John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

American Higher Education’s Race to the Bottom

John Gardner

I have been finding myself more frequently using this phrase “race to the bottom” to describe our country’s full scale retreat from the strides it made from the beginning of the New Deal in the 1930’s up until the early 1980’s to expand opportunities for the majority of our country’s population. Just the other day I read some data that I will share here which confirm for me the sad accuracy of this phrase.

As I do this let me recommend to my readers that they join me as subscribers to a truly excellent, compellingly informative, monthly publication, of the newsletter genre, Postsecondary Education Opportunity. This is written and published by my friend and colleague of many years, Thomas G. Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst and Senior Scholar with The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. As Tom would tell you himself, he is a recovering former financial aid analyst, who produces this marvelous publication from his home basement office in Oskaloosa, Iowa. I would describe Tom as American’s higher education demographer, par excellence. And, he is a demographer with a conscience.

Once in a while, usually by a graduate student or relatively new entry into the field of promoting college students success, I am asked: “John, what do you read on a regular basis that keeps you informed in the manner in which you feel you need to be to stay at the top of your game….” I always include this publication in my short list in response to this interesting and important question.

I have come to think of Tom as higher education’s Paul Revere. Take a brief glimpse below for why I think this way.

In the 238th monthly edition of this newsletter, said serial subtitled “Public Policy Analysis of Opportunity for Postsecondary Education”, he has entitled the issue “Bachelor’s Degree Attainment in the United States and OECD Countries, 1940-2011.

I want to share just some of what Tom reports in this addition and hope that it will be grist for your mill to exhort others that we can and must do better in higher education and I will hereby quote liberally from Tom’s message:

  • Since around 1980 federal, state, and institutional policy choices have restricted and narrowed educational opportunities.
  • The federal government has moved away from need-based grants toward educational loans and most recently toward tax credits. Resources previously focused on those students who need them are increasingly shared with others who don’t need them.
  • The states have sharply reduced their annual investment efforts in higher education, forcing institutions to raise their tuition….
  • Many four-year colleges and universities have chosen to pursue revenues and prestige by competing in super-saturated and shrinking markets of affluent students, and ignoring the huge,  growing and seriously underserved markets of students from low income family backgrounds.

These regressive, restrictive and redistributive policy choices have produced predictable results:

  • By the early 1990’s many measures of college participation had stopped growing—they had ‘flatlined’
  • The generation of young adults ages 25-34 years old was no better educated than was the generation of their parents….
  • The growing share of college students with Pell Grants was decreasingly represented in public and private four-year colleges and universities, and increasingly concentrated in community colleges and proprietary institutions…

As I was reading Tom’s latest report, I was in a period when I had just spent two weeks in Europe on vacation and hence my thinking was especially attuned to cross cultural comparisons. What grabbed my attention the most from this piece was Tom’s report of the impact of the above policy choices by our American leaders (both political and higher education institution senior administrators) on how the US now is performing vis a vis other developed nations with whom we usually compare ourselves:

  • As recently as 2003 the United States ranked 2nd among the 30 industrial democracies in the world in the share of 25 to 34 year olds with at least a bachelor’s degree from higher education.  The US was outranked by Norway. These countries are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
  • By 2009, the United States had dropped to 11th place among these countries…..Netherlands, Korea, United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Australia, Sweden, and Ireland.
  • Projected to the year 2020, these trends will lead the United States down to a ranking of 18th among these OECD countries….
  • By 2026 the United States will rank 21stamong OECD countries, leading only the bottom third of this ranking…

My conclusion: we aren’t at the bottom yet, but we are racing there as a result of the deliberate policy choices we are making, at federal, state, local, and institutional levels. The choice will always be ours.

So what will it take to alter course from a race to the bottom? We need another Sputnik wakeup call as we had in 1957. Usually, I am not at a loss for words and have an answer of varying degrees of quality and accuracy. However, for this question, I don’t know. Will a perception of external threat so great as to unify the country to reverse decades of public policy to permit major investments in education be very likely? I don’t think so. Will the public just become fatigued over time with our miserable performance vis a vis other developed nations and force our elected leaders to move in new directions? I don’t know. Usually, the perennial optimist, I am pessimistic on this one. I feel that I have lived through the best of times, and my successors have inherited the worst of times.

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