Asking a Lot

Peter Wood

Last Tuesday, December 16, the Carnegie Corporation of New York ran a giant ad—two pages—in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.  It was signed by the heads of numerous universities and education associations, and was cast in the form of “An Open Letter to President-Elect Obama.”  The letter called on Obama to commit “5 percent of the economic stimulus package—in the range of $40 to $45 billion—toward higher education facilities.” 

The Wall Street Journal the next day editorialized against this massive “bailout,” that travels under the name, “The Higher Education Investment Act.” The Journal argued that such government subsidies undermine incentives for universities to reduce costs, and to improve themselves, adding that “If taxpayers are going to shovel out more money to these schools, the academic executives should at least allow outsiders to perform a cost ‘restructuring.’” 

For some reason, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, didn’t invite the National Association of Scholars to participate in the discussions that led to the issuance of the letter or to join in signing it. So we are coming late to the ball. 

Just as well. 

I would expect the members of NAS to have diverse opinions about the wisdom of this public policy proposal. Some NAS members are strong proponents of the idea that American higher education is a “public investment” that ought to expand to even larger numbers of students and receive substantial increases in public funding. Other NAS members are strong proponents of the idea that American higher education has declined in quality because of excessive expansion and too much public spending. NAS itself has taken no official position on the matter. It is one of those “academic questions” that we think is best served by vigorous and open debate. 


The Carnegie-College Board Convergence

But that is not to say that I am lacking in an opinion of my own. The Carnegie Corporation ad dovetails with the report issued two weeks ago by the College Board, Coming to Our Senses, which calls for the United States to increase the proportion of “young people” who have college degrees to 55 percent by 2025. I have criticized the recommendations in that report in Cold Brine: The College Board Loses Its Senses, and in a series of follow-up comments.  The Carnegie Corporation ad doesn’t mention the College Board report by name and the College Board is not one of the signatories, but the text of the ad incorporates the College Board’s central argument, i.e., America is “losing ground” to foreign competitors who grant degrees to a higher percentage of their population. To rectify this, according to both the Carnegie Corporation and the College Board, we need to ensure that a much larger portion of black Americans and Hispanics graduate with college degrees.   That’s because these two minority groups lag the college completion rates of Asians and whites by wide margins. 


Grab a Shovel

One difference between Coming to Our Senses and “An Open Letter to President-Elect Obama,”  is that the College Board’s long report offers no explanation whatsoever of how the nation will achieve the massive increase in enrollments needed to meet its goal of 55 percent of “young people” with college degrees by 2025. The “Open Letter,” by contrast, advances a plan—albeit not a very specific one. The Carnegie Corporation (and the statement's 51 other signatories) sees the answer in President-elect Obama’s willingness to increase federal spending on higher education by untold billions of dollars.

Part of this new spending would come from Obama meeting his campaign promise “to make college more affordable and accessible by increasing Pell grants, increasing access to student loans, and extending the grace period for their repayment,”—a promise the Open Letter-ists “applaud.” But these increases in federal subsidies are not even to be counted in the Open Letter-ists’ “recommendation” for an additional $40-$45 billion. That money is a proposed “federal infusion of capital” for “modern physical infrastructure [for campuses] that is technologically up-to-date.”    They have in mind “high-tech facilities” and “upgrading” of the places that serve “educational, research, and service functions” to meet “growing enrollment pressures.” 

This proposal has a good deal of hocus pocus, driven by the need to maintain the pretense that this vast building program can be consummated at the drop of a pin. The problem is that Obama’s notion of “stimulating” the economy by gigantic increases in expenditures on public works projects requires the kind of projects where substantial money can be spent quickly. Most construction takes years of planning, permitting, and community approval; often it means settling legal challenges; and once the work actually starts, the execution itself can take years. Putting up billions of dollars of public funds to stimulate the economy now accomplishes little if the bulk of the money won’t actually be spent until 2010, 2011, 2012, or even later. 

The Carnegie Corporation and its cadres, of course, have foreseen this fly in their ointment and they have a solution: 

To ensure a rapid response, only projects that are shovel-ready or on which construction can begin within 120-180 days should be funded. No project-by-project approval in Washington, D.C. would be necessary; no new federal bureaucracy need be created. Federal funding should be approved only in cases where states or institutions match the federal grants, contributing 20 percent of the total project cost. This will ensure that only the highest-priority projects are funded. Governors should have discretion to allocate federal funding to state-aided or private universities provided that federal funds are matched by these universities. This ratio may vary from state to state, on the basis of past practice and state priorities. Of course, governors have the prerogative to exempt community colleges, as well as historically black colleges and universities, from the matching provision.

“Shovel ready” in four to six months is an impossibility for almost anything heftier than installing new carpet in the president’s office—unless, that is, the college or university in question has already carried out nearly all the preliminary steps.  But in that case, wouldn’t the college or university in question have already lined up its financing? No competent administration carries a building project that far towards execution without having the capital in place to move forward.

Oh, I forgot, we are talking about public colleges and universities whose ideas about capital financing range from hoping that sympathetic candidates win state elections to threatening uncooperative legislators with un-pleasantries. (We might close the branch campus in your district. We might send a mob of irate students to protest on your doorstep. We will get lots of weepy stories on television about students who lost their only chance to better themselves with a college degree when you voted to increase tuition.)

