The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Shining a Light on the Crisis of Higher Education

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On September 30, 2020, Dr. Mark W. Huddleston, President Emeritus of the University of New Hampshire, presented the 2020 Perkins Bass Distinguished Lecture, titled “Higher Education in America: An Existential Crisis.” Introduced by Rockefeller Center Director Jason Barabas ’93, Dr. Huddleston outlined historic and systematic obstacles both students and schools in American higher education face, many of which have only been heightened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having served as the President of both the University of New Hampshire and Ohio Wesleyan University, Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Delaware, and as a faculty member at SUNY Buffalo and the University of Delaware, Huddleston’s wealth of experience at all levels of higher education has made him keenly aware of the struggles higher education is currently facing at every level. Between having to worry about testing measures, maintaining social distancing in buildings with low ventilation, and implementing a remote learning system that will entice students to pay the full tuition schools say they most desperately need, Huddleston notes that “it’s true that COVID has battered most colleges and universities.” However, he concludes, ultimately the “existential crisis in higher education long predates COVID-19, and has in fact been decades in the making.”

Firstly, Huddleston argues, higher education institutions have been in deep financial distress, which will only result in the continual closure of smaller, struggling institutions across the country. With 4,000 colleges and universities around the country, Huddleston notes that higher education in the  United States is marked by a great deal of variety; however, 40% of these schools have fewer than 1000 students, adding to the risk that many of these institutions face of closure or bankruptcy. Furthermore, higher education has historically dealt with finances in a systematically problematic way; Huddleston remarks that higher education finances are notoriously “opaque”, partly due to the fact that in each working towards their respective goals, it is difficult to tell from the outside when an institution “fails.” Meanwhile, as the former President of multiple institutions, Huddleston recalled that “every year was tougher than the year before” as expenses kept rising, budget cuts became more regular, and state funding continued to fall. As a result, tuition has experienced a sharp incline nationwide in the past few decades, far beyond base rates of inflation. In return, college enrollment has declined 11% since its peak in 2010. The result? An endless cycle, Huddleston argues, where schools with rising expenses chase after a smaller group of students interested in college, who demand more tuition discounts to attend and thus leave colleges in an even worse financial position than where they started.

Furthermore, Huddleston notes, New England has seen the effects of this cycle firsthand; the extremely high concentration of colleges in states such as New Hampshire and Vermont is starkly contrasted with drastic state and federal underfunding, resulting in the closure of multiple local colleges in recent years. Luckily, says Huddleston, the federal government and state legislatures are beginning to recognize that these financial and structural issues in higher education will not be resolved on their own anytime soon, and are now actively thinking about how to “fix higher education.” With education lobbying groups recently pitching $120 billion in COVID relief funds to Congress, Huddleston notes that the global pandemic may finally force the federal government to take a closer look at the financial and logistical troubles facing higher education in America today.

However, despite the excitement surrounding the potential aid higher education could receive at the federal and local level, Huddleston warns that this aid could come at a cost to the institutional autonomy that makes higher education in the United States so unique. Noting a deal in Congress, which began to take shape before COVID-19 hit, that would reinstate the Higher Education Act of 1965 and other sources of federal funding in exchange for “greater accountability” from schools, Huddleston emphasized the importance of ensuring that assigning “accountability” doesn’t cross the threshold of interfering with a school’s academic priorities and culture.

“I don’t think higher education truly has any friends in politics,” Huddleston argued, explaining that often, politicians on all sides of the aisle only have a “superficial understanding” of what colleges do and how they operate. As a result, many on Capitol Hill are willing to incentivize institutions to follow a set of rules that fall in line with their personal beliefs of how higher education should be structured and executed in exchange for the funding needed to remain afloat. If a school doesn’t go bankrupt, they may fall victim to an unwieldly rulebook brought on in the name of “accountability.” And that, Huddleston remarks, is at the center of higher education’s true “existential crisis.”

 

Written by Shawdi Mehrvarzan ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Assistant for Public Programs

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