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«Prepared for presentation at the 2003 Fulbright Educational Experts Seminar for leaders of German higher education, New York City, September 22, 2003 ...»

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Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glä nzt1:

Pathologies of American higher education

Prepared for presentation at the 2003 Fulbright Educational Experts Seminar for

leaders of German higher education, New York City, September 22, 2003

Hans N. Weiler2

Stanford University


Over the past ten years, I have spent a considerable amount of time and effort

talking and writing, primarily to European audiences, about the virtues and

accomplishments of American higher education. I have pointed out the remarkable combination of a broad base of mass higher education with the lofty peaks of elite research universities, the pervasive spirit of competition for good students, good faculty, and good research money, the unusual preoccupation with quality not only in research, but in teaching and student advising, the efficiency of decision-making structures – to name but a few. I have argued that, even though it would be simple-minded to transfer systems of higher education wholesale from one country to another, European higher education would benefit greatly from taking a closer look at how some of these accomplishments in the U.S. had become possible, and from asking itself whether similar results could not also be achieved in Europe (Weiler 1987-2003b). This kind of message has not made me universally popular in Europe, but I have plodded along and, I believe, made some progress over the years in bringing people to realize that one could at least think of higher education in ways that were different from what one had become used to.

I am not taking any of what I have said over these years back. I still believe that American higher education is worldwide an exceptionally successful piece of institutional architecture and an extraordinarily impressive example of both breadth and depth in the creation and the transmission of knowledge. In terms of both volume and quality, research at American universities plays a leading, and in some respect dominant, role in the world of scholarship; and even at less selective institutions, a remarkable effort goes into teaching at both the undergraduate and the graduate level.

1 “Not all that glitters is gold.” 2 weiler@stanford.edu; http://www.stanford.edu/~weiler. The author acknowledges helpful suggestions by Michael W. Kirst and Stephan A. Weiler.

1 But that, alas, is not the whole story, and this paper is a first attempt to tell the rest of the story, to speak of the part that is less glamorous and glowing, but is just as much a part of the picture as the stories of success and accomplishment.

Because just as the beautiful and lush forests of Montana and Idaho conceal a disturbing degree of tree disease and decay, so does the public image of enormously successful public as well as private universities in the U.S. conceal a considerable degree of mediocrity, false pretenses, and downright rot. That, once again, does not make the success stories in American higher education less impressive, but it does make the picture both more complete and more credible.

This then is the other, the darker side of the story of American higher education, and I feel that, after extolling the virtues of the system for so long, I have at last earned the right to tell this part of the story as well.

My basic argument for this exercise is that a number of perfectly legitimate and sound elements of American higher education have, for reasons that are instructive to analyze, degenerated into rather problematic and disturbing phenomena – into what I call “pathologies”. There is, for example, nothing wrong with the strong presence of athletics, both intramural and extramural, on American campuses; as one looks, however, at recent developments in some of the more popular varsity sports, notably football and basketball, one gets a sense of serious upheavals and even downright crisis.

–  –  –

It is these kinds of “pathologies’that are the topics of this paper. I have selected, from a potentially much wider array of possible issues, three that I will use to make and illustrate my point that, for every healthy aspect in American higher education, there is at least the risk of a serious pathological deformation.

1. Pathologies of equality

2. Pathologies of autonomy and accountability

3. Pathologies of collegiate athletics

1. Pathologies of equality There are few major countries in the world today where a larger percentage of high school graduates enters a postsecondary institution than in the U.S.

Between the various kinds of institutions of higher education – universities, four

–  –  –

It gets a bit more complicated when one looks closer. This system of postsecondary institutions has a degree of differentiation that is similarly unique in the world. There are institutions like Stanford where the ratio between those who apply for undergraduate admission and those who are admitted is approximately 10 to 1. (That ratio obviously underestimates selectivity since there is considerable self-selection in that only those apply who believe to have a chance of being admitted). At the other end of the spectrum, there are the community or junior colleges, most of which are essentially obligated to admit everybody with a high school diploma. Clearly, the value of a degree from one or the other institution varies dramatically in terms of prestige, job opportunities, and lifetime earnings.

The distribution across this vast array of differentially prestigious institutions in terms of social background, ethnic affiliation, and regional origin is, as you would expect, anything but a normal curve. Students from well-to-do backgrounds have a significantly higher chance of ending up at a place like Stanford, and students from poorer background (and students of color) have a significantly higher chance of ending up at the local community college.

This skewed distribution reflects the social dynamics of a class society where, from the early days of nursery school on, a family’ economic situation s determines their place of residence and its cost, which in turn determines the quality of the local schools (through the instrument of local property taxes), which in turn determines the preparation for successful college admission.

But let us look at just how skewed this picture really is. I draw for this on data that have recently been presented by the Century Foundation and are based on what is probably the best and most detailed data sets currently available on the admissions picture in American higher education (Carnevale and Rose, 2003).

The study focuses on the 146 most selective colleges in the U.S. (about ten percent of the approximately 1,400 four-year colleges). These 146 colleges each year enroll about 170,000 freshmen (i.e., about 12 percent of the roughly 1.4 million freshmen enrolled in four-year colleges). The study then looks at the background of these 170,000 freshmen who enter the 146 most selective colleges. All the efforts of American higher education towards “affirmative action” notwithstanding, African Americans and Hispanics represent only 6 percent each of the freshmen class at this most prestigious tier of colleges – in each case less than half of their share in the appropriate age group of the population at large.

