Indian Wells, Calif. — “The faculty thought the university existed for them, and it doesn’t,” declared Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, stirring laughter and applause from the more than 600 members of Stand Together, the network of political and charitable groups headed up by Charles Koch. “The students were the reason for the university’s existence.”
Crow is here at the winter meeting, discussing transformation in higher education alongside Purdue University president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. There’s a delightful tone of mild exasperation in Crow’s voice, as he describes an academic status quo that is convinced it’s doing just fine, and that whatever problems exist can be addressed by more public funding.
University presidents are not regarded warmly in many quarters, and the reputation of higher education is slipping. Last year a survey found that nearly half of young people ages 13 to 29 think a high school diploma alone is sufficient to thrive in the workplace. A separate poll found only 28 percent of respondents who were college graduates said they consider a college degree “absolutely essential” for career success. Daniels warns that the shakeup in higher education is well underway, even if some college administrators would prefer to ignore it.
One reason that Americans are decreasingly convinced that college education is worth it is the rising cost, and at Purdue, Daniels has done what many administrators insisted was impossible: consistently avoiding tuition hikes. “We have held tuition constant for eight years, and that includes next year,” Daniels says. “I’m working on a number nine right now.” Later he adds that “the single most direct way to address student debt is to not charge so darn much in the first place.” He describes budgeting for the university from year to year as akin to algebra equation: “Solve for zero.”
Understanding that each semester represents a financial burden, Purdue tries to maximize the opportunities for students to graduate quicker, through summer programs or heavier course loads. “Unless the trend line is broken, we will break through four-point-zero, in the sense that the average graduate of Purdue University will be finishing in less than four years,” Daniels said. He adds that the four-year model of undergraduate degrees is an American tradition; undergraduate programs in a number of European countries are typically only three years long. He adds, with a wry smile, that while three years might not be enough to complete an aerospace-engineering degree, it would probably be enough for a major in sociology.
Crow touts ASU’s efforts to eliminate bureaucracy and measures the university’s success by asking how much it can get out of its 4,600 faculty. He points to a rapid expansion in the university’s engineering program. Ten years ago, ASU had 6,000 engineering students on campus — a group Crow calls “not representative to society,” without elaborating — with a low freshman-retention rate. Today the school has 17,000 engineering students on campus, with another 7,000 students studying online — “for the first time, representing the totality of our society, while upping the retention rate to 90 percent.”
Both Crow and Daniels concur that colleges and universities over-prioritize having a low acceptance rate — “we should be judged not by who we turn away, but by who we turn out,” Daniels says — and are far too focused on how they compare to other universities. They both strongly endorse “the Chicago Statement,” ensuring freedom of expression and inquiry on campus.
The attendees are thrilled, but there’s the nagging knowledge that Crow and Daniels are atypical. Most universities continue to hike tuition faster than inflation, fear censorious mobs of students, and see low student-retention rates as perhaps a problem but not a crisis. But Crow urges the attendees in front of them — individuals and couples wealthy enough to donate, at minimum, $100,000 per year to the Koch network’s efforts — to get active in their alma maters and push them in these directions. Then there’s the influence of the Charles Koch Foundation itself, which funds undergraduate programs, graduate fellowships, academic research, and university centers at more than 300 colleges and universities. Changing the way America’s colleges and universities operate will be an uphill climb, but considerable resources are being brought to the effort.