Our Lost Colleges

Image of trees lost in fog

Amid rising public doubt about the continued accessibility of US post-secondary institutions, university leaders need to think differently about how they operate. Until that happens, our colleges will remain lost in a fog of cultural skepticism about higher education. Here are questions every institution’s leaders need to be asking.

A friend’s daughter applied to 10 universities last year. All of the institutions offered admission. But financial aid packages were a different matter. One top-ranked state university sent her an offer with this punch line: your net tuition for this year is 0.

Wonderful, but the breakdown included $2,500 for work study and a $59,000 loan requirement. In other words, she would have nearly free tuition, room and board, while in school, but after graduation a $236,000 student loan debt would become due. How could an admissions officer craft such an insensitive and misleading financial aid letter?

William Bennett claimed to know the answer. In 1987, as Secretary of Education he wrote a combative NY Times op-ed titled “Our Greedy Colleges.” He argued that higher education has no incentive for operating efficiently because government guaranteed loans cover escalating tuition prices. His contention became known as the “Bennett Hypothesis.” Thirty years later, over $1.6 trillion in student loan debt and record setting tuition rates seem to support his premise.

Responses to Bennett’s article ranged from anger to dismissiveness. It’s foolish to think people enter this profession as an entre to great wealth. As a former tenured professor and academic administrator, I heartily agree. But the parents of many college bound students embrace his complaint. They see universities taking in millions of dollars with intercollegiate athletics. Universities pay coaches handsomely, sometimes immensely more than their presidents. And campuses increasingly look like all-inclusive educational resorts. It appears that institutions enhance their image on the backs of students and governmental support. But the reality is even worse.

According to PolitiFact, less than 20% of university athletic departments competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision for the national championship have positive net revenues. Institutional budgets are burdened with their debt. Because of regulatory requirements, football programs complain they must subsidize the “minor sports” and player scholarships. And the all-inclusive educational resort strategy requires substantial investment in capital and operating costs if colleges try to compete on the basis of campus facilities.

Not all institutions are in the amenities race. But it has been well documented that the sheer cost of maintaining the traditional model has become financially unsustainable. Imitating elite universities, without an endowment in the top decile, is very difficult, if not impossible. According to an American Council on Education (ACE) report, the cost of attending college has risen by almost 260% since 1980, while the consumer price index increased by only 120%. Compounding the problem is that real average wages (accounting for inflation) only have the same purchasing power as they did 40 years ago.

The Impact of Cultural Skepticism

In a 2013 ACE report, Donald E. Heller investigates the Bennett Hypothesis and concludes that because Bennett referred only to federally subsidized loans (not including all federal and state aid), the data does not suggest a causal relationship between the loans and tuition rates. Universities use a complex set of factors to arrive at their tuition and total cost of attendance. The Bennett Hypothesis is too simplistic.

Heller claims a primary reason for escalating prices of attendance is cost-push inflation. The cost of operation has increased substantially. But students and their families borrow heavily to pay for it because universities still enjoy a relative monopoly. Despite increasing costs of attendance, students still apply for admission. The for-profit university threat has imploded, and other post-secondary credentials have yet to take hold. That is why some universities can offer admission that requires a crippling debt burden.

The price of a college education is out of control not because of greed. And cost-push inflation is about to collapse because demand is starting to decline. In response, institutions have tweaked marketing and admission strategies, study abroad, internships, and curricular change. But most universities are unwilling to question their operational model. Why?

Our colleges are lost.

Colleges and universities have been forced into a fog of massive cultural change. And they don’t know what to do about it. A primary feature of our era is skepticism about the value of large culturally embed social institutions, including higher education.

