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The United States spends over $600 billion a year on higher education, and decades of research show that those with a college degree earn more and have a better quality of life. Last month, two distinguished economists announced the shocking finding that college graduates also live 10 years longer than non-graduates. I wrote about the implications of that gap last month, and today I want to spend some time on how it emerged — and why it seems to be growing.
When I asked Sir Angus Deaton, the co-author of the new paper, how he accounted for this astonishing rift in longevity by education level, he responded right away. “Easy answer,” he wrote. “We don’t know!”
That’s because there are some big holes in the data that make it hard to pinpoint causation. Harvard economist Raj Chetty studies life outcomes based on a massive database of tax returns, but that data doesn’t include educational levels. Deaton and Anne case-based their study on death certificates that do include education level but not income. As a result, it’s hard to untangle the interplay of education, income, and other confounding variables.
Professor Deaton, an outspoken advocate for universal healthcare, suggested that those without a college degree are less likely to have adequate healthcare because of lack of insurance and the complexity of the system itself. There is no doubt this contributes to increased mortality. The well-established lifetime income premium associated with a college degree undoubtedly contributes, as well.
But the enormous size of the gap, and the fact that it seems to be growing, suggests there may be other factors at play. In their book, Deaths of Despair, out last year, Deaton and Case dwelled on the role that social esteem plays in life outcomes. In a society where the gap between winners and losers has widened, and where most high-status jobs require a college degree, the self-esteem associated with a college education may play a real role in health and longevity. The prominent moral philosopher Michael Sandel wrote a whole book last year on the need to restore American society’s sense of dignity and respect for all forms of work, not just white-collar knowledge work. “We need to better reward the social and economic contributions of work done by the majority of Americans, who don’t have college degrees,” Sandel argued. “And we need to reckon with the morally corrosive downsides of meritocracy.”
I think that’s right. But it still leaves an important unanswered question: Is there something intrinsic about the process of earning a college degree, some substantive change from the experience itself, that leads to better life outcomes?
The preeminent educational historian, Jonathan Cole, in his book The Great American University, offers a place to start. Cole found that a distinct set of values underpins the American university, and they hold mostly true across different institutions and fields of study. Things like free debate and productive skepticism of received wisdom; a universalism that rewards fact-based argument over dogmatic belief; and a sense of the common good, a mission to serve the broader society.
There are plenty of exceptions, of course, and no institution achieves these foundational principles perfectly. But Cole’s point is that higher education, writ large, has a culture that aspires to basic tenets of openness and inquiry and that inevitably shapes the students who pass through.
Most students have never met a professor when they enter college. Getting to know people who have made academia their life’s work adds a novel perspective to their world view. The whole concept of a marketplace of ideas, or an organized attempt to produce brand new knowledge, is new to most young people when they set foot on campus. The skeptical mindset central to academia is a productive habit in an economy that demands constant adaptation, and in a media environment where dogma and misinformation can easily lead people down dangerous paths.
Not only are students exposed to new ideas but also to a diverse community where they are likely to interact with people different than themselves. The long-term social impact of knowing people who are “different” should not be underestimated. It’s a critical feature in a world that’s changing fast. In North Carolina, half of all adults now living in the state were born elsewhere, so a willingness to meet and welcome new people is crucial.
I taught a first-year honors seminar for many years involving a group of students almost all of whom held merit scholarships. They were highly motivated, accomplished, and often overconfident. Early in the semester, I asked who in the class had heard of Peter Drucker, the leading thinker in the world on entrepreneurship. Silence. After what seemed like an eternity, a young woman slowly raised her hand and gave a perfect summary of Drucker and his theories. I asked where she’d learned all of that. She responded, “In high school in Singapore.”
Her classmates were caught off guard. Eyebrows raised; eyes widened. All of these students with solid accomplishments but narrow life experiences suddenly had their world view expanded beyond North Carolina, beyond the United States. They saw their place in the world a little differently and understood that contributions (and competition) would come from a much wider circle of people than they imagined. I’ve seen the same dynamic play out in reverse when some unbelievably well-prepared student from a private prep school gets upstaged in class by a brilliant kid from rural North Carolina.
Those horizon-widening moments certainly aren’t the sole reason college graduates live a decade longer than those without a BA. But when you look at the broad range of factors that Deaton and Case have explored in their work — not just health care and income, but social connections, a sense of purpose, a feeling of efficacy and esteem in the world — I believe that the actual experience of college makes a difference. If we’re doing our jobs right, it must.
Whatever is driving the wedge between college-educated Americans and their fellow citizens, we need to untangle it quickly. It is indisputable that a degree is valuable but lacking one shouldn’t cost a decade of life. We need to better understand what’s delivering such a stark benefit to our graduates and we need to get it in the hands of more people — now.
With the real U.S. employment rate estimated to be in excess of 10%, women and minorities being disproportionately impacted, and unskilled jobs rapidly being replaced by those that need specialized training, it makes sense to invest in the learning infrastructure developed during the pandemic to put the country back to work. But it is important not to confuse this short-term imperative with the long-term goal of increasing the number of Americans with a college degree. Job training should not take the place of providing an affordable and meaningful college education to an increasing number of Americans.
