Op-Ed: COVID-19, higher education and public trust — time for radical change

Darryl G. Greer | September 25, 2020 | Opinion, Education
A college degree continues to have high value, but citizens are losing confidence in colleges’ ability to change
Darryl G. Greer

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, colleges and universities need to move beyond immediate concerns about health protection and educational-delivery modes to change business models radically or risk losing their most important asset, public trust.

Deep public concern about college affordability should not overshadow a sharper focus on needed reforms that determine overall value and drive public confidence. Funding based on growth, in place since the 1970s, that depends on the traditional revenue mix of tuition, student financial aid and state subsidy won’t work any longer. What’s needed first is vigorous, strategic reexamination of what we want colleges to do. This is especially true in New Jersey, where tuition pays for about 70% of educational costs.

Manipulation of educational-delivery modes (in-person versus remote) will not lead to fundamental change. We need a more strategic, outcome-driven approach to guide decisions about who goes to college, who pays, and for what, if institutions are to sustain strong public support for the value of their multiple purposes.

Too many presidents and boards of trustees are making decisions from an old unreliable enrollment/tuition growth playbook. Understandably, they favor institutional survival and incremental change over more dramatic restructuring of the business, betting that they can compete for students and scarce money.

Old assumptions that erode public confidence

The COVID-19 health crisis serves as a catalyst for immediate thoughtful reexamination of assumptions that determine the perceived value of college, including:

Colleges can sustain enrollment and tuition growth: In fact, the number of New Jersey high school graduates will continue to decline for this decade, even as the COVID-19 crisis adds to uncertainty about student marketing and enrollment decisions. Boards of trustees should not anticipate significant new revenue to substitute for eroded enrollment and tuition income.

Colleges can depend on relatively stable state and federal funding, especially for student financial aid: Higher education continues to receive a diminishing share of state funding and is losing the competition with other public services such as health care, schools, retirement and transportation. Decades of growth in student financial aid entitlements is slowing, and reexamination of distribution of federally funded aid programs is underway.

Colleges can continue to support facilities and technology through debt financing: New Jersey public colleges and universities carry one of the highest levels of facilities debt in the nation, principally because of state underinvestment for decades. They face significant deferred-maintenance challenges, and many have seen their bond ratings lowered. Borrowing for facility and technology upgrades will be more expensive without a stable tuition or state funding stream.

Colleges can market a broad range of academic programs, loosely tied to practical experience and skill certification: Colleges have expanded course and program offerings for the past three decades, in part to attract more students, but not always responsive to desired learning outcomes and jobs.  Recent survey research, indicates that students and employers want clearer connection between academic studies and practical experiences while in college that certify learning competencies (rather than courses) and demonstrable skills that lead to career opportunities. Trust in the value of college can improve by making this connection.

Needed change

Colleges need to rethink the fundamental business model, to fulfill the goals of equitable access to high-quality higher education, such as:

  • Rethink expenditures where most of the money is spent — 70% to 80% on personnel and facilities; roll back plans on new construction; jettison nonperforming capital assets.
  • Reconfigure pricing on actual educational cost and families’ ability to pay, not price discounting through scholarships and grants that confuses citizens and policymakers.
  • Reduce time to graduation by granting more credit-by-examination and for-work experience, thereby making college more affordable.
  • Create many more internships tied to academic studies and real-world skills that provide value to students and employers.
  • Invest more in academic advising and career counseling as a requirement to help students make effective decisions leading to graduation.
  • Collaborate more with other institutions to share educational resources and innovative practices.
  • Reduce program offerings; stick with basic academic disciplines and invest in faculty and staff development to support new instructional and certification models.

 New accountability measures

Colleges can strengthen public trust by adopting explicit accountability measures, including:

  • Measuring and reporting demonstrated abilities of college graduates on critical learning outcomes, especially regarding writing, speaking and problem solving.
  • Reporting where college graduates work after one, three and five years, and the relationship between job, career choices and academic studies.
  • Publishing the number of graduates engaged in community and public service, and enrolling in postgraduate/professional studies after one, three and five years.
  • Indicating annually the number of internships offered by academic field and number of students participating.
  • Measuring the intensity of academic advising and career counseling for new and transfer students.
  • Reporting degree credits earned, compared with those required for graduation, as a measure of academic efficiency.

None of these objectives are easy to achieve. They will require taking some radical steps, such as the state creating a long-overdue, stable rationale for funding public colleges; engaging faculty and staff support on labor contract and work-rule revisions; and encouraging presidents and boards of trustees in serious risk-assessment analysis to create strategies to manage change.

Success requires direct communication with citizens who support and benefit from higher education. All of this must be accomplished with a steady eye on the prize — equitable access to a high-value college education. Not everyone aspires to or needs to go to college. Yet, globally, investment in education at every level leads to better health, housing, nutrition, jobs and security for citizens.

Higher education produces a significant societal outcome by providing broader opportunity for individuals to lead productive lives. New Jersey colleges can fulfill this important mission and achieve needed change only with strong public trust to support their efforts.