The presidents of three very different universities (Harvard, The University of Maryland, Southern New Hampshire) agree. In different ways, they talk about the need to address the current skepticism about the value of a four-year degree. Understanding the multifaceted nature of the public’s suspicion helps address these concerns. Cultural skepticism about higher education can be divided into three categories:

The value of the liberal arts as a foundation for the bachelor’s degree is being challenged. If the primary purpose of a college degree is to prepare students for a good job, why devote a significant part of the curriculum to the arts and sciences, philosophy, and mathematics? The pressure to turn colleges into professional training schools is not new. That debate raged in the early twentieth century. The difference today is that information and training can be readily obtained through convenient technologies, including many types of online material (accurate or not). The privileged place of truth and authenticity is slipping away from university campuses.
The traditional instructional model is being questioned, despite greater use of technology in the classroom. And the validity of the Carnegie unit credit hour is under attack. Fifty-minute classes three times a week for an entire semester is now a byzantine concept. More often than not, universities consider their current systems as the best way to guarantee good results, which makes online or hybrid courses, competency-based-education, and other non-traditional delivery systems highly suspect strategies.

More not-for-profit universities are serving adult learners in the online market with accelerated eight-week terms. But those programs often are considered as institutional outreach, not the heart of a university’s mode of teaching. The glacial pace of structural change in most colleges frustrates even the casual observer.

The “bastions of liberalism” complaint is alive and well. Higher education’s emphasis on critical thinking, historical consciousness, and analysis does not sway critics who hold on to rigid belief systems. All too often higher education’s proponents and critics talk past each other.

An American axiom is that an educated citizenry best insures democracy. But the democratization of higher education has yet to be realized. A 2017 NY Times article unsurprisingly indicates that family income largely determines who goes to college and which type of college they attend. Over 90% of children from families in the top 1% go to college, and nearly half of them enroll in elite institutions. But only one-half of 1% of students from families in the bottom 20% are admitted to elite universities, and less than 50% go to college at all. The recent admissions bribery scandals fueled suspicions that college accessibility has more to do with family income and social class than intellectual potential. Critics also assert that two-thirds of adults do not possess a baccalaureate degree, and the country has not fallen apart.

Dealing With Cultural Skepticism

Universities in the top quartile still flourish, which exacerbates the higher education great divide. State colleges and universities have been dealing with deep cuts in funding for nearly a decade due to tight governmental budgets and political suspicion about organizational inefficiencies. But there is little public outcry, despite that, according to the NCES, nearly 75% of students attend state institutions.

A recent New America survey indicates that two-thirds of Americans believe higher education needs to change, and over 90% want public disclosure of quality measures like graduation rates, job or graduate school placements, and the percentage of loan defaults. A cogent way for colleges and universities to address their at risk status is to engage in institutional strategic thinking.

In a previous article, I introduced a strategic thinking process that utilizes an empirically based methodology. The following is an example of how universities can use it to regain their footing in today’s culture. This deceptively simple methodology helps an institution to take a hard look at the reality in which it finds itself (what is); enables it to critically evaluate alternatives (what could be), in order to choose more sustainable path forward (what should be), so that institutional transformation can occur (what will be).

This methodology can be used in many different ways. In this case, it determines if a university’s  self-understanding is adequately aligned with contemporary culture. In other words, the method involves much more than crafting a public relations campaign. It is an exercise in organizational introspection.


Goal: Describing the university’s self-understanding and public’s perception.

This methodology requires the work of a committee of stakeholders (faculty, staff, alums, benefactors, friends) assisted by a facilitator. The process begins with the committee posing the following questions to the university community and a cross section of the general public.

Research Questions:

  • What are the mission and values of this university?
  • Whom does it best serve, and is it accessible to them?
  • What is its foundational degree?
  • What positive and negative opinions does the general public have about the university?
  • Is the university adequately attuned to its public image? Why or why not?

The exact phrasing of the questions is not as important as how well they describe institutional self-understanding and public perception. Answers paint a picture of what is the current reality.


Goal: Ensuring a culturally responsive organizational model.

After gathering answers to the survey questions, the next step is for the committee to collate responses to the phase one questions according to the institution’s self-understanding versus the public’s perceptions.

