Higher Ed’s Low Moment

Posted December 30, 2017 11:40 a.m. EST

When all was said and done, the tax overhaul that President Donald Trump signed into law a little more than a week ago didn’t beat up on higher education to the extent that earlier drafts of the legislation did. Americans who were deducting interest on student loans will still be able to do so. The tuition waivers that many graduate students receive won’t be treated as income.

But that doesn’t change the fact that those facets of the tax code, meant to promote and reward advanced learning, were up for debate. Or that the House of Representatives initially passed a bill that would have eliminated such incentives for the acquisition of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Or that the law ultimately did create new taxes on the endowments of the richest schools.

Or this unsettling, dangerous paradox: At a time when a college degree is one of the surest harbingers of higher earnings and better economic security, college itself is regarded with skepticism by many Americans and outright contempt by no small number of them.

Its tumble from grace came into sharp focus in 2017, so the end of this year is a fitting moment to examine what happened and how to fix it. Repair is imperative, because the continued competitiveness of the U.S. economy depends on the skills of our workforce, the intellectual nimbleness of our citizens, the boldness of our scientific research and the genius of our inventions. Our colleges and universities are central to that. When they lose support, we all lose.

Just how far they’ve fallen was suggested by a Pew survey this year that sent shock waves through the world of higher education. Asked if colleges were having a positive or negative effect on the United States, 58 percent of Republicans and conservative-leaning independents said negative. That was up from just 37 percent two years earlier.

A Gallup poll found that only 44 percent of all Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the country’s colleges and universities, while 56 percent had only “some” or “very little.” College — once a great aspiration — was now a polarizing question mark.

That’s not so surprising, given Americans’ intensifying resentment of anything that smacks of elitism and given Republicans’ attacks on science and intellectuals. As Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, recently told me, “Even if we were completely unblemished in the way in which we pursued our mission, it would be hard to imagine that in Trump’s America, we wouldn’t be targets for scorn.”

Margaret Spellings, who was education secretary in the George W. Bush administration and is now president of the University of North Carolina, said that colleges are plenty blemished and that this reckoning was years in the making. Too many of them had maintained too aloof a posture.

Spellings told me that when she read the headline atop a mid-December article in Politico — “University presidents: We’ve been blindsided” — she thought, “Where have you been, girlfriend?”

My conversations with Spellings, Daniels and Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College, actually filled me with hope, because not one of them was baffled by the bind that colleges are in. All of them conceded some culpability. And all of them identified, and expressed a commitment to, necessary changes.

“The tax proposals, though self-defeating, emerge from an understandable and growing public frustration,” Chodosh said. “Let’s face it. Like the general society, we have an increasing divide in higher education between the haves and the have-nots. Our sticker price is high.” He added that “our policies are opaque, confusing and tend to squeeze out middle-class families who are unaware, or just above the line, of eligibility for aid. Even among the privileged, few can get in.”

Chodosh’s “our” refers to the United States’ most exclusive colleges, with the lowest acceptance rates, and one problem, fostered by those of us in the media as much as anyone else, is an undue obsession with those schools to the exclusion of others. Higher education encompasses community colleges, technical schools and scores of public universities without storied names. They educate exponentially more students than the Ivy League does, and our lopsided conversation about the Ivy and its ilk have deepened the divisions that Chodosh mentioned.

But then so have exclusive colleges’ recruitment and admissions practices, which overlooked students from middle-class and poor backgrounds to a point where, according to a study released this year, many of the celebrated schools, like Yale and Princeton, had more students from families in the top 1 percent of income than students from families in the bottom 60 percent.

But that study used college data through 2011; since then, many colleges have expanded their efforts at socioeconomic diversity. And college presidents are both publicly and privately voluble about their need to keep improving on that. To wit: More than 85 colleges — including Hopkins, UNC, Claremont McKenna and all eight Ivies — have joined the American Talent Initiative, promoted by Michael Bloomberg and unveiled at the end of 2016. These colleges have committed to increasing their percentages of students from low- and moderate-income families.

I also hear more college presidents talking with more concern about their campuses’ images as enclaves of a distinctly illiberal liberalism. Especially ugly episodes this year at Middlebury College and The Evergreen State College fed that impression and, I think, increased many presidents’ resolve to do something about it.

Daniels bluntly acknowledged “the lack of political diversity on our campuses,” saying, “Not only is this bad for our students in terms of preparing them for leadership roles in a very politically polarized country, but it has grave consequences for broader political debate in the country.” He mentioned a new facet of orientation for incoming students at Hopkins that stresses the importance of free speech, drawing on experts from across the political spectrum. Other colleges have taken similar steps.

They’re trying to explain themselves better — a simple, obvious thing that somehow fell by the wayside over recent decades. Not all Americans accept on faith the value of higher education to individual students and to society as a whole. Not all Americans understand how universities function as vital engines of many cities’ and states’ economies or as cradles of the very innovation that keeps America great.

“Higher education has enjoyed this sort of send-us-the-money, leave-us-alone luxury for a long time, and that’s just not the case anymore,” Spellings said. “We’ve got to prove what we do.” If 2017 was the year when our most celebratedcolleges belatedlywoke up to that, may 2018 be the year when they successfully attend to it.

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