The Future of Higher Ed: An Interview with Pat Callan

Formally, he’s Patrick M. Callan, but everyone calls him Pat, whether they are praising him for creating and sustaining the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, or taking his name in vain when “Measuring Up,” the report card on higher education that the Center publishes every two years, comes out.

Patrick M. CallanIf you watched our documentary, Declining by Degrees, you know what Pat looks like. And you may have heard him on a couple of our podcasts. Now you can read him, in this interview.

Yes, Pat has been around for a while and has served with distinction on the California Higher Education Policy Center, the California Postsecondary Education Commission, the Washington State Council for Postsecondary Education, the Montana Commission on Postsecondary Education and the Education Commission of the States.

He’s a force to be reckoned with and shows little sign of slowing down.

The Interview

Let’s begin with higher education and the recession. I know that your organization has tightened its belt, and we certainly have done that at Learning Matters.  What about higher education generally?

There has been belt tightening and much of it has been difficult and painful.  But remember, John–colleges and states can pass significant portions of their financial problems along to their consumers—students and families.

That’s certainly happening in California now. A 32% increase has sparked angry protests on many UC and Cal State campuses. Did you see this coming, and does this spell the end of California’s Master Plan for higher education, its promise of a low cost education for all able citizens?

The current round of cuts, tuition increases, and enrollment reductions are shaping up to be the most severe, particularly with the severity of economic hardship Californians are experiencing, but it’s very consistent with the way California handles budgetary problems—the default position is pass as much of the pain as possible along to students and families.

Remember the history, John. In 1960 California became the first state—in fact, the first government anywhere in the world—to commit itself to provide higher education access to every adult who was motivated and could benefit from it.  But that commitment, in what was called the Master Plan, has eroded substantially over the last three decades.  In each recession since the early 1980s, California has raised tuition substantially and turned thousands of students away from college.  For example, in the recession of the early 1990s, California reduced public higher education enrollments by 230,000 students.  In the dot-com recession early in this decade, enrollment was cut by 150,000 students.  Each time this has happened, some higher education and political leaders and many in the media have proclaimed that an unprecedented breach of the Master Plan has occurred.

I look around my office and see everyone working much harder, but I haven’t heard of college faculty teaching an extra course per semester, or anything like that.  Am I missing something?

There have been increases in faculty teaching, due primarily to larger classes.  But there’s been little in the way of systematic efforts to improve productivity in ways that don’t undermine educational quality and are on a scale large enough to have an impact on access and affordability.  Many institutions could increase undergraduate teaching for full-time faculty, either as an emergency measure to protect student access to programs and courses or, in some cases, or to rebalance the faculty priorities and time devoted to undergraduate teaching, research, and graduate programs.

So why don’t they?  What’s in the way?  Faculty power?

It’s not a case of proponents of change losing great debates about the issue..  The problem is that these debates aren’t taking place at all in most of the country.  This is a leadership failure, beginning with governors and legislatures, college boards of trustees and presidents.  Tuition increases may produce just enough revenue for institutions to mitigate pressures for innovation.  And college and university leaders do not generally seek conflict with faculty, even in better times, much less when the faculty is already beleaguered by larger classes, hiring freezes, and salary cuts and furloughs.

Consider California again. One might expect the state that prides itself on innovation and is the home of the Silicon Valley and so much of the cutting edge media would have systematically explored, developed, and implemented innovative and cost effective approaches.  But this has not happened, at least not on a scale that has had impact on college opportunity.  Like much of American higher education—and the governors and legislatures are also part of the problem—California apparently prefers to expand and contract the existing ways of doing business, even when that leads to a pattern of diminished college access and affordability.

Paying for CollegeEven Harvard has cuts–it isn’t serving cookies in the afternoon—but elsewhere tuition and fees continue to go up in this recession.  Can you make sense of that?

It’s still a “sellers market” for higher education, and the high unemployment has increased the numbers who seek to enroll.  In a severe recession, college, which is already a necessary condition for most jobs that support a middle class standard of living, becomes the only option for many young people; and older and working (or formerly working) adults turn to colleges for new knowledge and skills.  So most colleges can continue to raise tuition despite the economic distress and still maintain enrollments.  This has been called “pricing with impunity.”

For years and years the conventional wisdom has been that private colleges were an endangered species because of the competition from subsidized state colleges and universities, but now it looks as if something very different is happening.  What once were ‘state-supported’ institutions are now, as one wag put it, ‘state-situated.’  And at least some private colleges, such as those that are character-driven, seem to be doing well. What’s going on here? Is there a real shift going on?  Are public colleges in danger?

