Thursday, March 12, 2015

Individual Diploma Value & Academic Public Good

by Christopher S. Collins, Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University

Recently a group of students earning an MA in student development approached me for an interview to fulfill a class assignment.  Their task was to explore the value of higher education after watching the documentary, The Ivory Tower.  Before giving the graduate students my perspective, I asked students what they thought about the value of higher education.  They all had confidence that higher education was still a good investment, but the increased costs, loans, and difficulty in getting a job was shaking their confidence.  In general, I find that blanket statements about the value of higher education are not useful.  Put differently, if an individual asks, “Is higher education worth it?” a “yes” or “no” answer without knowing the context of the questioner should be viewed as suspect.  However, certain economic models show that students with a bachelor’s degree earn around 1 million USD more during their lifetime than their peers who have less than a baccalaureate (Baum, 2014).  In strict economic terms, this is the largest aggregated way to defend the value of a higher education.  However, contextualizing individual interests, majors, family background, and many other characteristics complicate the value proposition—thus making blanket statements difficult.  In any given week there are alarmist perspectives shared in a variety of news outlets about the declining nature of higher education.  Similarly, wealthy business personalities tend to make headlines by either paying students not to go to college (Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal) or claiming that there will be a bursting of the college bubble similar to the housing market (comments made by entrepreneur Mark Cuban).  Like all institutions, higher education must continue to evolve, but it is highly unlikely that the value of a degree is going to be cut in half the same way many homeowners saw the value of their homes evaporate.  Human, cultural, and social capital is distinct from physical capital like real estate.

I asked the groups of students conducting the interview about whether or not there was anything missing from the value equation of student costs and lifetime income possibilities.  I was fishing for an answer outside of the value to individuals, but did not achieve my goal of evoking any notions beyond an individual rate of return (earnings over a lifetime compared to the cost of tuition plus time away from the job market).  I went on to explain to the students how an intense focus on individual rates of return will fail to capture the greatest benefits that higher education has to offer society.  Colleges and universities generate public good through knowledge production and educating the masses.  New forms of knowledge that solve social and economic problems are benefits that the public can accrue without ever attending a class or earning a degree (see Collins, 2012 for a case study example).  Over the previous thirty years, the trend in higher education has been to privatize the knowledge instead of making it publicly available, which may be a threat to the ability to claim that knowledge production is part of the public good (see Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004 for a full discussion of the increasing market-like behavior of postsecondary institutions).  A postsecondary educated mass of citizens tends to be more civically engaged, healthier, generate income and pay taxes, and is less likely to be incarcerated (McMahon, 2009).  As a result, educated citizens tend to be less of drag on public resources and contribute to social progress.  This collective state is another source of public good and is distinct from the value of a single degree to an individual (McMahon, 2009).

McMahon (2009) made a strong case that under-recognition of the public good will likely lead to underinvestment in higher education.  Each of the fifty United States is financially more stable than during the 2008 financial stress.  However, only two states have returned to pre-recession funding levels for higher education (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities 2014 Report on State Spending).  Arizona is currently the worst state for funding higher education and the UC system is looking at a 28% hike in tuition without additional state support.  With the ballooning of loan debt, individuals and families are becoming increasingly wary about the means to get a degree.

In the 1980s a fascinating and troubling trend was spreading through global higher education—due to a strict individual rate of return analysis, higher education was considered a poor investment for developing countries.  As a result, in order to get loans for development projects from healthcare to infrastructure, nation-states had to consent to a menu of items called Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs).  One item on the menu was the disinvestment of public funds for higher education in lieu of a more robust investment in primary education (due to the rate of return analysis indicators that primary education was a better investment).  Higher education systems suffered in developing countries due to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund SAPs.  Years later a task force called the policies and rate of return analysis narrow and misleading in that it did not account for the social and public benefits of higher education (World Bank, 2000).  Although the full story is much longer (see Collins 2011), it is interesting to see how a rate of return policy had a large impact around the world.  The magnitude of the impact is enough to warrant consideration about the importance of how the value of higher education is framed—not just for individuals, but also for the public.

In an era of obsession with precision and measurement, it is important to note that social rates of return and the public good are not easily quantified and there is no agreed upon approach (although McMahon, 2009 has done good work in an attempt to provide greater detail about the social benefits).  Articulating the centrality of the public good mission proves to be an easier task than understanding the degree to which the mission is being fulfilled.  According to Bowen (1977),
The outcomes from research and public service cannot be measured with any precision, and so conclusions will inevitably be subjective and judgmental.  It is possible, however, to describe these activities in some detail.  Indeed, a mere recital of them strongly suggests they yield important benefits. (p. 291)
Simultaneously acknowledging the contextual nature of the task and the importance of thick descriptions of public good activity is a critical task for higher education.

In Chicago, at the AERA Division J Vice Presidential session on April 17 at 10:35 a.m. in the Siwssotel Room Zurich D, a screening of the documentary Ivory Tower will be shown followed by a panel discussion including Donald E. Heller, Liliana M. Garces, and Lorelle Espinosa.  The documentary, in concert with the panel, will provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the future and value of higher education as well as the larger purpose that, according to Marginson (2012), is a prerequisite for survival.


