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Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America

reviewed by Jennifer W. Purcell & Jennifer B. Wells - July 14, 2020

coverTitle: Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America
Author(s): Richard K. Vedder
Publisher: The Independent Institute, Oakland, CA
ISBN: 1598133276, Pages: 416, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

Professor Richard Vedder’s Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America, outlines the labyrinth of interconnected issues that require our collective attention. As noted by Vedder, there are a variety of stakeholder groups with broad, and often competing, interests; nevertheless, cooperation and collaboration are required to sustain these pillar institutions that were established to support the common good. This volume situates the current issues in higher education within their historical context, providing explanation and insight for how institutions, university systems, and the higher education industry writ large might strategically and realistically pave a shared path forward. With 19 chapters organized into five parts, the text serves as a primer for critical yet justified positions on higher education in the United States.

In Part One, Vedder frames his concern for higher education’s future on the premise that college degrees are too costly, students are learning relatively little, and the job attainment expectations are beyond that of the actual labor market. According to Vedder, this “triple crisis” will lead to vast change in higher education in the coming years. In Chapter One, “Why Go to College Anyway,” Vedder argues that most people attend or support higher education because of at least one of six reasons. The first is an earnings goal; students believe that investing in college will lead to a higher paying career, which the data does somewhat support. The second is consumption, which constitutes the social and life experiences gained in college. The third is the research goal as institutions of higher education are known for expanding knowledge through research. The fourth goal pertains to furthering the American dream where all can achieve economic and social advancement. Spirituality, morality, and religion serve as a fifth goal. Finally, universities are known for preparing engaged citizens who often become societal leaders. Given these six goals and their beneficiaries, Vedder questions who is ultimately responsible for funding higher education while suggesting students perform better when they are financially invested in college.

In Chapter Two, “College is Too Costly,” Vedder presents data illustrating the extent to which the costs of higher education have grown, and he questions whether the quality of higher education has improved or deteriorated amidst rising costs. Vedder points out that many advocates for higher education argue we should examine net tuition instead of gross tuition to account for financial assistance. Conversely, he suggests we must consider gross tuition as approximately 38% of students pay the actual sticker price. Vedder notes, “This points out that American higher education engages in very vigorous price discrimination–charging customers differing amounts for the same services” (p. 36). Readers may take this to mean that all institutions offer the same services; however, individuals most familiar with higher education know this to be untrue as institutions take pride in what uniquely distinguishes their college or university. In this example, the argument highlights the difference in price for similar services at the same institution, which presents a provocative critique of current practice.

In Chapter Three, “Students Aren’t Learning Critical Knowledge and Employable Skills,” Vedder discusses his perception of how students and faculty contribute to what he believes is an increasingly declining quality of education. As a scholar in student affairs and higher education assessment, I found this chapter to be largely opinion-based and lacking in empirical evidence. For example, there is no reference to any of the growing body of literature on learning outcomes assessment, including, for example, AAC&U’s Liberal Education and American’s Promise and the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (AAC&U & NLC, 2007; CAS, 2019). He describes students based on “stylized facts” (p. 46) that he suggests are “empirically based generalizations” (p. 46) yet provides no direct citations to substantiate his claims or redirect the reader to further evidence. A reference to the work of Pascarella et al. (2016), among myriad others, would have been appropriate, although their research would likely not have supported his opinions.

Vedder’s disdain of extracurricular activities is apparent, yet he ignores what is often referenced as the cocurricular experience. He cites decreasing graduation rates, but the literature in student affairs is clear: students who are engaged and connected are more likely to graduate (Astin, 1984; Kuh & Pike, 2005). He shares his anecdotal observations in stating, “The typical student actually spends more time in recreational activities–partying, working out at the gym, watching television or movies–than in academic pursuits” (p. 49). In the endnotes, Vedder notes, “there are several surveys that are generally consistent documenting this. Probably the most authoritative is the American Time Use Survey” (p. 359). This particular survey measures the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, childcare, volunteering, and socializing. In a basic review of the data, this survey is not specific to higher education and does not disaggregate data by college students. As such, this is a demonstration of how Vedder selects data supporting his opinion while omitting pertinent research germane to these national conversations. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), for example, better serves to address how college students spend their time. We chose to unpack this statement as it exemplifies our primary critique of the text: a tendency to include gross generalizations that lack evidence or omit substantive data that juxtapose his position. At best, his arguments could be strengthened by acknowledging and critiquing these related studies. Without the additional context provided by other areas of research, the information he provides becomes, perhaps inadvertently, misleading.

In Chapter Four, “College Graduates are Underemployed,” Vedder argues that college students are taking jobs that do not require the level of education they attained through years of post-secondary study. In this chapter, his position is strongly backed by evidence. Throughout the book, his expertise as an economist illuminates nuance inherent to these complex issues, and his arguments are most effective when framed through his disciplinary lens. For example, his position and discussion on the underemployment of college students provides one of the most convincing arguments in the book. He states,

The number of college graduates has grown faster than the number of jobs requiring relatively high levels of education. Thus, by early in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we had nearly 50 percent more employed college graduates than we had jobs requiring a college degree. (pp. 71-72)

This data is alarming, particularly in light of his statement that one of the primary reasons to attend college is to earn higher wages.