I don’t think so. The rumors of state retreat from support of public higher education have been greatly exaggerated, often by public college and university leaders seeking to justify tuition increases.  State support for higher education, in the aggregate, has actually increased substantially in the recent past, in the 1980s, the 1990s, and in this decade prior to the current recession.

The problem is the volatility of state support, which is difficult to manage.  States have generally funded higher education well—better than many other state services in good budget years—cut colleges deeply in recessions, and then allowed colleges to make up substantial portions of the cuts with tuition.

Private higher education has demonstrated that it can compete in this environment, but lacks the capacity to compensate for a large-scale rollback in the capacity of the publics.

Let’s talk about the increasing debt burden carried by graduates.

That’s a darkening shadow hanging over private colleges and the more expensive public, their heavy reliance on the willingness of students, and in many cases parents, to borrow for college.  If, as some economists have predicted, the country emerges from this recession more debt-averse, that is, less willing or able to take on consumer debt and home mortgage debt, it is likely that this will extend to borrowing for college.  Student and parental debt is the principal way the middle-class has financed the run-up of tuition for the last two decades.  If reluctance to borrow becomes pervasive, higher education’s current economic model may be in serious trouble.

Both the percentage of students who borrow and the amounts borrowed has increased for each graduating class.  Student borrowing had doubled in this decade in the years prior to the recession.  Polling data shows growing public concern over the amount of debt students now incur to pay for college.  And, as the study just released by the Institute for College Access & Success suggested, students who graduated with debt last year entered an economy in which the employment prospects were problematic, even for college graduates.

Is the stimulus money getting through to post-secondary institutions?  How’s it being used?

We don’t yet have a full national picture yet.  However, the higher education dollars that flowed directly to states seem to have been used only sporadically to protect students and families from large tuition increases.  While it can be argued that things would have been much worse without the stimulus, this may be scant consolation to students whose tuition and fees are rising at a time of high unemployment and negligible inflation.

On a related subject, the administration’s initiatives to increase funding and streamline student financial aid make sense and deserve support.  However, it appears that, at least in the short term, increased federal investments in financial aid will not produce improved college access and affordability because most, if not all, of the new federal dollars will be absorbed by tuition increases imposed by colleges and states.  This is an example of the way that even the most enlightened federal initiatives and reforms in higher education can be effectively nullified by states and colleges.

And, in contrast to the stimulus money for public schools, none of the money provided to the states for higher education was directed toward innovation.  The only requirement is that it be spent.  So an opportunity to stimulate reform and improve productivity may have been lost.

President Obama and his Education Secretary have talked a lot about the value of community colleges, and Arne Duncan has chosen a community college president, Martha Kanter, to be his number two person.  What might this mean for higher education in Washington?  Does this tip the scale in favor of community colleges?

I think the scale had already tipped toward the community colleges.  After all, they are the largest sector of American higher education.  The Obama administration appropriately recognizes that these colleges must be one of the cornerstones if the nation is to achieve the President’s goals of significantly increased access and global leadership in higher education attainment by 2020. Martha Kanter is a key leader as well as the symbol for much of this.

There’s some talk about creating incentives for students to complete college in three years.  Does this have legs, or is it just more talk?  If it’s going to happen, where will we see it first?

The 3-year degree idea has been around for a long time and has yet to be widely institutionalized.  It should certainly be available to more students, but I doubt that it will (or should) be the model for all students. When it happens, it usually comes from the students’ own initiative, not the institutions’. These students take college courses or earn college credits by examination in high school, enroll in summer sessions while attending college, or take extra courses each quarter or semester. For the 3-year degree to become more common would require institutions and faculties to rethink and redesign curricula and courses so that learning that is determined to be requisite for the degree is achieved in a more compressed way.  For that to happen there would have to be greater clarity about the learning and skills that the baccalaureate degree certifies.

What do you mean by ‘greater clarity’?  I don’t think many colleges have shown much interest in measuring outcomes.

The reluctance of much of American higher education to define and assess learning outcomes is well documented.  It impedes innovations that might lead to enhanced learning and bring costs down, and the 3-year degree is only one example.

Colleges have barely tapped the potential of interactive electronic technology to individualize learning and improve productivity of on-campus courses and distance learning.

What we have is a system in which time (measured in seat time and credit hours) is the constant and learning is variable; it should be the opposite.  Without the capacity to compare and measure educational outcomes, systematic experimentation is difficult, and all too often an unreasonable burden of proof is placed on those who propose innovations.