Baum, S. (2014). Higher education earnings premium: Value, variation, trends. The Urban
Institute.  Retrieved March 1, 2015 from Higher-Education-Earnings-Premium-Value-Variation-and-Trends.pdf

Bowen H.R. (1977). Investment in learning: The individual and social value of American higher
 education. Baltimore MD; The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Collins, C.S. (2012). Land-grant extension as a global endeavor: Connecting knowledge and
international development. The Review of Higher Education, 36(1), 91-124.

Collins, C.S. (2011). Higher education and global poverty: University partnerships and
the World Bank in developing countries. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

Marginson, S. (2012). “The ‘public” contribution of universities in an increasingly global world.
In B. Pusser, K. Kempner, S. Marginson, and I. Odorika, eds. Universities and the
Public Sphere: Knowledge Creation and State Building in the Era of Globalization. Pp.
7-26. New York: Routledge

McMahon, W.W. (2009). Higher learning, greater good: The private and social benefits of
higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Slaughter, S., & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic capitalism and the new economy: Markets, state
and higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

World Bank. (2000). Higher education in developing countries: Peril and promise. Washington,
DC: The World Bank.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Why we need to smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces: Underserved students need a little less conversation, and a little more action

by Andre Perry, Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University

It’s time for researchers to stop using terms like the achievement gap and student success. The sobering data on men of color in colleges is a reflection of college and university performance – so take the scrutiny off of student achievement.

Outcomes for male collegians of color are lagging because postsecondary leaders aren’t held accountable for changing them.

This month I attended Ensuring Success for Men of Color: Leveraging Evidence to Drive Better Policy, Practice and Effective Investment hosted by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. Heads and representatives from national, university based centers, institutes and think tanks came together with funders and postsecondary officials to “reframe” or “change the narrative” of men of color in college.

The frequency in which data on black and brown male collegians have been framed almost precludes the need for me to repeat, but I will for the sake of argument. Black and Latino men four-year graduation rates are 33.2 percent and 44.8 percent respectively. Their white and Asian male peers graduate at a 57.1 percent and 64.2 percent clip.

In response to data, a swell of academic literature has the “effect of centering the lack of success of young men of color as the defining commonality…and contributions [of men of color] as exceptional, not expected” (as stated in the conference proceedings).

Common titles like Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life and Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students insidiously deemphasize institutional responsibility for graduating men of color and as a consequence, measures of institutional accountability based on inclusion are ignored. The authors of these and similar texts acknowledge and deconstruct institutional factors. However, we mitigate our efforts comparing black and brown weakness to supposed white strength. We undermine our cause when we try to fix black and brown boys and men of color.

If scholars want to rid themselves of deficit approaches (looking at weaknesses) moving forward, then we must stop using the deficit language in our speech and research. Acceptance of constructs like the achievement gap, drop out, student success and data driven may legitimize you in the academy, but they are complicit in promoting the verbal and statistical rhetoric that avoids the problem of institutional accountability.

The inferred white male referent in the achievement gap construct contributes to the centuries old logic that others should be compared to whites. On its face the idea of student success lets institutional factors of the hook, which have been shown to be at least half of the reason why men of color are pushed out of college. Educators shouldn’t be data driven. We should be community driven and use data to support them. These distinctions aren’t some semantic ruse. If scholars want a revolution in how students are treated in the academy, then we must be willing to question how data has been used to facilitate poor outcomes among black and Latino male students.

An aside — The term achievement gap is so ubiquitous that it’s hard even to find an analogous search term expressing institutional failure. Don't offer up the trendy catch phrase opportunity gap, which is barely a milquetoast alternative. Reframing the issue means that researchers must abandon antiquated constructs. Smash up the concept of the achievement gap in tiny little pieces.

Creating more research that narrates the lived experience of men of color is important, particularly for members of the group, but we don’t need another study explaining who we are to higher education leaders who aren’t listening. To quote James Baldwin, “ have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

And to be clear, the underrepresentation of black men in higher education isn’t a result of a lack of data or knowledge on the subject.

Yet even at a conference dedicated to reframing the narrative, you could readily hear the infamous, “more research is needed.” These are famous last words for most social problems addressed by university researchers before those problems are lost in committee.

An alternative approach would be heighten scholarship and scrutiny on things like  school/university holding power (aka retention), affordability, institutional cost per degree, employment of graduates, campus racial climate, or we can rely on the reliable institutional discrimination, racism and/or bias as well as campus graduation rate and student satisfaction.

There are some scholars who have turned the idea of student success on its head. The report Black Male Student Success in Higher Education incorporates the voices of men who have succeeded in college (in spite of their institutions) to locate problems and solutions. This is radical step indeed. As conference participant Sharon Fries-Britt said during a panel discussion, “We need to be comfortable talking about successful men of color…it’s not an anomaly"

Scholars, this should be the last time you read or write anything with achievement gap in the title. Black men need more justice than comparisons and juxtapositions.

Really, how much student level data do we need before black and brown minds matter? It’s long been established that many supposed good colleges aren’t so for men of color. Consequently, if scholars don’t hold institutions of higher learning accountable in our research, who will?

Reprinted with permission from the Hechinger Report from the original blog on February 17, 2015. You can read more commentary from Andre Perry at