satisfy my query.  It’s also especially relevant in this year of Ferguson. But its flaws run deep, resulting in a too-narrow vision that ultimately does not sufficiently explain how American states cut funding to public higher education.

First, the thesis and its strengths.  Newfield argues that conservatives launched the culture wars in order to weaken public universities, sapping their public support and enabling their corporatization.  This strategy sought to protect and extend conservative political power, while cutting down to size not only liberal politics but the middle class itself.

To oversimplify somewhat, conservative elites who had been threatened by the postwar rise of the college-educated economic majority have put that majority back in its place.  Their roundabout weapon has been the culture wars on higher education in general, and on progressive cultural trends in the public universities that create and enfranchise the mass middle class.(5)

Already in that passage you can see a strong claim for public higher ed, awarding it a powerful place in shaping American society.   Public universities created the middle class.

Newfield traces this out in extensive detail, starting back in the middle of the 20th century.  Much of Unmaking concerns the ideologies around the culture wars, including careful readings of documents on all sides of those struggles, from the Powell memo (53) to Dinesh D’Souza and Arthur Schlesinger.  We review the 1980s and 1990s battles over PC. We see the culture wars driving privatization of education (177) and the rise of knowledge management (141).

Allied to the culture warriors on the right was, for Newfield, a definition of the economy in terms of knowledge instead of production.  This actually boosts the role of finance in shaping all areas of American life (127).  The middle class ends up losing in this new economy (24), and the working class suffers as well: “the working-class… suffered the first wave of deindustrialization.  Their white collar cousins did little to help them…”(4)

The crux of those culture wars, the main battlefield upon which all of these forces could contest, was race.  “Racial inequality and privatization were the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the counterrevolution.” (270)  Unmaking sees conservatives appealing to various forms of white racism, and leading academic restructuring which reduces the economic and social status of whites and hispanics.  Newfield gives a convincing account of how race-based affirmative action’s court defeats led to a reduction in the proportion of blacks and hispanics enrolling in higher education (66).  He sees diversity as a weak fallback position, an unchallenging and ultimately conservative-supporting strategy (chapter 7).  In 2015 as we grapple with rising inequality, declining median income, and fallout from anti-black police brutality, this feels like an especially powerful model.

And yet. Continue reading

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President Obama’s plan for free community college tuition: first thoughts

President Obama has raised the idea of making the first two years of community college free.

What I’d like to do to is to see the first two years of community college free for everybody who’s willing to work for it.

This is a major initiative for American higher education with potentially historic implications.  It’s still only a floated concept at this stage, since a fuller announcement is due later today, and a more formal version expected eleven days from now during the State of the Union speech.  So at this point we can only poke at what’s out there and make some educated guesses.

What is out there now includes Obama’s statement about students “working for it.”  That must refer to this bullet point on the White House blog post:

Students must attend community college at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA, and make steady progress toward completing their program.

I don’t see any mention of mandatory work-study or after college work, so this might be what “working for it” covers.
White House free community college image
Also on the White House post’s bullet point list is this commandment to community college administrations:

Community colleges will be expected to offer programs that are either 1) academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities, or 2) occupational training programs with high graduation rates and lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt promising and evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes.

Many American community colleges already do 1+2, as far as I can tell.  Nearly every one I’ve visited is engaged in the improving student outcomes part, too.  So I’m not sure if this represents a major change in the internal workings of community college (but see below).

What can we make of this audacious proposal?  Some thoughts:
SW Tenn. Community College

How will this be financed?  According to the White House blog post,

Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.

What does that mean in dollars?  The White House hasn’t said.  A Bloomberg source thinks five billion per year.  The LA Times estimates “tens of billions of dollars”.  A quick calculation multiplying the White House numbers of 9 million students and $3800 annual tuition yields $34,200,000,000.  USA Today thinks “nearly $70 billion.”

Politically, I’m not sure how this can happen. Continue reading

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