Morrill of this story?
America needs big ideas, higher ed
few weeks ago I took part in a gathering of fifteen chancellors and presidents
from around the country.
It was a meeting of the policy committee of The American Association
of State Colleges and Universities UWGBs national trade association,
so to speak. We meet periodically to strategize major issues. This last session
sharpened my thinking on a question I promised to explore here in more detail:
the political horse races that are gathering intensity and how higher education
fits into the handicapping.
As we think about the direction of our state and national
politics, and as Wisconsins Feb. 17 presidential primary approaches, where
does higher education fit in the political picture?
Sadly, we have become a target. Clearly that is the case
in the U.S. Congress. The issues are costs, transfer of credits, accreditation
Now, those who allege all universities are deficient in these
areas would find their arguments refuted at UW-Green Bay. Seamless transfer
and accountability have long been priorities. On accreditation, I could elaborate
on both its good and its genuinely bad points. But lets focus solely upon
the biggest issue in the current national debate: costs.
A proposal before Congress would severely penalize any university
that raised tuition at a rate greater than inflation.
Make sense? No, not at all. And not because greedy universities
want more money from students and their families, but because the facts point
I recently asked to see fifteen years of cost per student
data for UWGB. Heres what I found. In constant dollar terms, we educate
todays student for $12 less per student than was the case fifteen
years ago. And, in that time, we have added much value:
emphasizing learning (results) instead of teaching (inputs);
adding high-tech labs;
investing huge amounts in keeping computers and software up-to-date;
expanding the learning environment to include many more opportunities
outside the classroom;
transforming a commuter and suitcase campus to one that meets the
expectations of our customers seeking a residential experience; and
providing orientation and support services that are, today, paying off
in terms of retention and academic success rates the likes of which our University
(and almost all other publics) have never seen.
How did we do that while keeping costs constant? By becoming
more efficient in our teaching, in our business functions and on down the line.
Today, using standard, federally mandated reporting categories, the UW System
is the most efficient system in the nation.
Why all the hoopla, then, about costs? Because of confusion
of price and cost. Tuition has skyrocketed even as costs
have remained constant.
How does that happen? Nationally, the publics large
but declining investment in higher education has slipped below the tipping point.
In Wisconsin, the share of instructional costs covered by the state has dropped
from 50% to 27%. The gap has been filled by students and their families, by
increases in efficiency, and, frankly, by faculty and staff salaries being kept
below those of peer institutions.
So, as you run into grandstanding from those who would try
to bamboozle by confusing cost and price, please keep the distinction clear.
Call them on it. Seems like the ones who created the problem disinvesting
in your public higher education may be the same ones that would now like
to convince you that higher education is the culprit. Lets not let them
get away with that.
And, that brings me back to the strategy session with my
14 public-institution colleagues, and the fact that it is much more exciting,
and important, to fight for a vision rather than to fight defensively.
What is the vision we should fight for? Our group found inspiration
in recalling two historic high-water marks in American public higher education:
the Morrill Act and the GI Bill.
The Morrill Act of 1862, passed by a fiscally broke nation
emerging from an unimaginably draining civil war, created the land grant university
system that, even today, is envied around the world. The GI Bill of 1944 sent
hundreds of thousands to college, redefined what it meant to be appropriately
educated, and fundamentally transformed this nation for the better.