“For four-year colleges that aren’t elite, the message is rise or die.” – Anthony Carneval
This week, the NJCU Doctoral Program in Leadership for Community Colleges presented a virtual open-ended conference on issues facing community colleges, with Anthony Carnival as the keynote speaker. I was able to watch from my desk, which still seemed strange.
Carnival is a veteran of the senior circles and a widely respected figure in the field. This was talk about the next five to ten years of higher education in the United States
He has made a number of claims, one of which I will address in a later post. But the above statement really jumped out at me.
Those of us in higher education as a field know what “climbing” means in this context. Carnival’s argument, as I understand it, is that there is polarization within higher education which is a lagging indicator of economic polarization in the larger society. Places like his university, Georgetown, are the most affluent and classiest. It is either exclusive or rejected, depending on your preference. They have enormous endowments and a great deal of autonomy in setting their own direction. They’re seeing increasing numbers of applicants even during the pandemic, accelerating a trend that’s been going on for decades.
Elite organizations like this can charge more or less than they want. Even as the prices of their posters went up, their order numbers kept increasing. They can use their endowments to provide financial assistance strategically, to craft the entry classes they want. As the cumulative wealth of the top 1 percent grew, so did the economic power of elite private enterprises.
These colleges live in a different world than the four-year, private colleges that aren’t elite (or comprehensive, if you prefer). This second group, which is much larger than the first, has its budgets dependent on tuition fees more than endowment returns. Colleges in this group accept most applicants.
Carnival gave us a very brief discussion of demographics, noting that New England states in particular are facing a steep decline in the number of 18-year-olds, and noting that New England states have more than their average college count. something to give him. His expectation, which he clearly followed from his headquarters, was that many colleges there would not survive. His advice to colleges in this situation was explicit: “Climb or die.”
I was struck by the frankness of Carnival’s advice and how far away from much of the public discussion of higher education. In political or political circles, the debate revolves around how expensive colleges have become. But this does not correspond to what is happening at the level of the individual institution. The lowest-cost colleges – community colleges – have received the largest enrollment results in the past decade, and especially since the pandemic. The most expensive ones are thriving, setting new records for applicants. If the popular story of colleges pricing themselves off the market is true, it would be the other way around.
To the extent that the market is manifold, with the middle hollowed out, individual private colleges have choices to make. They can try to compete with public colleges (and/or work) for students, or they can try to make their way to the elite. The middle became unacceptable.
There are game rules to move to the top. New York University has done it, as has the GWU. It involves taking many popular complaints about the high cost of education, sweaty amenities, and elitism — and multiplying them. The places you spend like there’s no tomorrow you’re more likely to see tomorrow. In other words, no college has cut its way to greatness.
(The dynamism reminds me of popular complaints about “negative campaigns.” Negative campaigns have attracted all kinds of criticism as a literary genre, but have often worked enough to reward those who doubled down on them. A misinformation, admittedly, the whole discussion sounds almost bizarre.)
This puts community and state colleges in an awkward position. These institutions have totalitarianism in their missions. It was built for the working and middle classes. Climbing too much would be a betrayal of the mission. These are places that take cost complaints seriously but penalize them. In states with performance-based funding, where performance is defined in terms that reflect the behaviors of well-financed students in elite settings, punishment is direct and intentional. It is a matter of politics.
Whether we like it or not, colleges and universities are in a larger political economy. Over time, they can’t help but begin to reverse this economy. This can be a positive, as in the case of strong employer partnerships for professional programs. It can be devastating, as in the current contrast between chronic austerity in colleges that serve the middle class and the vast wealth of colleges that serve the enormously wealthy. In either case, they cannot remain exceptions for long.
Climb or die might be excellent advice for a president at a private tuition-paid college. This is exactly the problem.