Writers Circle: What is the future of public higher education?

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On Sept. 9, members of the Gazette Writers Circle met to discuss the future of the University of Iowa and public universities.


Mark Neary, Writers Circle

Established in 1847, the University of Iowa has been the flagship college for the State of Iowa since the beginning of the State itself. With around 31,000 students (roughly 10 percent of the total collegiate students in the state), 22,000 faculty and staff, and a budget of $3.5 billion, UI has been a driving force in Eastern Iowa for decades.

However, change is always occurring: The State of Iowa, while growing in population overall, is lagging in growth in comparison to many other parts of the nation. The funding of UI from the state is becoming more political, while at the same time becoming a smaller percentage of the total budget. With the recent change in leadership at UI, its new president comes from a business background rather than an academic background.

In addition, other educational venues are creating different opportunities for future students. Iowa State University now has more students than UI. Community colleges now make up about one-third of all students. Online education is increasing, and online students at Ashford University, based in Clinton, outnumber the number of students at the three regent universities combined. What will the University of Iowa look like in a century? Is UI satisfying the needs of Eastern Iowa and/or the State of Iowa? With the rebuilding of the physical structure after the floods nearing completion, how can UI plan for the future? These topics lead to a lively but, ultimately, unfulfilling discussion at the Iowa City writer’s group meeting in August. Consensus could not be reached, in part because there was not general agreement on what the mission of UI is, and how to measure it.

Is the goal of UI specifically, and the educational system in Iowa generally, to develop successful and skilled workers to fill employer’s demands? Is the goal to develop more civic-focused people to contribute to the quality of life in Iowa? Is the goal to simply make students smarter? Or is the goal to expose students to a variety of cultures that will make them more tolerant and have a greater understanding of the world? Is a student who leaves UI with a diploma and pile of student debt better off than someone who gets a job right out of high school, or someone who takes an alternative route to her/his education? Should the UI focus on the students and their goals, or is there a greater good to provide to the State as a whole? Can any of these things be measured effectively? And, as always, where is the money coming from and going to?

The only thing that was agreed on is that there needs to be better communication between UI and others about the role that UI plays. The “others” includes the citizens of Iowa, the members of the Board of Regents, the members of the state Legislature, and students who are at UI or who are considering coming to UI. By communicating the value of UI to individuals and to the state as a whole, it is hoped that more people will invest their time, interest, and yes, money, in UI.

The recommendation of the writer’s group was to have the Cedar Rapids Gazette, in conjunction with other media outlets, sponsor an ongoing discussion about education in Iowa. From preschool to high school and beyond, the topic is far too broad to be successfully addressed at one or two meetings. Iowa once enjoyed national acclaim as one of the stronger education systems in the nation. Often, rankings now typically show the state, at best, to be somewhere in the middle-of-the-pack. As UI is part of that state educational system, it is directly impacted by the emphasis, or lack thereof, on education overall.

What will UI look like in a century? Let’s talk about it.

• Mark Neary is a lawyer who practices primarily in Muscatine and resides in Iowa City. Comments: marknearylaw@gmail.com

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Wilf Nixon, Writers Circle

If you do the things you have always done, you will get the results you have always gotten. If you think the results you have always got are not good enough, you have to change the way you do things. I suspect that thinking like this may have played a role in the selection by the Board of Regents of J. Bruce Harreld as the new President of the University of Iowa.

Which begs a question — what did the regents see in the performance of the University of Iowa that was not good enough? There are no doubt many possible answers to this (some folks probably have lists!) but one area where there is rightfully a concern is that of liberal arts. There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about the value of a liberal arts degree, and those concerns have some validity. They have even made their way into the culture by way of a joke: what is the difference between a barista with a degree and a barista without a degree? About $80,000 of student debt.

Unfortunately, the situation in liberal arts is far from being a joke. Government figures show that even some elite liberal arts schools are not a good fiscal bet. As noted by Kevin Carey of the New York Times on Sept. 13, at Bennington College (an elite liberal arts college in Vermont) the average annual salary of graduates 10 years after graduation was $26,500 — not much more than a Barista on minimum wage. The annual cost of attending Bennington, after grants, was $29,960. Lest we get too smug, most liberal arts colleges in Iowa had annual costs in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, and annual salaries (10 years out) of about $40,000 — better than Bennington, but not a bargain. Of course, a liberal arts degree is (or should be) about more than the salary you earn after getting your degree, but you would reasonably hope that 10 years out your average salary would be more than half of the four-year cost, after aid, of attending your college.

To put things into a business context (which, given the background of the new university president, might be wise) the value proposition for a liberal arts degree has not been well made, and perhaps one thing that the University of Iowa should think about doing is restating (dare I say it, marketing) the benefits of a liberal arts education in a more easily comprehensible way.

Traditionally, the strength of a liberal arts degree has been the ability to think critically that comes along with the subject material a student has to master. To this we might add the ability to communicate effectively, and today the need to become a lifelong learner is clearly also going to be important. So, let us say for the sake of argument that getting a liberal arts degree conveys these three skills: critical thinking, effective communication and lifelong learning.

That alone, however, is not enough for our value proposition. These terms are rather vague as they stand. And if I were a faculty member in liberal arts, the last thing I would want would be a business person defining what critical thinking meant in my field! Which creates a possibility …

What if the faculty in each of the liberal arts disciplines at the University of Iowa were to define what it means in their discipline to be able to think critically (and do the other things as well)? And what if they were to show how a student who took that particular major would acquire the skill of critical thinking — explicitly, which courses would foster it, which activities and assignments would be used to measure the skill and so forth?

If this were to happen then each liberal arts major would be making their own value proposition for their degrees. True, this does not address the issue of low paying jobs for those who may pursue those degrees, but strictly that is not the primary purpose of a liberal arts degree (which does not mean that students and especially parents will not be thinking in those ways, but still). Furthermore, this approach (much to my surprise) is not one that is followed by universities around the country today. Iowa could become a leader by being explicit about the values to be gained by obtaining a degree and specifying exactly how those gains will be measured.

The next few years are not going to be easy in higher education. Undergraduate degrees have been oversold in terms of their fiscal value, and hardly sold at all in terms of their other benefits, as a result of which many people assume those other benefits — things like critical thinking — are not being gained by studying the liberal arts. There is going to be a significant bubble popping in higher education relatively soon and it may be the new UI President was selected to handle those unpleasant times. Perhaps one way to begin the process is for the faculty to make explicit (to themselves and to the State which they serve) the real benefits of a liberal arts degree. The flip side of this is that if the faculty opts not to do this, then many people will assume that they cannot demonstrate such value. The end result of that is fairly obvious.

• Wilf Nixon is Vice President for Science and the Environment at the Salt Institute, and Professor Emeritus of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. Comments: nixonwilfrid@gmail.com

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