Let’s Be Serious

A memorable line from the movie The American President is: “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” It is a line for our time in higher education. Each day seems to bring a new problem to the fore. The list of problems appears endless: student loan debt, institutional debt, rapidly increasing tuition, achievement gaps, corporatization, the erosion of tenure, the future of the humanities, athletics scandals and spending, deferred maintenance, growing restrictions on student access, escalating demand to attend college, reductions in research funding, international competition, too few opportunities for new (or not so new) PhDs, the “graying” of the faculty, the lack of diversity among senior leaders – and we can add a lot more to that list. It can be depressing if one dwells on it.

There also appears to be no shortage of proposed solutions to at least some of these problems: let’s privatize, abolish tenure, foster “destructive” innovation, outsource, consolidate, partner, grow, shrink, provide credentials not degrees, increase oversight – and we can add a lot more to that list, too. Some of the proposals that have been made are worthwhile, some are misguided, some are frivolous, and some are really threats.

In order to solve a problem you must be able to identify it – but in the current context for higher education that is less obvious that you might first think. If you set out to design the next generation airliner, say the Boeing 787, everyone understands that if you elegantly solve all the design problems, but leave off the engines, you are unlikely to sell many aircraft, and even less likely to get passengers from Boston to Shanghai. Yet many of the solutions to the multiple problems facing higher education are just like that – useful, even necessary (like landing gear), but ultimately irrelevant without the engines. Unless we address the fundamental problems of funding, for both public institutions and for students, the rest of our efforts will not matter very much.

A recent report, a new addition to a substantial group that reach the same conclusion, cogently documents the engine problem for public higher education. The paper is aptly titled, “The Great Cost Shift. How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Middle Class.” The author is John Quinterno, writing for Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization in NY, www.demos.org. The numbers for Rhode Island are especially sobering. In 1990-91 Rhode Island provided $205 per capita or $6.71 per $1000 of personal income to public higher education. By 2010-2011 those values had declined to $150 per capita and $3.55 per $1000 of personal income.Now that is a serious problem.

Moreover, it is a fundamental problem, and until this problem is solved we will have a difficult time really solving any of our myriad other problems. For example, the tension between maintaining and improving quality on one hand (which requires us to develop, recruit, and retain the best faculty and staff we can), and minimizing tuition increases on the other, is increasingly problematic in the context of systematic declines in state support.

The public disinvestment in higher education is a national problem, which makes it even more difficult to solve. But solve it we must, for the benefit of our state and our nation. Finding a solution requires a serious examination of the problem by serious people committed to the search. Currently, here in Rhode Island, the Board of Governors for Higher Education, the General Assembly, and the Governor’s Office have all engaged the issue of access and affordability, which is encouraging. But we must directly face the reality that the “cost” crisis is in fact a funding crisis. We have a long way to go to solve that problem, and no time to waste.