Only a third of Americans have a college degree and based on 2020 enrollment statistics, the pandemic will cause that number to go down at least for the next year or two. More concerning is the dramatic drop in the number of minority and first-generation applications. By any measure, these are the Americans who can most benefit from a degree not only because of the economic benefits it bestows but also because, for the foreseeable future, a college degree is a passport to a better life. Michael Lomax, the CEO of the United Negro College Fund, put it this way, “You’ve got to have been poor, you’ve got to have been at the bottom for generations to understand the absolute urgency of mobility. It is more than the urgency of getting something beyond a living wage. It’s the urgency of economic independence, but it’s also the urgency I find in our students and their families to develop themselves fully.”
The confluence of the two biggest issues now confronting American higher education--student debt and free college--provides a tremendous opening to dramatically increase the number of Americans with a college degree. When you dig under the covers a bit, the opportunity becomes more obvious. Philip Clay, the Chancellor Emeritus at MIT, sent me the following email, “There are more than 30 million people who have some college. After you subtract those who are all set such as those 50 and over, you still have millions who would benefit from a stimulus to complete college. This is low hanging fruit!”. A recent report from the Lumina Foundation entitled Changing the Narrative on Student Borrowers of Color provides nuance to Chancellor Clay’s suggestion. The wide-ranging report suggests that twenty-four percent of those that have not completed a course of study beyond high school are in default on their student loans. Saddled with debt—often in default--and no degree, these students face the further reality of being prohibited from reenrolling until their prior debt is paid off. Roughly 6.6 million students are unable to use earned academic credits because their transcripts are being held as collateral by their former institutions. Not surprisingly, these numbers are dramatically higher among students of color.
Universities, corporations, and the private sector are all beginning to respond to what Dr. Clay referred to in his email as “low-hanging fruit.” At Morehouse College, the legendary HBCU based in Atlanta, starting in August an online course offering with reduced tuition will be available to the roughly 2 million Black men who pursued a higher education but never finished their degree. According to the school’s President, David Thomas, three days after the program was announced 5,000 inquiries had already been received.
Similarly, a new partnership between 2U, Inc. and Guild Education will give millions of employees at companies such as Lowes, Chipotle, and Walmart access to college courses and degree programs. Many of the eligible employees already have some college and the 2U-Guild alliance will make a college degree a realistic possibility.
Innovative approaches to addressing the needs of those learners who have failed to complete a degree are emerging everywhere, and the online learning catalyzed by the pandemic has turbocharged these efforts. Davinci Schools is exploring the sweet spot that connects higher education to employment by creating an experiential curriculum that gives students experience in the workplace to go with their academic training. Alamo Community College has developed particular expertise in addressing the needs of Hispanic students, offering 325 degree and certificate programs. Classes are available during the day, in the evening, and on weekends on six campuses, the Internet, and at various off-campus sites. The Alamo Community College District serves more than 52,000 students, about half of whom are Hispanic. Southern New Hampshire University, the fastest-growing non-profit university in the nation with 135,000 students, has broken new ground by using big data and intensive mentoring to achieve a 76% overall completion rate, while National Louis University is launching ambitious initiatives in inner-city Chicago and by the end of the first year, 60% of their students were on track to graduate in four years.
Now, let’s connect the dots. A national consensus is building to forgive some amount of college debt and to make college free or at least more affordable. There are millions of Americans who started college but have not finished. Outstanding debt and high tuition are major impediments to completion and, coming out of the pandemic, there are an impressive set of models designed to serve the population of learners who have started but not finished college. The average balance on outstanding debt is less than $10,000. Why not target a portion of the aid aimed at higher education to this opportunity? Assuming all college debt will not be forgiven, increase the forgiveness ceiling significantly if a student who has dropped out goes back to school and eliminate the “hold” on re-registration for those with outstanding tuition and fees. Cover the true cost of attendance for students who opt to return to school and make the same financial benefits available to part-time and full-time students. Create financial incentives for institutions that enroll students who have dropped out and increase the incentives if the student completes a course of study. These relatively simple but highly targeted initiatives can make a meaningful difference in the life of millions by allowing them to earn what is still the most meaningful credential in American life—a college degree.
I have never been accused of growing old gracefully. I was annoyed when AARP started sending marketing materials and I consider even minor physical limitations a personal challenge. I have another admission. I hate standing in line. When it became apparent that being old meant Kay and I would be moved to the front of the vaccine line, I was ecstatic. I never dreamed we would be fully vaccinated by early February. Having been given the gift of early vaccination and knowing most of my readers are still waiting in line, I want to share what I have learned a week after entering this new state of being. Spoiler alert: it is all good news.
We got the Pfizer vaccine and had minimal side effects. After the second dose, we had a day of downtime, low-grade fever, and a sore arm. Frankly, the side effects were comforting because it suggested that the vaccine was doing its thing and we were developing antibodies.
The reality of being fully vaccinated opened a welcome conversation with family and friends. What are appropriate protocols as fully vaccinated individuals once we achieve maximum immunity in another few days? The easy part is to continue wearing masks in public, mostly for symbolic reasons, socially distance, and continue handwashing. Beyond these basics, the conversation becomes more complicated. Ultimately, I have come to understand there is no right answer. The only right answer for you and your family is guided by your tolerance for risk and the understanding that none of the decisions we make about our daily lives is entirely risk-free. We decided it was safe to re-enter a pod with our immediate family comprised of three fully vaccinated adults, one unvaccinated adult two adults in a blind trial with a 70% chance of being vaccinated, and three children 5 or under. We have also decided it is okay to be indoors with small groups of close friends who have also been vaccinated. Our daily errands are less restrictive, but we are not going indoors to grocery stores and other commercial establishments for more than a few minutes. No movie theaters, indoor dining, or public events until more folks have been vaccinated. The toughest decision we are facing is when to fly to Los Angeles to see our son and his fiancé who just became engaged. Of course, balancing risk against the promise of a saner life will be an ongoing process.
