Smaller Schools Aren’t Always Better

Ronald Brownstein

Almost all Washington scandals, such as those now besieging President Obama, are comets that flicker and fade. Even bad behavior (see: IRS targeting of conservative groups) usually leaves little mark over time.

Although tougher for the media to track, the lasting contours of American life are shaped more by currents that run slower and cut deeper, such as the enduring squeeze on jobs, incomes, and upward mobility.

A provocative report from the centrist New America Foundation this week illuminates one response to that challenge: rethinking public higher education to expand opportunity. Studies show that young people from the bottom half of the income distribution who obtain college degrees are much more likely to significantly outearn their parents than children who don’t. The rub is that the gap in college completion between students from upper- and lower-income families has widened since the 1970s. About eight in 10 children from families earning at least $99,000 have obtained a four-year degree by age 24, compared with just one in nine from families earning $33,000 or less, one recent study found. An educational system that apportions opportunity primarily to young people with the good sense to be born near the top mocks America’s self-image—and virtually ensures social tension and alienation.

Many private colleges and universities are experimenting with innovative programs to recruit and retain more low-income and first-generation students. But the central front in the struggle to widen educational opportunity will inevitably remain public colleges and universities; these institutions enroll 70 percent of all postsecondary students, and they usually represent the most affordable and accessible ladder to success for those with the longest climbs.

Yet, collectively, public institutions are straining to fill this role. One reason is that over the past two decades, states have cut per-student spending by one-fourth. Another is that public colleges and universities, like their private counterparts, have too often failed to control costs, seize the opportunities of new technology, and seriously address a completion crisis that has too many students abandoning higher education with crushing debts and no degree.

The silver lining is that a growing number of political leaders and educators are finally confronting these problems. No single solution has emerged to tackle the intertwined dilemmas of access, completion, and debt. But the New America Foundation report highlighted several public institutions pursuing the counterintuitive strategy that in responding to these challenges, bigger is better.

The ideal in higher education remains the cozy, leafy quad, and even many public universities are responding to squeezed budgets (or pursuing greater prestige) by limiting enrollment. By contrast, the report celebrates behemoth institutions such as the University of Central Florida, Arizona State University, and the University of California (Riverside) that are controlling costs, generating efficiencies, and graduating large numbers of nontraditional and first-generation students by expanding enrollment.

With 70,000 students, one-third of them first-generation, Arizona State crystallizes the shared philosophy of what New America calls “next generation” universities. “We define ourselves by who we include, not who we exclude,” Michael Crow, the university’s dynamic president, says in the report. “We will not advance this institution on a vision of status being achieved through exclusion.”

These universities’ strategies all differ, but common threads bind them. One is aggressively facilitating transfers, which improves affordability by allowing students to attend lower-cost community colleges for two years. Another is accelerating adoption of online and “blended” courses that mix in-person classes and cyberinstruction. (At the University of Central Florida, about three-fifths of students already study at least partly online.) Most promising may be the way these institutions use the massive data generated by their huge student bodies to target remedial intervention, focus financial aid, and steer students toward courses most likely to result in graduation—much as Amazon and Netflix use data about previous purchases to recommend future ones.

These institutions’ commitment to maintaining a ladder to opportunity is inspiring, as I saw when I moderated a panel with several of their presidents at New America this week. Yet, like all public institutions, they are paddling against a choppy current. States once heavily subsidized public higher education in the belief that more graduates benefited the whole community. As that sense of common purpose has frayed, lawmakers have tilted the costs toward parents and students through higher tuition, a trend that compounds the income gap in college completion. Tuition now funds nearly half of public institutions’ educational costs, up from one-third just a decade ago. The public is “pulling back from a notion that they should be … supporting the education of the next generation,” Jane Close Conoley, Riverside’s interim chancellor, said at the panel.

Morley Winograd, coauthor of the new e-book Millennial Majority, predicts that as today’s young people achieve political power, one of their signature priorities will be to reverse that trend and end “the current system of financing college by creating enormous [student] debt burdens.” That goal is worthy, but distant. In the meantime, more schools could learn from the innovative and inclusive institutions demonstrating, as New America writes, that “a university can be high quality and big at the same time.”