Higher Education Arrogantly Ignoring its Problems

Steve Cohen, college planning author and lawyer, spoke on January 11, 2015, at the College Board's annual Higher Education Colloquium's "College Costs and the Middle Class: Irreconcilable Differences?" symposium.  About his message to 300 college presidents, admissions deans, and financial aid directors, Cohen says:

My message was about as welcome as another blizzard in Boston.  That's because I warned that there is a perfect storming that is beA recent colloquiaring down on higher education - one comprised of rising tuition, parental dissatisfaction, and technological disruption.

That higher education costs have risen was not disputed at the colloquium.  Higher education tuition, fees, and living expenses have risen by 1225 percent since 1978, more than four times greater than the Consumer Price Index.   But what is more distressing is the complete lack of concern displayed by academicians about factors besides cost that are important to parents who pay their salaries.

A recent Noodle Poll of 985 parents provided a list of higher education factors important to parents.

Yes, I agree that polls are usually worthless.  But this one investigates attitudes rather than making a prediction, so looking at its results provides an indication of what higher education factors are important to paying parents.

An ordinal response scale was utilized, so the Noodle poll results are subjective at best.  The poll provided a list of factors and asked parents to rate each factor's importance on a scale from 1 (least important) to 10 (most important).  Percentages were then reported for factors that were rated as "highly important" (9 or 10 on the scale).  No explanation as to why a response of "8" or "7" was not considered highly important.  Hence the subjectivity.  And, no percentages for "8 and below" responses were reported.  All we can hope for was that the Noodle people were consistent.  We must assume this to be the case.

Further, the survey sample was less racially diverse than college itself.  Eighty-six percent of respondents were white, yet about 60 percent of college students nationwide are white.  There was no definition of "white" given.  Are Asians white?

So there are several generalizability issues with the poll results.  But it's available, and is the best (and only) poll available until something better comes along.  Remember these facts when assessing the following analysis.

Let's begin the analysis with "affordability," ranked fifth most important in the Noodle poll with 63 percent of parents considering it highly important.  At the colloquium, Cohen says, "There wasn't a single session -- or word heard -- about cost-cutting by the colleges themselves."  The most often heard response from academicians was "... about why Congress and the state legislatures couldn't better appreciate the societal value of higher education, and therefore appropriate more funding."  The colloquium's only concrete response to the cost issue was to schedule a symposium titled "Paying for College: Communicating with an Uneasy Public" in which "... communications currently used by institutions to describe the cost of and the return on the investment of a college education ..." and "... how we might improve the conversation on college financing" were discussed.

The president of Vassar College (Dr. Catharine Bond Hill) said that it is the taxpayers' responsibility to see and subsidize the value of college.

There's "parental dissatisfaction" with what higher education is doing.

First, parents want higher education to provide students with real-world marketable skills.  This is the number two factor, with 73 percent rating it highly important.  Not one word from the colloquium about that.  The silence indicates that higher education will "keep on keeping on."

Second, parents "don't care about issues that colleges deem a priority, such as politically correct speech codes or a boycott of Israel." Only 15 percent of parents rated PC speech as highly important. And only 7 percent rated an anti-Israel boycott as highly important, but the boycott was issue number three on the Chronicle of Higher Education's 2014 Influence List."

About this "not caring" attitude by parents, "… the president of a “top 10” college spoke up and candidly admitted that she saw her school's role as leading public attitudes, not reflecting them."

Then there's the issue of technology. The Noodle poll doesn't address technology directly, so I (arbitrarily) placed it in the "provide students with real-world marketable skills" category. Remember, 73 percent of parents rated it highly important. There was, except for one college president, complete silence from colloquium participants on the use and/or teaching of the use of technology. That college president said, "We shouldn't be beholden to technology." Does he speak for other college presidents? Absent their responses, we must assume so.  Don't look for "real-world marketable skills" to be taught to all students.

Nor was there any discussion about the use of technology to provide other education delivery methods that could decrease costs and/or improve outcomes.

"Arrogance" and "ignore the problems?"  You decide about the generalizability of Noodle's poll, but higher education had better not ignore the poll.  Noodle's poll generalizability is questionable, but it does reflect paying parents', and society as a whole's, thinking.

So, higher education can continue to be arrogant and ignore problems.  Or it can change.  All the problem indications are there for them to see.  Let's hope it changes before government steps in.  Things are bad now, but government intervention, as history has shown, will only make the situation worse rather than better.

Dr. Warren Beatty (not the liberal actor) earned a Ph.D. in quantitative management and statistics from Florida State University.  He was a (very conservative) professor, and specialized in using statistics to assist/support decision-making.  He is now retired.