The big news, and the reason for writing this blog, is the unexpected psychological effect of being vaccinated. One friend described it this way: “After the first shot, I knew what day it was. After the second, I found my glasses.” For me, two days after the second shot, the walls of denial began to crumble. I began to understand the incredible toll living with Covid had taken on my physical and mental health. My mindset over the past year has been to stay positive and grateful. Our family remained healthy, none of us lost our job and we were not required to put ourselves at risk. As I saw it, I had no right to be sick or depressed or lost because I had been spared the worst of it. Much to my surprise, after being vaccinated, I am beginning to understand the constant state of fear and uncertainty I have been living with and the toll it has taken.
The insight came first on my daily walk. I walked outside the door without going through a mental checklist of things I needed to do to stay safe. Even with a mask hanging around my neck, for the first time in months, I wasn’t worried about dying or transmitting the virus to someone else. A whole section of my brain that was always on high alert was freed up for more productive pursuits. I noticed I was walking faster and thinking about how to extend the distance. I considered when it would be safe to begin swimming which was formerly a big part of my exercise regime. I started to think about my twin grandsons' first birthday party and a lunch date with a colleague and a small dinner party with friends. The everyday events that give me energy and enthusiasm were creeping back into my life. I also began thinking about projects that had a time horizon of more than a few days. Toward the end of the walk, I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a year and the encounter was transformational. The fear of getting too close was replaced with the joy of talking about what comes next. I could be me again.
The joy extended beyond the walk. My health is better. I sleep through the night without the use of pharmaceuticals. I just made an appointment to get a new campus ID (my old one finally wore out), and I get things done in a day that formerly took a week. I read the papers and follow events of the day with interest but not existential dread. I go to the wine store thinking about the wine I am picking up instead of the mistake I might make that would endanger me or my family.
Of course, the first week may be a bit euphoric and some of the flow will diminish over time. Fortunately, my wife Kay is around to calm things down and remind me we need to consider one step at a time, as the world is still dangerous and uncertain and we must continue to respect the deadly virus. But for those of you waiting for a vaccine, what is coming may well exceed your expectations. Only after you have been vaccinated can you begin to understand the extent of the weight that has been lifted. Only then can everyday joy become real and not just an aspiration. Only then can you become you again.
A meditation teacher I know suggests to students, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” I took the advice but after a two-month period of reflection, it is time to wade back into the fray. What follows is my first attempt.
After a year of uncertainty and almost daily crisis for America’s colleges and universities, the focus is shifting to rebuilding. But we cannot begin without reminding ourselves that American universities were created based on a simple partnership: in exchange for providing a useful education, universities would receive public support to finance their efforts (initially in the form of a tax exemption). For a partnership to work, the partners must trust one another to deliver their side of the bargain but trust is hard to come by when neither partner has delivered on its side of the bargain. Over half of our fellow citizens have no education beyond high school and, only a third have a college degree. The pandemic has stalled any improvement in these numbers. Equally disturbing, nationwide public support for higher education has declined by $6.6 billion between 2008 and 2018. Yet, by any measure of economic or social wellbeing, Americans with a college degree are significantly better off than those without one. Moreover, the groundbreaking work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their book, Deaths of Despair, suggests that white male Americans without a college degree are ten times more likely than the general population to die of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose. And we have learned, yet again in recent days, our American democracy is highly dependent on an educated public.
The havoc the pandemic has imposed on colleges and universities provides just the kind of disruption that can ultimately lead to dramatic improvements. At this moment, all but the most selective schools are required to embrace fundamental change if they are to weather the crisis. This kind of involuntary change forces innovation that would otherwise take decades to accomplish. If the innovation is undertaken thoughtfully, it will allow institutions to not only survive but to prosper by reaching out to the tens of millions of Americans with no education beyond high school. If just 15% more young people without a credential were to earn one, it would move the country from the middle of the pack among developed countries to a position of leadership and over 17,000,000 young adults would earn a post-secondary school credential.
To be clear, such a goal is not a call to return to the status quo. Most schools understand this is not possible. Rather it is a suggestion that the current crisis is an opportunity to rebuild a system that is demonstrably better than the old one because it would serve a larger and more diverse group of Americans. Let’s have a look at the major disruptors of the current system and how creative responses can result in dramatic improvements.
Selective Admissions. The 100 or so selective colleges in the United States can’t move the meter in terms of absolute numbers of college graduates but they have a critical role to play in the long-term effort. They have vast financial resources accumulated thanks to their tax-exempt status. All of higher education pays attention to these schools and tries to emulate them. They set the standard for excellence and acceptability in American higher education. Additionally, these schools have been least impacted by the current epidemic—applications for fall 2021 to selective schools are actually up substantially even as overall applications declined.