Organizing Questions:

  • What is the composite picture of the university’s self-understanding (mission, constituencies, degree offerings, structure/organization, and public image)?
  • What is the public’s composite picture of the university according to those same categories?
  • What are differences between the university’s self-understanding and the public’s perception?

Key Issues:

  • The foundational degree program. If the baccalaureate degree is not considered the foundational degree, the college is ignoring its privileged place in culture. No other post-secondary institution can be accredited for this degree. This perspective does not preclude emphasis on graduate programs and micro-credentials. The question is: how can those programs lead to or lead from the baccalaureate degree?
  • The ideal student population. All too often, institutions consider the demographics of existing students as their target student population. A more expansive view is needed. Put in recruiting terms, what is the largest student market that could benefit from the university’s mission and values? How can the institution meet the needs of those students with a cost of attendance they can afford, even if it means reorganization?
  • Public perception. If a gap between institutional self-understanding and public perception exists, does the university view it as a serious problem or just cultural dissonance? In what ways might such dissonance be remedied?
  • Intellectual capital. In addition to its educational mission, does the university view itself as an arbiter of fact and value? Does the public view it that way? Why or why not?

This step enables the committee to better understand the institution in its totality. Is what it has become what it wants to be? If change is required, what could be viable alternatives.


Goal: Choosing a Sustainable Future

After the committee has embraced the reality the institution faces and imagines possibilities for change, the difficult task of determining the type of change needed becomes paramount. The following considerations should guide the process.

Discernment Questions:

  • Which new path should the institution choose? Why?
  • In what ways can it be clearly communicated to institutional stakeholders?

Key Issues:

  • Type of Change. If institutional self-understanding and public perception are not significantly divergent, then only transactional change (finetuning the current model) is needed. If there is a significant gap, then transformational change is needed. That requires fundamental reorganization.
  • Unanimity of opinion is impossible, even if the committee keeps university stakeholders informed along the way. Readiness for change and consensus building can be greatly assisted by vocal champions who embrace the welfare of the entire university community over individual desires and needs.

No doubt different ways of addressing needed change will emerge. This step involves choosing the appropriate way to move forward, resulting in a clear picture of what should be the university’s future direction.


Goal: Executing change and communicating it effectively

This final step involves the entire university community. Reimagining the institution is all for naught if a coherent message cannot be communicated.

Implementation Questions:

  • What are the best ways in which the organizational change plan can be implemented in this institution?
  • How can it be best communicated both internally and externally?

Everyone in the university community should be able to talk about how this plan revitalizes the institution and better serves public needs and desires. The institution’s communication of what will be an exciting future should be the primary message.

In Closing

While universities have the choice of using a strategic thinking methodology or not, the imperative to address public skepticism is paramount. Higher education leaders are now awakening to the reality that their institutions must recapture the unquestioned respect they enjoyed in the twentieth century modern era.

My friend’s daughter eventually enrolled in a private university with a quality engineering department. The university’s nearly $1 billion endowment for a moderately-sized student body enabled it to offer her a substantial scholarship. As a US citizen living abroad, she was determined to return to America. Her parents understood the college financial aid game. Their daughter is a talented student and they knew how to avoid a large debt burden that’s now endemic in higher education.

Despite their daughter being admitted to a prestigious institution, my friend and his wife were exasperated by the process and skeptical about the current state of US higher education. Can only very bright young people who come from privileged backgrounds have the traditional college experience? Increasingly, the answer is yes. Most universities have not been able to conceptualize a different way of operating that makes collegiate-level learning accessible. And until that happens, we will find our colleges lost in a fog of cultural skepticism.


About the Author: Marcel J. Dumestre, Ed.D. Marcel is a retired academic administrator who writes about higher education strategy and philosophy of education. He held positions for nearly 30 years as a tenured professor, academic dean, and academic vice president at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, Regis University, and Loyola University New Orleans. Marcel is recognized as an innovator in distance education, administrative strategy, and academic leadership development. He is the author of Financial Sustainability in US Higher Education: Transformational Strategy in Troubled Times (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).


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