Even more striking, however, is the underrepresentation of students from poor families. Students from the lowest quartile of socioeconomic status (SES), who in a normal distribution would make up 25 percent of the incoming class, in reality account for a mere 3 percent, that is about 5,000 out of the total of 170,000. By 3 contrast, students from the highest quartile account for 74 percent or almost three times their “share”, or well over 125,000 freshmen.

This is both a striking and an extraordinarily consequential statistic. Not only confer these highly selective colleges degrees that have a particularly powerful currency in the labor market; the chances of successfully graduating from such a college (rather than dropping out along the way) are a solid 86 percent, whereas this rate decreases to 54 percent for the fourth and least selective tier among the four-year colleges. Similarly dramatic differences prevail with regard to the money that colleges spend on each student ($30,000 to $8,000) or the chances of graduates to go on to graduate school (35 vs. 15 percent). Incidentally, since tuition does not vary all that dramatically between highly selective and less selective colleges, students at the former pay with their tuition a substantially smaller share of the total cost of their education than those at the latter (approximately $6,000 out of $30,000 in the former vs. $6,000 out of $8,000 in the latter).

These findings are corroborated by plenty of other data. Among students from families that earn less than $25,000 per year, 48 percent do not go to four-year colleges (about half of them go to two-year community colleges instead); by contrast, among students from families with incomes over $75,000 only 16 percent do not go to four-year colleges – a factor of exactly three! (Hall 2003) Going into the reasons for this extremely skewed pattern of participation in this country’ higher education system would require another talk all by itself. Clearly, s this has to do with the tremendous and residence-based variation in the quality of primary and secondary schools and with the support that students receive both in school and at home. What is less well known is that it also has to do, as some of my Stanford colleagues have recently demonstrated, with a striking disconnection and information barrier between K-12 schools and the postsecondary system in this country. In other words: students in our secondary schools have a serious information deficit about colleges, and about how to get into them. Obviously, this is an obstacle that is once again skewed heavily to the disadvantage of families and children in poorer communities (Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio, 2003).

Over the last year, and quite rightly so, a great deal of attention has been given in American higher education to the Supreme Court ’ decision on the future of s “affirmative action”, which has after all proven to be an effective, if imperfect instrument to enhance ethnic diversity on American campuses (Bowen and Bok 1998; Chronicle of Higher Education 3 2003). The data I have reported here suggest that strategies of “economic affirmative action” may be at least as badly needed as affirmative action with regard to ethnicity (Hall 2003). The conclusion that Peter Sacks reaches after reviewing a broad array of recent studies on social class and higher education is sobering indeed: “Our system of higher 3 Cited hereafter as CHE.

–  –  –

2. Pathologies of autonomy and accountability In many respects, institutions of higher education in the U.S. are arguably among the most autonomous in the world. This is true not only of private institutions, but to a remarkable, if lesser extent of public institutions as well, especially when compared to state-run universities in Europe. While state governments and legislatures play a significant role in shaping the composition of the governing bodies at the state level (such as the Board of Regents of the University of California), the institutions themselves have significant latitude in decisions on matters of personal, budget and programs within relatively broad parameters set by the state. Again, that is the good news.

The bad news comes from two very different directions where at least the potential for considerable encroachment on this degree of autonomy exists. One of these is the growing dependence, especially but by no means exclusively on the part of public institutions, on external funding in times of dramatically dwindling public resources for higher education.

The other threat to autonomy comes from an increasingly activist federal government that seeks to gain, by invoking the principle of greater accountability, increasing control over the setting and implementation of standards as well as over the pricing of college education.

The first of these developments – the financial crisis in American higher education and its consequences for institutional autonomy – is primarily the result of two events: the precipitous decline of the stock market (where all private and many public institutions have invested their endowment funds) between 2000 and 2002, and the fiscal crisis of the American states that has emerged over the last several years and for which the state of California is one of the more dramatic, but by no means an unusual case in point. Last year alone, 37 states cut their overall budgets in mid-year by a total of about $14.5 billion – the deepest reduction in the 27 years since these data have been collected. This fiscal year (2003-04) looks even worse. Half of the states have cut their higher education budgets by an average of 5 percent; that includes Colorado with 26 percent and Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wisconsin by about 10 percent each. A few states increased their higher education budgets, but typically by very small amounts (Potter 2003). When the State of California finally settled its budget for this year just a few weeks ago in the face of a $38 billion overall deficit, it cut almost 8 percent or $700 million out of its total funding of $9 billion for higher education (CHE 7/31/03).

–  –  –

Secondly, it puts a lot of pressure on the tuition system, forcing most institutions, public as well as private, to increase their tuition rates substantially. This is particularly pronounced in public higher education, where the loss of state funds has left particularly large holes in university budgets. But even private institutions, most of which were shaken, but not really hurt by the decline in the stock market, felt it necessary to increase tuition at rates much beyond the Consumer Price Index (which rose by 3 percent between March 2002 and March 2003): Harvard ’ s tuition increase was 5.5 percent (after a 4.9 percent increase last year), Dartmouth increased by 4.9 percent, Bowdoin by 5, and Brown University by 4.4 percent in one year (Rooney 2003); Stanford was right in the middle with an increase of 5 percent, increasing total tuition to $28,563 for 2003-04.

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