If President Biden can create a Cabinet that looks like America, America’s elite colleges and universities can create a student body that does the same. To achieve this goal, colleges and universities must rethink the concepts of merit and excellence without giving an unfair advantage to the affluent and they must make the financial commitments so that attendance is affordable for all admitted students. Moreover, they must do all of this without adversely impacting their impressive completion rate which, in most cases, is well over 90%. Like other audacious missions, this effort will require a tremendous expenditure of financial and social capital. The price tag will not be cheap and the other changes in campus culture and long-standing traditions will be hard for many to accept. To get an idea of what is involved, imagine the reaction when these schools adopt holistic admissions standards that negatively impact applicants from affluent secondary schools, abolish preferences for legacy applicants and undertake an overhaul or outright ban of the Greek system. But these are examples of what will be required if true campus diversity is to be achieved.
I suggest it is worth it. The seismic shift required to educate dramatically more Americans will require cultural change among all associated with the higher educational enterprise, and selective schools must lead by example. Equally important, for the foreseeable future, the graduates of selective schools will continue to assume leadership roles in the institutions that shape the direction of the country. Our leaders of tomorrow must look like America and 100 or so colleges and universities can play a critical role in making that happen.
Free College. Free college is an idea whose time has come. Already requirements for Pell grant eligibility have been expanded, the uniform application for financial aid has been dramatically simplified and a tuition free college education has become an important part of President Biden’s plan for the future. Making college free will be a big first step toward reaching those who until now have not pursued education beyond high school. But two interrelated challenges must also be addressed: increasing the absolute number of those who pursue additional education after high school and increasing the percentage of those who actually finish. First, potential applicants must be convinced that college is actually worth it and that it is a real possibility for people like them. They must see a clear path to a better job and a better life. Second, the fact that many potential applicants are not adequately prepared for college must be acknowledged and addressed through a combination of robust pre-college curricula offered in cooperation with the community college system and innovative college advising efforts such as College Advising Corps. Third, the application process itself must be as simple as getting a driver’s license or a credit card. This will be much easier if college is free and detailed financial information is no longer needed.
Convincing students to actually enroll in some form of post-secondary education is only half the battle. As it turns out less than half of those who start a four-year degree finish and, for community colleges, the completion rate is only 10%. A variety of factors contribute to this historically low number. As Cathy Davidson and Sara Goldrick-Rabb have passionately explained for some time now, food and housing insecurity are often an impediment as is the need to give up work that contributes to family income. There are also social costs in the form of damaged family relationships and the loss of traditional community support associated with the upward mobility offered by a college degree. as Jennifer Morton discusses these factors in-depth in her important book, Moving Up without Losing Your Way.
In addition to addressing the range of financial and social costs associated with pursuing education beyond high school, a full set of incentives and interventions that operate from acceptance until completion must also be put in place. A guaranteed internship or part-time job tied to academic progress while in school and a good job tied to graduation are the most compelling incentives available. Emergency funds for students close to graduation but unable to continue for financial reasons have proven to be a cost-effective way to increase completion. Using technology and social media to stay connected to students throughout the time it takes to obtain a degree is critical and this must be coupled with data-driven early warning signals. We know the early signs of student drop out such as missing class, failure to read the syllabus, or missing an initial assignment. Innovative institutions have developed systematic proactive interventions that contact at-risk students early in the semester when it is possible to provide the support necessary to encourage a change in behavior. The most important factor, however, is to create a culture that welcomes students of all backgrounds with the understanding that their graduation and a better life after graduation are fundamental to the community they have joined when they enrolled in college.
Leaving home will be too big a leap for many high school graduates so the four-year residential model is out of the question if we hope to educate millions more high school graduates. Our network of community colleges plays a critical role at the top of a very broad funnel where some students go seamlessly from two-year to four-year institutions and others prepare themselves for the world of work with focused job training as well as problem-solving skills that are required to navigate life in the twenty-first century.
Ultimately, for the promise of free college to actually work, the challenge of convincing potential applicants to undertake education beyond high school cannot be underestimated. The narrative that college is not worth it has never been more visible in the American culture even if the messengers almost uniformly have a degree as do their children. Directly connecting economic benefits to a credential beyond high school is the best approach to win over those that need convincing but making the case that education results in a better life and a more informed citizenry should also be part of the message.
Another approach worth exploring is tying the size of free college payments to data-driven standards that measure diversity and completion rate. The better a school does on these and other relevant measures, the larger the payment. The program could be structured as an incentive program where all schools get a basic per-student subsidy, but that number goes up based on the achievement of key data-driven milestones.
Loan Forgiveness. Forgiving college debt is among the most popular proposals currently being considered in Congress, for obvious reasons. Americans are burdened by $1.2 trillion dollars of student debt; a shocking number and 71 percent of students have some form of a college loan. A deeper look at the parameters of college debt suggests a huge opportunity. First, the average outstanding loan balance is under $10,000 and the outstanding amount on loans in default is $14,000. Second, sixty-five percent of those who owe more than $50,000 are graduate students. Third, 25% of college loans over $50,000 involve for-profit institutions many of which have gone bankrupt or gone out of business. Fourth, and most importantly, a third of all student debt is owed by students who do not have a degree and are least able to repay. It is for these young people that college debt forgiveness can have the biggest impact.