Vedder further posits that major and institution impact career and salary, which we doubt few would argue against. He suggests two options for solving the underemployment issues: the first would be to encourage certain majors and discourage others, and the second would be to encourage fewer people to go to traditional institutions of higher education. Vedder prefers the second option based on his extensive research of the economic reality of higher education and includes his opinion that “public subsidization of majors devoid of much intellectual content and which have a strong ideological bent is an especially egregious waste of money” (p. 85). This comment exemplifies another area of critique: he often makes a strong, evidence-based argument and then follows with an unjustified personal opinion. These instances are multiple and unnecessarily distract the discerning reader, perhaps with exception to those that agree with his somewhat blasé comments. Another example is “there is more to life, of course, than simply material abundance, and the denigration of traditional majors in the humanities can be criticized on other grounds, but that is beyond the topic of this discussion” (p. 80). Vedder concludes Part One suggesting that the time has come to reduce government fiscal support of higher education.

Part Two illuminates the decisions that led to the current state of affairs. Vedder organizes this historical perspective by the development phases of higher education, variables that contribute to rising costs of attendance, the role of university endowments and how they help and hinder progress, as well as the complex federal lending programs that support accessibility, though perhaps with diminishing commitments to affordability. Vedder outlines the history of American colleges and universities in Chapter Five, “Nearly Four Centuries of Higher Learning.” This chapter includes a brief discussion of the four stages of higher education in the United States and is particularly helpful with readers who are unfamiliar with this historical development. As anticipated by readers who are familiar with his prior work, Vedder includes his prior critique of the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions in each state. He acknowledges his unique perspectives and claims this development had “only marginal effects” on the higher education landscape (p. 95); however, there is a missed opportunity to present the varied impacts of land grant institutions (see Gavazzi & Gee, 2018).

In Chapter Six, “Why Fees and Costs are Rising So Fast,” Vedder presents a thoughtful, evidence-based critique of the soaring costs of higher education. While readers likely appreciate and agree with the general claim, they are likely less familiar with the contributing variables and economic concepts Vedder presents in his explanation. Related to the expense of college attendance, Vedder explores “Why Endowments Don’t Lower the Cost of Tuition” in Chapter Seven. His critique of universities failing to leverage their endowment coffers references evidence that endowments, while theoretically providing valuable resources during economic downturns, are actually managed more cautiously when they are best positioned to support students and the university. Current events will undoubtedly further illuminate these tendencies and allow Vedder and others the opportunity to evaluate the intended purpose and actual practice of resourcing universities through endowments.

Chapter Eight, “The Federal Student Financial Assistant Debt Crisis,” is essential reading for degree-seeking individuals and the families. Vedder unpacks the contributing factors to this educational debt crisis, which has a broader, negative socio-economic impact that contributes to generational shifts in home ownership, consumer spending, and the shrinking middle class. Amidst this crisis, Vedder astutely declares,

The correlation between earnings by major and the likelihood of borrowing is negative [emphasis his], but not statistically significant. There is little to suggest that borrowing is impacted materially by the likely returns on investment in terms of postgraduate earnings. Students seem almost oblivious to that consideration.

This reality is alarming, and while consumer responsibility is essential, we are failing these young adults by enabling self-destructive borrowing habits. Vedder offers interesting possibilities for reform; however, his recommendation of tying institutions to loan defaults, which is emerging as a practice with potential federal sanctions, is risky as there are myriad variables beyond the universities’ control that impact borrowers’ ability to repay their loan. While such “skin in the game” (p. 163) seems plausible superficially, it is fraught with concern.

In Part Three, Vedder takes on the sum of co- and extracurricular offerings and amenities marketed to potential matriculators that have contributed to soaring costs of attendance. As the Chapter Nine title “Universities’ Spending Perversities” suggests, Vedder does not approve of how institutions have allocated their funding, particularly in recent decades. He is further frustrated by the way federal data is reported, which prevents him from making true comparisons in spending by institutional type, particularly not-for-profit private, not-for-profit public, and for-profit. He notes that just under 30% of funding is allocated for instruction; other costs include research, public service, academic support, student services, and institutional support. As past administrators, we can say that his definitions of these areas are insufficient and don’t adequately represent the full scope of activities, outputs, and outcomes associated with each expenditure category. As Vedder explains, it is difficult to calculate productivity in higher education; however, he does some “educated guessing,” as he says the question is too important not to attempt to answer (p. 179). Based on his informed guessing, he posits that academic productivity has remained fairly stagnant and that explains the rising cost of higher education.

