The College Try

Every year the Washington Monthly devotes an entire issue to assessing America’s colleges and universities. We do this because we believe they are key to the country’s greatness. They produce the research and human capital that fuel the economy. They teach the habits of mind and spirit that undergird democracy. And they provide the means for upward mobility that is the bedrock justification for the American experiment.

It should come as no surprise, then, that higher education, like the country itself, is in deep trouble. Tuition—the price of admission to middle-class life—continues to rise far above the rate of inflation, as it has for years. At public colleges and universities, tuition hikes averaged nearly 8 percent this past academic year thanks to cash-strapped state governments slashing higher education budgets. Community colleges, unable to keep up with demand in a tight labor market, are capping enrollments and turning students away. For-profit schools have turned out to be better at earning profits and foisting unpayable debt burdens on their students than providing them with marketable credentials. And elite schools remain bastions of privilege, with twenty-five upper-income students for every low-income one. Though they’ve recently been trumpeting their eagerness to admit more poor and working-class students, an analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that the percentage of students on Pell Grants at the fifty best-endowed colleges and universities in the country hasn’t budged since 2004. The United States, once first in the world in the percentage of its young adults with college degrees, is now tenth, and slipping.

Yes, it’s depressing. But America has always had a knack for reinventing itself, and if you look hard, as we tried to do, you can find innovations in the higher education sector that could turn things around dramatically.

One of these is Western Governors University. A nonprofit online school founded by state governors a decade and a half ago, WGU caters to the same adult learners that for-profit colleges target. But while the for-profits’ enrollments are plummeting and their business models collapsing in the face of relatively mild new federal consumer protections called “gainful employment” rules, WGU is thriving, reports John Gravois (“The College For-profits Should Fear”), by offering its students “a college degree that is of greater demonstrable value than what its for-profit competitors offer … for about a third the price, in half the time.”

Another area ripe for innovation is college admissions. One big reason capable lower-income students don’t find their way into selective colleges is that, unlike upper-income students, they have no one to help them figure out what the best schools are, push them to take the right college-prep courses, or assist them in filling out complex application and financial aid forms. But as Kevin Carey explains (“The End of College Admissions As We Know It”), that process is being radically simplified by a company called ConnectEDU. The firm is rolling out a Web-based networking platform that enables students to link up with schools—and vice versa—the same way eBay, Facebook, and Match.com help users find antiques, friends, and dates. If the software works as its designers hope, Carey predicts, “the higher education system will become more like the meritocracy it has long pretended to be.”

Heartening as such innovations are, they must swim upstream against an incumbent system that is notoriously resistant to change. Americans generally admire colleges and universities and don’t want to have to add them to the list of venal, rent-seeking monopolies they have to worry about. But they should.

This tendency toward incumbency protection is powerfully reinforced by the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. By rating schools on measures of fame, money, and exclusivity, U.S. News rewards the very behaviors that prop up the status quo. We devised our college rankings to change the system by offering a different, healthier set of incentives that reward schools for promoting research, service, and social mobility.

But if we want to see innovation at a fast enough pace to arrest the system’s—and the economy’s—slide, Washington itself is going to have to change some incentives. The Obama administration’s gainful employment rule has begun to do so for for-profits. What’s needed now are rules that encourage better behavior from traditional colleges and universities— for instance, by mandating the release of data about how much students learn in the classroom and earn after they graduate. This will give college-seeking students the information they need to make wiser decisions. And that, in turn, will force schools to put their considerable brainpower to work figuring out how to give Americans the education they need at a price they can afford.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.