Politics may require some form of across-the-board forgiveness, but the preponderance of debt relief should focus on the 64% who have not yet obtained a degree or other credential. An offer of total loan forgiveness tied to college completion and a tuition-free path to achieve that goal for those who have dropped out is an overwhelming value proposition. If only 40% of those students who are in default without a credential complete their degree, 34,000,000 additional Americans will be impacted.
Reimagining the College Degree. The pandemic sparked the largest beta test in the history of technology when literally billions of students all over the world began learning online. Predictably, the results were mixed but the accumulated knowledge about teaching online that began last spring and continues to the present cannot be underestimated. Almost anyone who teaches now knows more about online learning and new technology than they did before the pandemic. Moreover, innovation, out of necessity, increased exponentially. New features on platforms like Zoom were introduced almost daily to make the experience easier, more interactive, and more secure. Most importantly, the innovation has been bottoms up with users developing hacks that solved their immediate problems while developers sprinted to catch up. There is no indication that the pace of innovation will slow post-pandemic.
Despite a 13% drop in overall college enrollment during the fall 2020 semester, online colleges experienced enrollment growth. The best of these schools developed sophisticated mechanisms to track student progress, immediately address problems and ultimately maximize the chances for student success. Post-pandemic, most college students and those intending to attend college will opt for an in-person learning experience with some percentage of their classes being online. If the needs of a larger number of high school graduates are to be met, then classes at traditional colleges and universities must increasingly become a hybrid involving online lectures combined with in-person class time devoted to discussion group learning and interactive activities with immediate feedback. Classes might meet in person once a week with the remainder of class time being offered online. Online courses must also be an important part of the course offerings especially when the course would otherwise be delivered in a large lecture format. Other student services such as career services, academic counseling, and student health services must also be delivered online whenever possible.
The popularity of online colleges demonstrates they must play an important role in any national effort to dramatically increase the number of college graduates. The average college student is 22 years old, 28% have children, and 62% have a full or part-time job. The population of potential enrollees is even older and more likely to have children and a full-time job. For these Americans, an online degree or other forms of online education is the best alternative, and an increasing number of schools and other enterprises are responding to that demand. The challenge will be to offer not only technical skills that lead to employment opportunities but also the other elements associated with a college degree such as critical thinking, team dynamics, and historical perspective.
Whether traditional or online, an online college degree, as we know it is not the answer for many high school graduates. For these students, a better approach may be a diverse set of offerings that include internships, apprenticeships, highly specialized modular courses combined with exposure to subjects that contribute to civic and financial literacy. This set of stacked credentials can be another form of a post-secondary degree. What the degree is called is less important than ensuring upon completion a student has a good job, the ability to adapt to a changing world, and the tools to engage in democracy.
Rebuilding college as a mirror-image of its former self is both impossible and a waste of a huge opportunity. The huge amount of financial and human resources required by the rebuilding process must be focused on making the system work for an increased number of citizens who, so far, have been left out of the American Dream.
When the Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton first started examining mortality data in the United States, he assumed there must be an error. Alongside his wife and fellow Princeton economist Anne Case, Deaton found that life expectancy in the United States had not just slowed, but actually declined in the last several years, driven by increasing mortality rates for white Americans without a college degree.
“We were pretty shocked when we found it, that’s for sure,” he told my class of Ph.D. students last week. “It’s not what we were looking for.” He said that most of the time when you find something so dramatic and unexpected, it turns out there’s a flaw with your calculations. But you have to run it down, he said, because if you turn out to be right, the implications might be huge.
“Knowing when to probe data, to some extent, it’s about having a prepared mind,” he said. “You know enough to know what you’re seeing, and know that it’s strange.”
Deaton and Case had uncovered something very strange and very troubling: deaths of despair. White Americans without a college degree have been dying in tragic numbers from drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide — enough to reverse a centuries-long trend of rising life expectancy. Those findings delivered a shock that echoed across disciplines — economics, public health, criminal justice, education — and profoundly influenced American politics.
Deaton was visiting our class — via Zoom, like all of us — because he and Case found that these deaths of despair were overwhelmingly concentrated among people without bachelor’s degrees. Across a range of important indicators, from employment prospects to social, mental, and physical health, the gap between those with a degree and those without has gotten wider. And the consequences of that chasm in American society have become so severe that they show up in the most basic indicator of all — life expectancy.
“Two-thirds of Americans do not have a four-year degree,” Deaton said. “And lots of things that make life worth living are getting worse for two-thirds of the population.”
He and Case detailed their findings and some of their recommendations in a book released earlier this year. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism looks at shifting labor markets, the skyrocketing cost of health care, changes in marriage and child-raising habits, and a host of other factors that contribute to our crisis in mortality. He covered much of that ground in class.
But one of the key lessons that I hope our students took away is that following your curiosity — running down those anomalies in the data — is one of the highest responsibilities of a professor or a researcher. Deaton has made his Nobel-winning career from exploring a series of hard questions that often yielded counterintuitive answers. He questioned many of the prevailing assumptions about market prices and consumer spending; reexamined the way people think about savings; and did pathbreaking work on flaws in economic development models around the world. And that was before he upended the political discussion in America with a shocking discovery about early deaths and a deepening social crisis.
This is one of the most important commitments that higher education makes to the broader society. In exchange for academic freedom and public support, we’ll put some of the world’s best minds to work on very hard, very complex problems. No one told Deaton, a world-class economist, to apply his expertise in the realm of social science and education policy. But that’s where the data led him, and he was obliged to follow.
