The Future of Higher Education

John Sexton: The academy is a huge enterprise.  In the United States, there are 6,500 institutions that do higher education.  They are public and private.  They are community colleges.  They are research universities.  They are large; they are small.  They are urban; they are rural.  The university and college and community college, the higher education complex in the United States is unbelievably diverse.  By the way, that’s one of its great strengths, because it is decentralized.  It is highly competitive on one hand, highly cooperative on the other.  It’s hard to think of any question to which there’s a single answer for the entire complex realism of higher education.  That having been said, if I were to try to focus on one issue that loomed large across the entire spectrum of the 6,500 schools that are operating in higher education, I would say that there is at this moment in this country, which has without question a higher education system that is the envy of the world, there is in process a tectonic change in the way our society views higher education.  It is not for the good.  There is, by and large, a subliminal devaluation of higher education, even as we overtly as a society say

how important it is.  We’re disinvesting in it.  We’re beginning to treat it more as a private good than as a public good.  This, in the long term, is quite a challenge to the higher education establishment.
When I went to school here in New York State, there was a New York State regent scholarship that you could win as a competitive prize that paid for room, board, and tuition for you to go to a private school.  Today, the aid that’s given by New York State is a small fraction of the cost of attending anything but a public school.  It’s a small fraction of paying the cost of attendance at one of the elite, private colleges or universities of New York State.  Part of that is because what we expect from higher education has gone up.  The cost of a private education has gone up greatly, but that’s because the quality of what’s being provided has gone up greatly--the diversity of courses, the ratio of faculty to students.  We, as a society, have not continued the willingness we showed after World War II to invest heavily in that higher education, whether it be on the research side or in making it available to students.  That, in the long term, is a major mistake by public policymakers.

Recorded on 5/19/08

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