“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
America spends nearly $700
billion a year on higher education, including paying
instructors, funding research, keeping the facilities running and
much more. At public universities, the biggest chunk of this
comes from taxpayers, who deserve accountability for their money.
So do students and their families, who fork over tuition and
fees, and a fast-growing additional amount for room and board. At
private, nonprofit institutions, the proportions are reversed,
with more money coming from students than from taxpayers.
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.
A community college has a bit of a split personality. One side of
the college is full of students trying to take classes at a less
expensive rate before transferring to a four-year school to
finish up a bachelor’s degree. The other side is full of students
working on the latest manufacturing robots, learning to cook or
brushing up on their welding skills in a short time frame.
Financial aid describes the money that the federal government,
state or municipal programs, colleges, private foundations and
individual companies give to students in the form of grants,
scholarships, below-market loans or tax breaks. Without aid,
higher education — and indeed the American dream — would be out
of reach for many low- and middle-income families.
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.
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