It will be up to the rising generation of professors and college leaders to answer the profound challenge that Deaton and Case have raised: how does the 21st-century university serve all Americans, not just those who walk across the graduation stage?
“It’s something I’ve worried about for a long time,” Deaton said. “I think the great universities… are in real danger by being totally separated from the majority of Americans.”
That’s not what I want for this great university, and not what I expect from the people who work and study here. Building a society that serves all of us, a future where Deaton’s “deaths of despair” are outliers and not an entrenched pattern, is an urgent mission. I know our world-class faculty are up to it. If we remain strategic, bold, and student-focused, we’ll continue making a difference, one student at a time.
It’s a strange time to be teaching. I am hundreds of miles from my campus in Chapel Hill, and it couldn’t matter less. The phenomenal guest speakers we’ve welcomed to class this semester have beamed in from all over the country, and the seminars are still rich and fascinating. In fact, it may be the golden age of guest speakers, since nobody has to get on a plane or grimace their way through a cocktail reception to make a campus visit. Hard to imagine any previous semester when we could have welcomed Michael Eric Dyson on equity in the academy; Sue Dynarski on fairness in admissions; Holden Thorp on science and democracy; and Angus Deaton on economic fairness, among many others. Technology really is magic sometimes.
Yet for all the Zooming novelty of this moment, there’s no escaping the reality that Rome is burning. Without federal intervention that is fiscally responsible and politically doable, major pieces of this country’s higher education infrastructure are about to be incinerated.
Universities everywhere are getting dressed for the apocalypse, gaming out budget scenarios that would have been doomsaying just a year ago. Whole departments and majors are at risk; furloughs, layoffs, and salary reductions are just the opening bid. My home institution managed to keep enrollment stable in the fall, but most of the sector wasn’t so lucky. Clearinghouse data so far suggests first-year declines on the order of 16 percent nationwide—a devastating blow to colleges, and a long-term gut punch to the national economy.
And that’s before the all-but-assured government funding squeeze takes hold in the semesters to come. Absent federal intervention, the public institutions that provide the bulk of higher education in this country are set for a blow that’ll make 2009 look like a fire drill.
For the time being, we should focus on short-term actions that help stabilize the environment and buy time to consider a more fundamental change. This is about creating a temporary bridge to fiscal stability, available to non-profit institutions in both the public and private sectors, so they have the room to make genuinely hard decisions about how to restructure for a post-Covid world.
Higher education remains the crown jewel of American society and, notwithstanding unprecedented political attacks, the science it provides has been central to the world’s response to Covid-19. Panicked cuts right now would be a disastrous self-inflicted blow; we need enough stop-gap measures to sculpt something new rather than just hack away.
Here’s how we might do it:
A new federal loan program. Between a third and a half of American colleges and universities may not survive COVID-19, felled by a combination of pre-existing conditions and horrible luck. Only the feds can provide the life support to head off that kind of mass casualty event, and it should be included in the next COVID relief package. At a time when the Fed is backstopping junk bonds and Congress is providing aid to everyone from the airlines to corner bistros, it shouldn’t be hard or controversial to provide favorable loans to both public and private institutions. They could even tie the aid to long-sought reforms, reducing principal if the borrowing college increases the number of Pell-eligible students admitted during the life of the loan.
Waiving gift conditions. A common response, especially among faculty, to the fiscal crisis facing most schools is to tap endowments. The problem is that endowments are not structured as rainy-day funds — most gifts are made pursuant to detailed agreements that limit the use of funds to very specific purposes. Moreover, since only income from endowed funds is expendable (typically 5%), even a large endowment doesn’t yield an enormous pile of cash to meet an immediate financial crisis. Universities should explore a simple opt-in program where donors would waive gift conditions for two years so that endowment income can be used for survival. There’s no sense in topping up a scholarship fund for left-handed softball players from Catawba County if the whole college goes bust, so let that money flow to more urgent priorities for the next 24 months.
Cutting salaries and retirement benefits. A number of schools have already reduced the salaries of top-earning employees and implemented a short-term moratorium on retirement contributions. Duke University achieved savings of between $150 and $200 million with that approach, and Georgetown saved $47 million with a temporary halt to retirement contributions for senior employees. Beyond the financial benefits, this flavor of cost-cutting demonstrates a willingness on the part of the academic community to shoulder some real financial pain, making it easier to appeal to donors and policymakers for much needed financial assistance.
Eliminating non-essential activities. The easiest and worst impulse in a financial crisis is to cut across the board — to make the whole institution 5 or 10 percent worse at everything it does. The harder route is to make real decisions, to focus on the activities that are core to the mission while reducing or eliminating those that are not. Almost all universities fund extensive non-academic capabilities in areas such as compliance, risk management, communications, development, and athletics. Some of those areas—notably athletics— have already implemented major cost reductions by temporarily suspending some programs or reducing salaries and furloughing personnel. For many schools that subsidize athletics, now might be the time to think hard about the value of those subsidies.
Every school has academic centers and other ancillary initiatives that have existed for decades and are only marginally productive. This is the moment to make choices that would have been politically unpalatable in happier times but are wholly necessary now. Eliminating whole arenas of work will have adverse long-term consequences, but in a situation where there are no good choices, you have to protect the things that are vital to successfully opening the campus in the spring and next fall.