After years of reform efforts to level the economic playing field that go back as far as Lyndon Johnson, today the best predictor of where someone goes to college is their parents’ economic status.  Do you have some radical suggestions as to how that might be changed?

Income is not only the best predictor of whether a student will enroll in college but also where—in a private, public, two-year or four-year college—and of the likelihood of completing a degree once enrolled.  In the fifty years after World War II, higher education was one of the major forces for the expansion of the middle class and for intergenerational social mobility—kids doing better than their parents.  Today, it is an impediment to mobility, with both access to college and the distribution of students within higher education highly stratified by income.

Any good news?

The Obama administration seems focused and determined, so stay tuned.


Want to know more?

Listen to Pat Callan talk about what’s wrong with American education.

Watch a recent program featuring Pat Callan and others discuss the rising cost of higher education.

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6 thoughts on “The Future of Higher Ed: An Interview with Pat Callan

  1. John. A few thoughts.
    The free market place, not the common good, dictates prices. At least for private institutions. I’m curious though whether public universities set tuition in relationship to costs or just based on their own needs for public funds. Thus teachers teaching longer hours might not affect tuition.

    Why are we assuming that taking on a larger load should be a reasonable solution? In your office or the university. In fact, college professors at most state schools are paid pretty poorly, and more and more of them are nontenured, or have courses taught by part-timers. Yet that has not affected tuition, just the lives of those who choose to teach post -12. I’ll admit I am biased–my son teaches at one such school in California. He actually took a pay-cut from his prior K-12 work to do so! If we make working conditions in colleges the same as K-12 I fer fewer people still will choose it! The one plus is the time to do some of one’s own scholarly work, and to support student’s in pursuit of such lives themselves.
    Many countries around the world have free post K-12 schools!! But in our land of the free and the home of the brave” we don’t even whisper about such possibilities. At best we imagine we can get everyone working harder to keep tuitions from skyrocketing even further.



  2. My college, Piedmont Technical College, and others in the SC Technical College System have asked faculty to teach at the top of the 15 – 18 hour range. In the Spring of 2008 our faculty taught a sixth class (18 credits or 27 contact hours). We moved from the spring semester into our 10 week summer term (12 credit hour teaching loads) with no down time. By the end of the summer, the faculty was exhausted. We returned to our normal 15 credit hour load (5, 3 credit classes for fall and spring 2009), thanks to the increase in student enrollment and advanced financial planning of our President.


  3. John,

    Why don’t professors teach more? It’s for the same reason that you’re not broadcasting more hours in the week. It’s probably occurred to you that you’re not just paid to speak into a microphone – you’re also paid to prepare your broadcasts and maintain a high level of expertise through reading and study behind the scenes. Maybe your contract doesn’t say that, but it’s an implicit part of doing your job well.

    We professors are paid in part for maintaining a high level of scholarship – that’s in our contract along with the specified teaching responsibilities. We’re also evaluated based on our service to the community; for example, taking the time to write to education correspondents.

    Just doing my jobs…

    Best regards,

    Stan Metzenberg, Ph.D.
    Professor of Biology
    California State University-Northridge


  4. John,
    I retired in 2006 after teaching for thirty-six years at Boise State University. I moved to Boulder in 2008, and I’ve been auditing classes at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Colorado. Most public colleges allow citizens to audit most of their classes. I’m currently auditing CLAS 1013, Beginning Classical Greek. I’m not only learning Greek, I’m also finding out what’s going on at the university. Instead of just reading reports about higher education, please consider auditing a class or two. If you’ll do that, you’ll get a much more informed view of what’s going on in our nation’s colleges and universities. And I’ll bet you’ll enjoy it, too.
    Jim Maguire
    Professor of English, Emeritus
    Boise State University


  5. Jim
    We spent the better part of an academic year on four campuses for Declining by Degrees, and then even more time for a documentary about community colleges, Discounted Dreams. We don’t just read reports! But Pat is the one being critical here, not me. Please watch the documentaries and write back.


  6. Your conversation with Pat Callan and John Tulenko’s report from Montclair are SUPERB. I am recommending others to read and reflect. I hope you will interview Martha Kanter. These issues are simply not on the screens of most policymakers and society’s leaders.

    Meanwhile, the WP and NYT media fill their reporting with asinine copy about empty people like Tiger and the White House gate crashers. The dream of a more egalitarian opportunity society may be dead for many years to come. Bless your and Tulenko’s reporting!


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