(un)Conventional Wisdom: Redefining ‘Good’ in Higher Education

Dan Greenstein

Over the past several months, I’ve watched with concern a growing disconnect between higher education and the American people. College and university leaders believe that the public doesn’t understand the purpose of higher education, while polls signal growing frustration with and skepticism of higher education even as people assert its necessity. This disconnect is fueling a narrative in the mainstream media that perhaps college might not be so valuable after all.

I don’t think that’s quite right. After spending most of the past year visiting campuses and communities, talking with students and educators, digesting many analyses, and reflecting during long bike rides through the Pacific Northwest, I’ve come to a slightly different conclusion. The American people are questioning higher education’s values more than its value. In a time of rapid economic and demographic change, I fear that our enterprise of higher education is being increasingly viewed as unresponsive, tradition-bound, and self-referential.

That got me to thinking… what are some of the pieces of conventional wisdom in higher education that need to be challenged, that are perhaps no longer conventional or wise (if in fact they ever were)? I’ve identified several, and will explore each of them over the next several weeks.

#1: Being good means being exclusive. As the completion movement has matured over the past decade, the tension between promoting student success and showing up well in the rankings has become clear. A recent Politico article brilliantly illustrated this, showing how Georgia State University was rewarded for its dogged work to close the equity gap in completion with a 30-point drop in the U.S. News & World Report standings. University Innovation Alliance head Bridget Burns put it best: “Georgia State did literally the thing America needs all of higher education to do, and they got punished for it.”

We in higher education need to own the fact that we still celebrate exclusion over inclusion. Every year, we hear the complaints of college leaders about the unfairness and superficiality of the U.S. News rankings. And every year, we still see college leaders rewarded for moving up in those rankings, which provide clear incentives NOT to serve more of today’s college students. Like it or not, these rankings are a statement of values, and those values are rightly being questioned.

I’m heartened to see institutions and initiatives that are working to redefine what “good” looks like in higher education. We see this in the work of Achieving the Dream and the University Innovation Alliance, both of which are made up of colleges and universities that are firmly committed to expanding both access and success for students. As a foundation, we are pleased to work with and learn from many of those same institutions through the Frontier Set, a group of high-performing and high-potential colleges and universities that are making real changes in policy and practice to ensure that many more students can achieve their educational goals.

There are also great examples of performance measures that focus on opportunity rather than selectivity. One is Washington Monthly, which for more than a decade has published college rankings that focus on things like access and success for low-income students and working adults. Another is The Equality of Opportunity Project, which assesses colleges and universities on the movement of their students from lower to higher income categories. In both cases, some of the “unusual suspects” perform very well.

I believe that higher education can rise to the challenges of reimagining excellence and regaining public confidence. But that is going to require a hard look at and a willingness to rethink some of the prevailing incentives in our enterprise. For Georgia State and many institutions like them, doing the right thing is also the financially smart thing, and can be encouraged by allowing them to keep new revenue to reinvest in student success. But it’s also about our public funding and accountability systems, which require a much stronger focus on access and success for low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults. We can see this in the move to outcome-based funding policies in places like Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee.

As an historian, I am trained to look for critical junctures, moments that shape the future of an institution or a society. I believe we are reaching such a moment in American higher education. People are asking for a more inclusive and responsive system of education after high school. Can and will we deliver it?