Most of us who work in academia are here because teaching, life-changing research, and the chance to build a better society are more important than accumulating wealth. Achieving those goals gets harder when the resources for long-range thinking and discovering get thinner. Our predicament is disheartening but for now, we must take the hit to get a few semesters of breathing room. Then the really hard work begins, as we begin to imagine what it means to be a great American college or university in the 21st century, what role higher education will play in the uncharted waters of a post-corona world.
Conventional wisdom is science and politics shouldn’t mix. Decisions about public health, vaccine research, or climate risks ought to be driven by scientists, free from interference by politicians.
That’s all true. But drawing a bright line between scientific conclusions and political decisions is far from easy. The particular genius of America’s approach to research and discovery is in the balance between the dual requirements of scientific independence and massive public support.
“Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown,” wrote Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, in his seminal 1945 report to President Roosevelt called Science: The Endless Frontier. “Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science.”
Bush’s solution for preserving that scientific freedom was to channel public support through research universities like Carolina. By directing government grants to university researchers, Bush believed, the United States could guard scientific independence while also furthering the government’s interest in the health, wealth, and general welfare of the country. The long-established traditions of academic freedom, tenure, and peer review in American universities would ensure that research dollars found their highest and best use, which is why UNC received over a billion dollars in outside research funding last year.
“The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research,” he wrote. “They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.”
We read and discussed that essay in my American Professoriate class last week, and nearly all of the doctoral students in that course agreed that a completely apolitical science simply isn’t reasonable. In a sprawling, raucous democracy of 330 million people, the pursuit of truth almost inevitably leads to political questions — and that’s ok.
“Bush’s argument was deeply political,” said Holden Thorp, one of my predecessors as UNC Chancellor and now the top editor at the journal Science. He joined our class session to offer some modern context for the Endless Frontier and pointed out that all of Bush’s arguments for curiosity-driven research focus on instrumental outcomes. “He’s not arguing knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Thorp told the class. “It’s better medicine, better national defense, a stronger economy.”
Those are still the things we expect from science, the fruits of diligent investment in basic research that leads to unexpected discoveries and surprising new applications. Thorp pointed out that almost all of the advanced tools being deployed in the fight against the coronavirus — including here at UNC — are the product of curiosity-driven research launched years ago. It was impossible to know how exactly those earlier investments would pay off, but we’re seeing the fruits of that patient approach now.
“Most scientists really just want to understand nature,” Thorp told our class. “But it’s really hard to muster people to put their money into that if you don’t give them an instrumental outcome.”
So that’s the trade, the careful balance we need to strike between science and politics. Public officials must let researchers at Carolina and across the country go where their curiosity takes them, and scientists must embrace their responsibility to advance the endless frontier.
From pre-K classrooms all the way to Ph.D. seminars, the education world has never faced the kind of sustained crisis it’s enduring now. And our regular faculty meetings at the UNC School of Education offer a fascinating window into the way schools, students, and parents are responding.
This is my first year on the faculty at the School of Education, and one of the things I relish most about this place is the close connection between faculty members and the people working on the front lines of education across North Carolina and the wider world. We have professors who talk every day with teachers, principals, and district leaders doing their level best to keep students on track, even as they know it’s an almost impossible task right now.
And, of course, our faculty are dealing with their own disrupted courses, scattered students, and chronic uncertainty about what lies ahead for higher education. I promised at the beginning of the semester to stop making predictions, so I’ll just share with you some of the recurring conversations I’m hearing at these gatherings of very smart people dealing with very tough times.
The Spring Semester. It’s already clear that faculty are planning for online classes in the spring. For the most part, people aren’t addressing spring plans explicitly, but there’s strong interest in strategies for making the online classroom better both for the School of Education and for the K-12 students who many SOE students are teaching (many of our students are current teachers or administrators, coming back for Masters degrees or other professional development). There’s an unspoken assumption that, for the foreseeable future, some form of online is here to stay and it is the job of the professionals at the SOE to embrace the change and figure out how to make it work better.
Admissions. The national movement to eliminate, at least temporarily, the SAT and ACT for undergraduate admissions is driving a broader discussion about graduate admission requirements at the SOE. Already a strong grade point average can exempt candidates from taking the graduate record examination and a holistic admissions approach may be employed on a limited basis. The conversation is now evolving into a serious discussion about whether standardized tests predict ultimate success for professional educators and, if not, what should take their place? The holistic admissions approach offers an alternative looking at the entire body of a student’s work as a predictor of success upon graduation. The fact that dropping test scores in connection with admissions is now the subject of a legitimate and serious discussion has potentially far-reaching implications for all of higher education and even K-12.
Grading. As part of the switch to online classes last spring, many schools provided students with a pass-fail option. Some, including many of the disciplines at UNC, have carried the policy over to the fall. There are many rationales for the policy, but the most prominent concern is equity. Students who do not have optimum online access or an appropriate space at home to attend class and complete homework should be able to take courses pass-fail, alleviating some of the pressure they feel and hopefully avoiding a permanent pandemic scar on their academic record. The emerging conversation at the SOE is should there be a transition from grading to learning with an emphasis on outcomes? Like admissions, the fact that the grading structure is being discussed at the level of first principles is significant. This kind of deep reconsideration of the purpose and impact of grades has implications not only for American higher education but also for K-12 since the SOE faculty is training future teachers and researching educational policy for schools all along the educational continuum.