So the picture I make out in this somewhat opaque “plan” is that many public colleges and universities must have on hand major capital projects that were all but “shovel ready” when the recession caused falling state revenues, and governors and legislatures in turn canceled or deferred those projects. If President Obama sees his way to pushing $40-$45 billion to those colleges and universities, however, the plans can be consummated after all. And where is the state legislature so hard of heart that it won’t find money to fund 20 percent of a project in which the feds will pay 80 percent? 

We have no hard numbers to judge the truthfulness of this representation, but it has about it the air of credibility of Baron von Munchausen.  While there probably are some campus infrastructure projects that fit this description of being “shovel-ready” in four to six months but lack financing, I expect most of these projects will be dreamed up on the spot and, if this scheme advances, the biggest campus building boom will be in tall tales told to the auditors. “Shovel-ready” has a nicely apt alternative meaning, already noticed by The Wall Street Journal


Say, Partner

Possibly this pitch by Carnegie Corporation and friends is simple opportunism. President-elelct Obama has announced that he plans an enormous stimulus package. Why shouldn’t higher education try to get some of the loot? If all it takes is a semi-plausible assertion that {fill in your sector of the economy} is indispensible to {choose one or more: the welfare of Americans; our nation’s future prosperity; our international competitiveness; basic fairness to all Americans}, then higher education has as good a case as automobile makers, bankers, farmers, retailers, etc.

The Carnegie pitch, however, may have an additional element. No sector of American society turned out in the campaign season with more fervent support for candidate Obama than higher education. This was true at all levels, from college presidents, to faculty members, to students. The development that best symbolized this support was the willingness of a good many colleges and universities to award academic credit to students who volunteered for the Obama campaign. 

So perhaps now the college presidents expect a little reciprocity. None would be so gauche as to say that outright, but the Carnegie Corporation ad reads like an extended reminder of what Obama owes to this constituency. Here is the opening sentence of the ad:

At this critical juncture in our history,

America’s public research universities,

state colleges, and community colleges

stand ready to partner with the federal

government and our states to help revitalize

our nation’s economy and educate and

train the next generations of Americans

to meet the challenges of global competition.

The ad tracks the language and the tone of many of Obama’s speeches—which, of course, makes sense as a way of persuading the president-elect to support the Carnegie proposal. But it also conveys an accurate reminder of the role higher education played in the election. 


All that aside, is this giant infusion of capital in higher education a good idea? Does America’s future, as the Carnegie Corporation says, depend on this “investment” in academic infrastructure? 

I have doubts, but rather than argue a strenuous case against the proposal here, I’d like to divide the problem into a few pieces that, together with my readers, I expect to mull over.

At the center of the Carnegie Corporation proposal is concern for our national competitiveness founded on the same worry surfaced by the College Board: compared to some other countries, a smaller percentage of Americans receive college degrees. As I’ve shown elsewhere this assertion isn’t as robust as it sounds, but let’s take it at face value for the moment. It really divides into two separate issues:

A.       How much does national competiveness depend on a certain percentage of the population having college degrees?

B.      What should the United States do about the disproportionally low rates of college graduation among black Americans and Hispanics?

 The Carnegie Corporation blurs these two issues together: 

For the first time in our history, the cohort of Americans ages 25 to 34 is less well educated than the older cohorts that preceded it. We cannot accept such dangerous signs that our future prosperity and security will be weaker than our past.

Most troubling, the two fastest growing groups in our population have the lowest college graduation rates: only 37 percent for black Americans who start college and 44 percent for Hispanics who start college.

The two are indeed connected if we accept the premise that the nation’s future prosperity depends on awarding college degrees to larger percentages of blacks and Hispanics.  Perhaps that’s true. As Tom Wood has recently pointed out, the data strongly indicates that possessing a college degree generally benefits the person who gains it financially and in other ways. So there is an argument to be made that the nation would gain by the sheer accumulation of individual benefits. 

But that argument has to navigate some shoals. Would a college degree still confer these benefits if it had to be watered down still more to accommodate a large cohort of students who may not succeed without such accommodations? The problem of the “achievement gap” is by no means simple. Higher education's preferred nostrum is that with sufficient amounts of money, colleges and universities can award meaningful degrees to just about anyone. The Carnegie Corporation’s explanation of the problem is terse but telling. It says, “American schools and colleges are inexcusably deficient in providing fair educational opportunities to our poorest students.” And it complains that colleges have had to raise their tuitions too high because of inflation and “to offset decreases in state appropriations to public higher education.”  

The unfairness of it all, in other words, comes down to those miserly state legislatures. But is this so? To accept that as the sufficient explanation of the achievement gap is to ignore the motivations and aspirations of the students, the disarray in the communities in which these students are growing up, the role of single-parent families in stifling the intellectual flourishing of boys and girls, and cultural emphases that cut against academic performance.  Schools in which violence is more common than algebra are unlikely to send large percentages of their graduates on to college. Teenagers raising babies are not so likely as others to earn a degree.  These factors don’t explain everything, but surely they need to be taken into account along with “decreases in state appropriations to public higher education.”  The trouble is that, once we acknowledge them, we have to reckon with a problem that a $40-$45 billion infrastructure-building program in higher education cannot touch.

Perhaps the Carnegie Corporation didn’t mean that the “Higher Education Investment Act” would address, let alone solve, the minority achievement gap.   Why then did they bring it up and put it squarely in the center of the ad? It strikes me as sewing some confusion about the purpose of this “investment.” The proposed means—a building spree to rival 18th Dynasty Egypt—has little connection to the purported end.   This isn’t about improving access to higher education. It is about gold-plating our public universities. 

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