Understanding higher education: Lessons from a British customs agent



As a new president in the 1990s, one of my early tasks was to sign an exchange agreement with a private Russian university. The provost and I completed our business in Moscow and headed through London to visit a second exchange program of long-standing with a British institution.

While passing through Heathrow airport, a British customs officer asked me the purpose of our visit. I explained, adding as an aside that the provost had received his professional training at Oxford and that we would be in good hands. “Oh, how lovely, I see you are American,” said the British customs agent, “I’m glad that you’re traveling together. At least one of you, then, will know how to use a knife and fork!”

Delivered with perfect comedic timing and dripping with condescension and sarcasm, the agent’s response was nonetheless quite funny. I had no particularly insightful retort, although I was tempted to ask him how the Empire was going these days. As I thought about what I might say this week, however, it occurred to me that much of American higher education is a little like the British custom agent – smug, confident in his world, self-assured, and largely oblivious to the complexity and mass of humanity passing by him at Heathrow.

This week President Obama delivered a speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. The president stressed the importance of education in creating a strong middle class. He noted that “if we don’t make this investment, we’re going to put our kids, our workers, and our country at a competitive disadvantage for decades.”

Touching upon higher education Mr. Obama reported that he’d asked Congress to start a “community college to career” initiative to permit workers to develop the skills for high-tech jobs at home. He linked this initiative to employers, promising to challenge CEOs from American companies to hire retrained unemployed workers, especially those who have been out of work for long periods.

In his speech, the president also warned that he would use his bully pulpit to highlight the high price of American higher education, particularly for those who graduate with crushing levels of student indebtedness. He called higher education an “undisciplined system” where “costs just keep on going up and up and up.” The president noted that there would never be enough loan or grant money to keep up with costs that were rising from 5 percent – 7 percent annually. Mr. Obama promised to “shake up the system, tackle rising costs, and improve value for students and their families.”

There are two lessons here.

The first is that the president has a bully pulpit and is not afraid to use it. Backed by recent polls, he identified a problem that requires a complex solution that involves a continuing federal commitment to higher education. President Obama will enjoy broad consumer support, especially from students and families who could not or did not save to attend college. This is a bread-and-butter issue for families. The president will likely win the public relations battle.

As he lays out his case, however, President Obama would be wise to get his facts right. Tuition prices are not rising at 7 percent. Average undergraduate indebtedness, while unsustainable in the long term, is roughly the equivalent at graduation of the cost of purchasing a fully loaded small–/mid-sized car, payable in monthly installments. Crushing debt occurs most typically when graduate and professional degrees are added into the loan portfolio. Let’s agree to understand the difference, even if the president’s argument resonates with consumers. Words make a difference. And, the facts matter.

On the other side, American higher education leadership behaves a little like the British customs agent. Like the agent, higher education finds itself in a complex, rapidly changing environment swirling with new technology, ideas, and harsh realities. Its leadership can focus on protecting the core by arguing for continued federal support. Is “same old/same old” really the best lead defense?

Or, they can watch a second term president fail to work with a dysfunctional Congress hoping that the problem, like the president, will eventually go away.

In the 19th century, the demands of an exploding industrial economy forced changes upon America’s colleges and universities. Many of these changes were good –the democratization made possible by universal public education, the development of the land-grant system of public universities, an extension of education to include women, and much later, minorities, and the GI Bill. The point is that education responded to a changing world.

Something different is happening in America. It may be that one impact of the great recession, interconnected to advances in technology that define how students learn today and linked to the global dynamics that shape the service, commercial and manufacturing base, has forced American society to that next great inflection point.

Higher education leadership should certainly defend what it does well. But from the mix of educational philosophy, state and national politics, history and educational traditions, and new technology must emerge a dynamic, robust educational system capable of sustaining a “new idea” economy.

Let’s not treat the symptoms – high tuition sticker prices, student debt, the failure of families to save, fixed labor and land and recurring technology costs – without understanding that the goal is to find the cause of the disease. It’s important to know the facts to cure the problem.

We can treat the symptoms. America should be careful not to kill off the patient while doing so.