Equity. The racial reckoning taking place across America is a part of almost every conversation taking place at the SOE. It influences admissions and grading because of the concern that the current system puts people of color at an unfair and unintended disadvantage. But it has also catalyzed intense conversations about hiring, teaching methods, and public policy. More specifically, faculty are exploring whether a system designed to develop a community of students and faculty that produces great teachers and educational leaders is inherently biased against non-whites? The discussion has placed previously unthinkable ideas on the table. Ideas such as lottery admissions, gradeless classrooms, and tenure based on teaching excellence and research impact as opposed to publication in a small number of elite journals. There are also conversations about how to change the culture of the school to better reflect the realities of the world outside of academia. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I suspect the answer will emerge sooner rather than later.
Accreditation. The word “accreditation” came up several times during the faculty meeting and elsewhere on campus over the last two weeks. Online learning and the need to pivot mid-stream creates challenges for accreditation agencies with strict requirements for both course content and hours of classroom activity. The rigid rules that governed our work pre-pandemic simply don’t make sense in the new, disrupted world. There are similar questions about teacher certification requirements, school performance metrics, internships. and other regulations all of which are being questioned as we work our way to some kind of new normal.
I imagine similar conversations are playing out in schools across campus and around the country. Foundational issues have moved from abstract water-cooler talk straight to the Dean’s office. The answers will vary at different institutions, with new approaches as diverse as our post-secondary system itself. But it seems certain that big changes are coming and at a speed unheard of in the history of American higher education.
It’s been a tough few weeks here in Chapel Hill.
The decision to cancel on-campus classes barely a week into the semester sparked waves of criticism from all directions—faculty who predicted the effort as doomed from the beginning, lawmakers who wanted to see the campus work harder to maintain in-person instruction, and parents and students who alleged the whole reopening plan was driven by economics instead of epidemiology. Being a chancellor of a research university is an objectively impossible job even in normal times, and the intense criticism Chancellor Guskiewicz received goes with the territory. Leading in the time of COVID-19 is not for the faint of heart.
But for the hundreds of people who have been working since March to safely open the campus, the reality that the plan simply didn’t work has been a gut punch. With no clear timetable for a vaccine and the prospect of another surge in cases late this fall and winter, there is a lot of outright despair about the prospect of returning to any kind of “normal” on campus. Whatever your feelings about the reopening decision and the subsequent reversal, it can be disheartening to see a partially open campus when we remember the alternative so well. In all honesty, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the way the school year is unfolding.
Unacceptable levels of COVID-19 among the student body forced UNC to make a sudden shift to online learning for the fall. As a result, we rescheduled week three of my class for doctoral candidates, The American Professoriate, co-taught by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and School of Education Professor Matt Springer. Our students needed time to shift to online learning, not just for the classes they’re taking but also for the classes they’re teaching as part of their graduate studies. Even with a pause for adjustment, we lost students. We learned that their stress levels are off the charts as they worry about job security for themselves and, in some cases, their spouses. Talk of drastic budget cuts has been in the air since this summer when state leaders demanded detailed contingency plans for huge cutbacks in the face of cratering state revenue. That weighs on everyone, especially these students who are thinking about the next steps in their academic careers.
Childcare is also an issue for our class. One student had to delay finishing her dissertation for a year to supervise online learning for her two young boys. And even those without family obligations are figuring out how to learn, teach, and research without access to many of the usual campus resources, from libraries to offices to labs. Dropping an optional class like ours was a rational response to an overloaded, highly stressed life. And it illustrates that high-value “extras”—a class of deep thinking on higher ed. issues, with lots of networking baked into the curriculum—suddenly feel like a burden during the pandemic crunch. Our students are scrambling just to cover the basics.
Fortunately, after spending a few hours preparing for our class with the renowned Georgetown sociologist Michael Eric Dyson, I began to see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s true that our grand plan for opening up the campus proved untenable, and that the Carolina community has been rocked back on its heels by the twin pressures of the pandemic and the economic crunch it’s creating. But it’s also true that we live and work in a community determined to pull every last usable insight out of these experiences and make them valuable to others. The chair of the faculty has been speaking out about lessons learned, and the need for a stronger national response; professors at other institutions used our experience to inform their own attempts at reopening. Lastly, scholars in disciplines from public health to economics to journalism are conducting real-time research on Carolina’s efforts to salvage the fall.
In the coming weeks, our own class will hear from Professor Dyson, from Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, from the brilliant economist Susan Dynarski, and our own former Chancellor Holden Thorp, now the editor of Science magazine and one of the country’s sharpest advocates for de-politicizing the pandemic response. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve never seen a richer, more timely collection of voices contributing to a graduate seminar, and I know our students will rise to the occasion with fantastic questions and insights of their own.
This is simply to say that for all the anxiety and understandable angst about what lies ahead, the University is still delivering on its core mission. We haven’t retreated from what we do best: teaching, public service, and the search for new knowledge that will immediately impact our current epidemic and far beyond.
For me, the disappointment of August has given way to a reimagined fall where students and faculty can construct a radically different but nevertheless meaningful semester. The process of recovering from adversity and creating a way forward makes me more confident than ever that the American university will continue to be a defining institution in this country, the restless and aspiring heart of the American experiment.
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