- As last semester drew to a close, Seton Hall assistant professor of higher education Robert Kelchen revealed his annual "not top ten" list of the "puzzling decisions and epic fails" that characterized higher education in 2017.
- The list included such curious trends as sorority rush consultants and a number of athletics scandals. But it also included shockers, like a Harvard program's failure to meet gainful employment regulations, and the huge coding era in the Obama-championed College Scorecard's loan repayment metric, which indicated higher-than-previously-thought loan default rates.
- Perhaps most noteworthy is Kelchen's No. 2 item: The fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) worked to protect a community college in his state from sanctions over cohort default rates.
Kelchen interprets McConnell's intervention, which was included as a line in an appropriations bill that would only apply to the one school in his constituency, as affirmation that "all-or-nothing accountability systems rarely work as well as designers think they will."
However there's another important message to be gleaned here: Regardless of how tough they speak on accountability and outcomes, few public officials want to be responsible for leaving a constituent institution completely out to dry. This again underscores the importance of leaders who are not only aware of the impact their institutions have on local and state economies, but who communicate that impact to both lawmakers and alumni and other constituents who can advocate on the institutions' behalf.
For example, when North Carolina legislators tried to shut down Elizabeth City State University due to declining enrollment, information released by then-Interim Chancellor Charles Becton about the economic impact of the institution on the northeastern region of North Carolina caused an about-face in 2015. It was hard to make a case that an institution which is responsible for over $200 million in economic impact and produces more than 64% of the region's elementary and 38% of the secondary school teachers should no longer exist in the state.
Since then, the UNC System has invested heavily in the institution in the last two years, allocating millions of dollars above the normal state subsidies to support recruiting new students and hiring more faculty and staff, approving new programs and adding an entrepreneur lab to spur innovation at the university. As such, the school saw its first enrollment increase in seven years this past fall. And while some are concerned that including ECSU as one of the state's Promise campuses will create another path to eventual closure by way of de-funding the initiative, national trends suggest bipartisan support for such programs — and it is hard to believe a case will be made for closure after such an investment by the state.
But the onus remains with leaders to make the case for why their institutions deserve of such levels of investment. A recent report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found the number of postsecondary programs rose from 410 to 2,260 between 1985 and 2010 and the number of colleges has more than doubled over the last six decades. This reinforces what many higher ed leaders already know: The market is more crowded than ever before, and the demand for higher education is decreasing amid cries of deteriorating ROI of a college degree.
As higher ed is increasingly positioned as an individual good, rather than a public benefit, fiscal conservatives are less supportive of allocating public funds to something that touts as its main benefit the increased wages degree-holders can earn.
But research shows lawmakers don't hate their alma maters or the colleges associated with their favorite football or basketball teams, suggesting that if higher ed leaders can find a way to spur a personal attachment to their colleges and universities by inviting lawmakers to campus, presenting them with honorary degrees and other such displays, they can find individual champions to take up their causes. Just like Mitch McConnell did for Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.