Mission Matters in American Higher Education

Earlier this month, Adam Davidson wrote a fascinating yet deeply troubling piece in the New York Times titled: “Is College Tuition Really Too High?” Davidson explores the relationship between the student and the aid offered to the student by the college or university in which the student enrolls. He concludes, “Our system gives three times as much aid to the least needy as it gives to the most.”

There’s a great deal of merit to what Mr. Davidson says. Financial aid is a kind of free-for-all with the rules varying dramatically across institutions and “classes” of colleges, defined partly by mission, selectivity, and wealth. State and federal support added into this mix is a historic but confusing hodge-podge of student and institutional subsidies that shows up in the initial sticker price even before a financial aid package is calculated. Global political and economic realities further obscure shifting levels of state and federal subsidy support.

It’s an unsustainable, inefficient mess. And of most concern, perhaps, is that consumers – students and their families – have no reliable way to understand or navigate by uniform standards what it will mean to their bottom line as they seek admission.

Where the Davidson article misses the mark, however, is in his description of American higher education. He breaks higher education into three groups: 1) 200 or so highly selective schools with national, or even international, reputations, 2) large regional powerhouses, home approximately to 20 percent of the college-going student population, and 3) the nonselective public, community and private for-profit colleges that admit nearly every paying applicant.

In doing so, Mr. Davidson misses hundreds of small private colleges that are regionally significant institutions with defined missions that vary widely. He further confuses the purpose of his “nonselective” groups. Specialized training at a community college, for example, opens an employment door or advances a student within a career that can be more important to the student at that moment than earning an advanced degree.

The Davidson article illustrates the problem inherent in much of the current education policy debates. American higher education is complex, built on a rich history and storied traditions but decentralized by definition, tradition, purpose and design. It’s hard to set policy for a disparate group of public and private colleges formed for different purposes at different times in American history.

You can’t reform an educational system that doesn’t exist and never will.

In addition, the decentralized nature and competing regulatory and financing authorities beyond the college gates create a policy vacuum that encourages inertia, or at best, a slower evolution within American colleges and universities than in the world in which they operate. Decentralization encourages independence. In this kind of environment, it’s easier and safer to be against new ideas and progressive policies than to advocate for change.

Finally, part of the reason that American higher education maintains an unsustainable financial aid model is that its colleges and universities are often run as “Mom and Pop” shops, based on old financial assumptions and propped up by uneducated staff, faculty, and especially, trustees.

Collectively, the current financial model means that we are likely stuck with what we have.

It might be less useful to think about groups of colleges and universities and more helpful to think about their purpose and mission. It’s pointless to imagine categories that lead almost inevitably to “winners and losers.” And yet our penchant for “scoring” institutional wealth, athletic prowess, graduation rates, and alumni employment earnings, among numerous other outcomes, diminishes the significance that colleges and universities have on the lives of individual students.

If America lacks a system of higher education but has instead a loose confederation of colleges – large and small, local and global, rich and poor, public and private, for-profit and non-profit – prudent higher education policy must celebrate, support and innovate with what it has. Applying US Department of Education standards across the board – often using a basic education “system” mindset – makes no sense. It only encourages a political stalemate as the perceived “losers” repeatedly turn to their friends in the statehouse and on Capitol Hill to beat back change.

It would be better if American policymakers paid attention to the mission of American colleges and universities, understanding that this mission varies widely by type, scale, sector, and wealth. It’s not a bad idea to focus on outcomes as key indicators that prove the value proposition of a college to the American consumer. But you can’t start with the outcomes unless these outcomes are measured against the mission that defines the purpose of a college.

There is a common sense of what higher education does for America. At the most fundamental level, it trains an educated workforce. At its best, however, higher education prepares an educated citizenry. The difference is that America’s colleges and universities do it in different ways, attract different students, and therefore, shape different outcomes.

America might be wise to understand and embrace the difference – and the challenges and opportunities implied – before policymakers mandate a common solution that will never work. Only then can they set into place rules against which results can be measured based on the political savvy of voters who elected candidates who understand that mission matters in American higher education.

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