America’s higher-education system passed a milestone a few years
ago that university officials would probably prefer no one
noticed: Annual tuition plus room and board at some private
institutions overtook the median household income. Going to a
selective college, for the first time, cost more than the average
family earns in a year.
“Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations
require more than a high school diploma,” President Obama said in
a February 2009
address to a joint session of Congress.“And yet, just over
half of our citizens have that level of education, and half of
the students who begin college never finish.” With those remarks,
the president put the issue of college completion front and
center on the national stage.Calling the situation a “prescri
There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United
States, ranging from open-enrollment community colleges to highly
selective Ivy League institutions, from colleges with historical
missions to educate the underserved to universities exploring the
cutting edge of online education.
Imagine a “professor.” For many,
the idea evokes images of a well-compensated, full-time scholar
with the academic freedom, job security and prestige associated
with tenure. Now think again, but this time envision a Ph.D. who
spends hours a day commuting between the two or three colleges at
which he’s taken on course assignments, in an attempt to make a
living. The pay is low, the job security is non-existent and a
full-time position is a kind of pipe dream – let alone the
possibility of tenure.
For-profit colleges and universities are a growing presence in
American higher education. The sector accounted for an estimated
13 percent of all U.S. college students in 2009—up from 5 percent
in 2001—as well as an outsize share of the federal financial-aid
dollars that help students cover the cost of higher education.
For instance, nearly 25 percent of Pell Grant funds—need-based
awards that the federal government provides to students from
low-income families—go to students of for-profit schools.
Higher education is not just big business: It is huge business.
If you add up all the revenues colleges get – tuition, government
subsidies, ancillary operations, etc. – higher education took in
nearly $500 billion in 2009-10, according to data from the U.S.
Department of Education. But despite the magnitude of money that
flows into colleges and universities, these institutions have
faced considerable financial pressure in recent years as states
have cut funding for higher education.
At a 1979 meeting of The University of Texas Arts and Sciences
Foundation in San Antonio, Peter Flawn, then-president of
UT-Austin, railed against what he dubbed the “widget theory” of
education. The notion, he said, is “that a college or university
is a manufacturing enterprise that produces products called
academic degrees in basically the same way as a company such as
Universal Widgets Inc. produces widgets.” He
went on to forecast “that the struggle for excellence in
higher education over the next decades will be a struggle against
the widget theory in higher education and against those who
knowingly or unknowingly espouse it.”
There’s an online-learning boom going on in higher education. The
focus is on a relatively new model that promises to teach tens of
thousands of students at a time for free, with a mix of short Web
videos and automatically graded (or peer-graded) assignments.
These new offerings are called massive open online courses, or
When its governing board abruptly dismissed the president of the
University of Virginia in 2012, the flagship state university
quickly became the focus of national attention. The
decision—prompted by board complaints that the president had not
moved fast enough to address the university’s
challenges—embroiled the board, faculty, and president in two
weeks of public confrontations. It also prompted a board member’s
resignation before ultimately culminating in the president’s