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Apr 26, 2013

Robert Reich and Nancy Zimpher on the more useful role for higher education

I was fortunate to hear Robert Reich and Nancy Zimpher  speak at the 2013 Trustees Institute of the Association of Governing Boards.  Their wide-ranging remarks intersected in one critical area:  why we need higher education.  Their comments suggested to me that we are selling too narrow a product to too narrow a market.

With the exception of a few geographical areas such as the Washington, DC MSA, only about 25 percent of adults over  25 years-of-age in the U.S. have a college degree.  That means the discussion of the need for higher education for our youth is ignoring most of the population.  It also means that, if there is a skills gap, we are making a mistake by focusing primarily on 18 year olds.

Ms. Zimpher uses this statistic to observe that colleges should not be worried about whether there are enough students to fill their classrooms.  Instead they should focus on the fact that the higher education system is under-educating the population as long as they believe their future students consist only of minors.  Colleges are focusing too much on how many students they don’t accept (the acceptance percentage competition in US News & World Report rankings) when they should instead be focusing on whom they are not serving.  The current delivery system of daytime lectures on weekdays cannot serve the adult population.  She urges innovation in how knowledge is transferred and conveyed so that higher education can reach the under-educated.  MOOC’s, online lecture with in-class discussion are two ideas currently being discussed.  We need more.

Robert Reich took this thought one step further.  He noted that most public and private colleges and universities were founded in the 19th century under the notion that higher education was a public good to better our society.  Land grant colleges were founded to develop future leaders and advance each state’s economy.  So were most private colleges, often then to create an educated ministry.  That is what a public good is:  something which benefits more than just the direct beneficiary.  He laments that today colleges and universities have caught themselves into the trap of selling higher education as a personal return on investment:  get a good, higher-paying job by getting a college degree.

Well, there’s the Catch-22:  the job market stinks for many new graduates.  No ROI, personal or public.  And those public policy schools are sending too many graduates to Wall Street to make over-sized salaries rather than into public service to improve the general welfare.  Only ROI, no public benefit.

Reich says that higher education should be about creating innovation and leadership for the country, a true public good.  Instead the competition in higher education is creating a country club atmosphere and a set of elites in athletics and scholarship.  Personal benefit for the few.  What benefit for the 75 percent of non-degreed adults?

He urges colleges and universities to refocus on their public value and to make sure that public value is what guides their decision-making.

One problem: our powerful bias that everyone should have a 4-year college degree.  Why?  He notes that Germany has the best technical education system in the world, not the best higher education system.  Yet he notes that Germany has both higher real wages than the U.S. and higher exports than the U.S.  That means Germany is not competing by lowering wages to compete with the third world; rather it is competing by producing excellent engineering and manufacturing which is worth a price that is both profitable and pays high wages to its employees.

Reich goes on to suggest that community colleges may be the savior of American higher education.  They provide higher education through certificate programs that are directly tied to employable skills.  They also provide a lower-risk gateway for people who seek higher education but are scared off by the trappings, pomp, or extraordinary expense of four-year colleges.  Community colleges provide effective remediation, smaller classes, lower costs, and more numerous completion paths — and never rule out transitioning to a 4-year college to obtain a bachelor’s degree.