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There are hard truths that are difficult to hear but a mistake to ignore. We disregard these awkward realities at our peril.

It’s scary to acknowledge that our applicant pool is shrinking. Or that the quality of the education we offer is diminishing. Or that our students aren’t studying or learning enough. Because those truths would force us to recognize an urgent need to change.

Failure to face disconcerting facts is always a big mistake. When we deny, excuse or rationalize, we set ourselves up for a fall.

What we need instead is radical candor.

West Virginia University may be the most prominent university to propose program cuts, but it’s not alone. Count Bellarmine, Guilford, Marymount, New Jersey City, St. Cloud, Saint Leo, Seattle Pacific, Simmons and Utica among the campuses that are currently contemplating the elimination of various programs.

But it’s not just small institutions that are under threat. Regional comprehensives are losing students to flagship and land-grant institutions. And that’s not all.

Take Brandeis—relatively well ranked, with a decent endowment. Whereas nearby Tufts had 34,000 applicants and a 9.5 percent acceptance rate, Brandeis had just 9,796, of which 39 percent were admitted. Brandeis has just placed its musicology and music composition and theory Ph.D. programs on hiatus, apparently with the intention of shuttering them permanently.

For all the talk about eliminating preferences for legacies, donors or athletes in country club sports, as well as ditching early decision, as steps toward reducing inequalities in admissions, the fact is that even many campuses with need-blind admissions enroll very few lower-income students. Harvard, for example, declares that “More than 20 percent of Harvard parents have total incomes less than $85,000.” That’s $15,000 above this country’s median household income.

I recently re-read Steven Brint’s Two Cheers for Higher Education, a book that, it is said, “gives an upbeat assessment of major research universities” and “a welcome counterpoint to the overstated critiques of American colleges so often favored in the press.”

In fact, the portrait that Brint paints is much more mixed and nuanced.

To be sure, Brint does argue that for many American colleges, universities and community colleges, the years between 1980 and 2015, not the 1950s and 1960s, were truly the golden age. Adjusted for inflation, federal research spending at universities rose 92 percent between 1980 and 2001, then doubled again by 2020, and universities’ research expenditures grew ninefold in constant dollars. Undergraduate and graduate enrollments doubled.

On the positive side of the ledger, the nation embraced the idea of college for all and the notion that universities were the key to human capital development, basic and applied research, and engines of local, regional and national economic growth. Through its monopoly over credentialing, a college education became increasingly indispensable if young people were to enter a financially secure, middle-class occupation.

And yet, as he acknowledges, this was not a story of unambiguous progress.

  • Higher education became more stratified and hierarchical in terms of resources, prestige, spending and student qualifications, with the students with the greatest academic and financial needs concentrated in the least-resourced institutions.
  • Four-year graduation rates remained low. Even after six years, close to 40 percent of undergraduates fail to graduate from four-year institutions.
  • Disparities in graduation rates resting on class, race and ethnicity failed to budge much.
  • Student gains in analytic and critical thinking were, at best, unimpressive.
  • Within institutions, the gap between the interpretive disciplines and the quantitative, scientific and applied disciplines in terms of resources and respect widened substantially.
  • Insofar as institutions succeeded in containing costs, they did so largely by relying increasingly on instructors off the tenure track.
  • Instructional spending remained fairly stable, at least at public institutions, while the number of administrators and their salaries grew and as student affairs budgets rose sharply along with spending on donor and constituency relations, financial aid, regulatory compliance, research, technology transfer, and economic development.
  • The public, and not just Republicans, increasingly questioned the value of a college education.

And, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, students and their parents wound up footing the bill for new programs and buildings at public institutions—and they did this at rates above and beyond any cuts in state funding. In the Journal’s words: “For every $1 lost in state support at those universities over the two decades, the median school increased tuition and fee revenue by nearly $2.40, more than covering the cuts.”

Brint’s book helps explain what happened. Between 1980 and 2015:

  • Campus spending on instruction stagnated because campuses reduced the ratio of instructors to students, increased class size and hired more instructors off the tenure track.
  • Even as colleges enrolled more underprepared and undermotivated students and students spent less time studying, with an increasing proportion rarely participating in class or completing their reading assignments, grades nonetheless rose.
  • The ratio of managers and administrators and nonteaching professional staff to full-time faculty and students rose substantially. As Brint notes, “Where full-­time faculty outnumbered administrators and staff in 1975 by nearly two to one, full-time faculty were outnumbered by administrators and staff thirty years later.”
  • Salaries for senior administrators soared. In the mid-­1980s, the typical president of a doctoral-­level university was paid about 70 percent more than the typical full professor. By 2015, presidents earned 3.5 times as much on average at public universities and four times as much at private universities.
  • Compensation rose much more for full professors than for associate and assistant professors, while inflation-adjusted pay for instructors and adjuncts barely budged. Meanwhile, salary differentials across fields also grew substantially. These developments were probably connected to an actual decline in faculty unionization across the 35-year period.
  • Courses taught by non-tenure-stream faculty were much less likely to require multiple drafts of students’ written work oral presentations or peer feedback. Postdocs, adjuncts and TAs also spent less time preparing for class, interacting with students or using active learning teaching techniques. Retention rates for students taught by non-tenure-track faculty were also lower.
  • In 1975–76, when financial aid funding peaked and tuitions had not yet begun their sharp rise, the average student received five times as much grant aid as she or he borrowed in loans. By 2015, the figures were reversed. The average Pell Grant was $5,775, and average student debt was $29,083. (Of course, much of the increase in student debt was due to the growth in for-profit and graduate school enrollment.)
  • A growing number of campuses created internal student tracks or hierarchies of privilege through restricted majors and honors colleges and weed-out courses in quantitative majors.
  • Four-year nonprofits, which in 1970 enrolled 70 percent of all undergraduates, now enroll only about half—nearly a 30 percent decline.
  • At a growing number of research universities, campus priorities shifted with an increased focus on grants, contracts, industry collaborations, licensing and consulting; the creation of research centers and institutions; and innovation parks, development and expanding programs in what Brint calls “the practical arts”: such as business, criminal justice, health care, leisure, fitness and recreation studies, media, and technology, in timely fields like environmental studies and sustainability, in area emphasizing social inclusion (Black studies, Indigenous studies, Latino/a studies, LGBTQ+ studies and women’s studies), as well as in new fields, such as computer science and neuroscience.
  • As Natasha Warikoo pointed out, there was a “diversity bargain” on many elite, flagship and other research campuses, increasing the numbers of previously underrepresented students in ways that didn’t interfere with the ability of affluent whites to enroll.

Brint ended his 2018 volume on a modestly optimistic note. Income-based repayment plans could help ease the student debt problem. Institutions could contain costs and bend the cost curve by consolidating administrative offices, outsourcing expensive campus services to outside vendors, centralizing procurement, refinancing debt and, in some instances, adopting shared services (for example, joint administration of health plans). Online education continues to hold out the prospect of reaching new markets. And pressure to enroll in graduate school, especially in specialized health fields like physical therapy, nursing or physician assistant and in data- and technology-based fields like cybersecurity, data analytics and health informatics, mean that many undergraduates will continue to devote time and energy to their studies.

I hope he’s right. But he does cite studies that raise questions. According to research by the economists John Bound, Michael Lovenheim and Sarah Turner, the most important cause of noncompletion among community college students isn’t money or even life circumstances; it’s their lack of adequate secondary school preparation. If our campuses are truly to benefit from the commitment to “college for all,” then these institutions must provide the kinds of instructional support these students need. They must also help maintain student engagement and persistence through developing social connections, promoting a sense of belonging and encouraging involvement in campus activities and organizations.

This country has created a system of higher education rife with contradictions. Between access and affordability. Between the liberal arts and vocational training. Between an emphasis on research and on teaching. Between open discourse and creating safe and inclusive spaces for students. Between the tenure system and a heavy reliance on contingent instructors. Between efficiency and meeting individual student needs. Between institutions with histories of exclusion and endowments based, in some cases, on unsavory practices and their current commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s a system that, as David F. Labaree has written, combines “open access with radical stratification”:

“Almost everyone can go to college, but the institutions that are most accessible (community colleges) provide the smallest boost to a student’s life chances, whereas the ones that offer the surest entrée into the best jobs (major research universities) are highly selective. This extreme mixture of equality and inequality, of accessibility and stratification, is a striking and fascinating characteristic of American education.”

It’s also a system that is supposed to prioritize teaching and learning, but one that in practice has subordinated that mission to a host of other concerns.

In 1929, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the dean of Yale Law School, said this:

“My view of university training is to unsettle the minds of young men, to widen their horizons, to inflame their intellects. It is not a hardening or settling process. Education is not to teach men facts, theories or laws; it is not to reform them or amuse them or to make them expert technicians in any field; it is to teach them to think, to think straight if possible; but to think always for themselves.”

Brint’s book contains a phrase that encapsulates my view of the purpose of a college education: to provide “a life-shaping passage to adulthood.” Let’s not lose sight of that high mission. A college education that isn’t developmental and transformative isn’t worthy of that name.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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