In the opening paragraph of Chapter Ten, “Nonacademic Activities and Rip-Offs,” Vedder points out that many of the positions now standard in higher education would not have even been discussed 100 years ago. This theme and its critique are fairly common throughout the text. He fairly compares data over time as this quantitatively demonstrates many changes, such as the impact of inflation. However, he fails to acknowledge how the growth and change in culture lends to changes in higher education. In the example above, would we not expect new thinking, approaches, and interventions over time? Given his comments, we surmise that it is his belief that higher education should still exist in its limited, traditional form with its focus primarily and solely on faculty teaching students.

While the teaching mission of higher education is without question a priority, the reality is institutions of higher education serve multiple purposes, and institutional missions have expanded to include knowledge generations (research, scholarship, and creative activities), community outreach, and activities pertaining to their role as economic anchors. We are disappointed that Vedder chose not to acknowledge the benefits of an expanded university mission rather than speak only of the negative impact on cost. Clearly, mission creep can yield significant impacts on costs; however, there remains the question of whether higher education should have the singular mission of instruction or whether the expanded mission, including research, student success, public service, etc., are beneficial and appropriate in today’s climate.

In Chapter Eleven, “The Edifice Complex,” Vedder discusses capital costs, which he argues are an under-researched topic in higher education. His critique includes five points. First, universities underestimate the cost and upkeep of buildings. Second, some institutions often skimp on routine maintenance, which results in more significant investments over time. Third, physical space is poorly utilized because of fewer Friday classes and the typical nine-month academic calendar for more traditional institutions. In his fourth point, he acknowledges that appearances are important: institutions are competing for students and the aesthetics of a campus help, so university leadership are relatively consistently requesting new construction. His final point reiterates how the aforementioned variables are leading institutions into increasing amounts of debt that may have implications for long-term viability. Considering with his arguments and our combined 30+ years’ experience in higher education, his points in this chapter are valid and of imminent concern.

In Chapter Twelve, “The Costly Enterprise of Intercollegiate Athletics,” Vedder discusses the three major problems intercollegiate athletics present for higher education: high cost, downplaying of academics, and scandal. The first is the increasing expense; for example, between 2004-2015, Division I public schools spent $71.3 billion dollars on athletics. Furthermore, the cost of higher education increases for students as they are often subsidizing the cost of athletics through student fees. Much of the money spent on athletics constitutes salaries, particularly for coaching staff, some of which earn over a million dollars or more a year in total compensation. Collegiate athletes do not generate revenue equal to their professional counterparts, but often receive special treatment in terms of uniforms, lockers, practice facilities, and academic support. As Vedder submits, this can suggest that athletic prowess is more important and questions whether that is the appropriate message for institutions to send.

Athletics sometimes appear to be more important than teaching and research. Vedder recalls an example when the University of Alabama cancelled two days of classes in preparation for a national championship determining game. In our own experience, we have seen libraries closed during home football games, which illustrates a specific example of athletic’s potential negative impact on academics. Students in the more popular commercialized sports (e.g., football, basketball) historically perform poorly in academics compared to non-athletes. Furthermore, Vedder points out that three types of scandals have plagued intercollegiate athletics: sex, money, and academic scandals. Despite the aforementioned, many argue that there are immense benefits to collegiate sports and argue for their continued existence. For example, student athletes gain leadership skills, learn discipline, and exemplify a desire to achieve. Vedder questioned whether the benefits justify the high costs, both literally and potential costs to their academic performance. He states, “Bottom line: Academic and athletic excellence are not highly correlated” (p. 231). Furthermore, he remains “skeptical that schools generally can improve their standing in the academic world through extensive spending on intercollegiate athletics” (p. 231). For the most part, it is difficult to argue with the points made by Vedder in this chapter. However, it would have been strengthened had he delved deeper into questions about why athletics exist, how they benefit students and their overall experiences, and ultimately why the high costs are continually determined worthy.

Vedder magnifies faculty bemoaning in Part Four through his chastisement of institutional priorities that impede, undermine, and redirect attention from the mission of educating students. This broad category encompasses faculty research productivity, institutional and programmatic accreditation, diversity initiatives, and university governance. Vedder’s misgivings on these topics illustrate the interconnected web of issues facing higher education. For example, in Chapter Thirteen, “The Conundrum of Research,” Vedder portrays the vast amount of faculty research activity as a futile enterprise of minimal consequence. His argument is founded on the fair observation that a noteworthy portion of faculty publications have few, if any, citations, which is a widely accepted indicator of significance and impact. Yet, in Chapter Fourteen, “The Academic Cartel of Accreditation,” he acknowledges in his equally negative portrayal of organized accreditation efforts the fact that accreditors review research activity and are known to recommend decreased teaching loads in order to bolster research activity and publications. Not a word is said of the need for indicators of significance and impact of research to meet the accrediting body or reviewers’ minimum expectations for publication quality or significance.

Similarly, Vedder critiques accrediting agencies for dictating appropriate qualifications for teaching faculty and argues that widely recognized experts in their field are deemed insufficiently qualified to teach based upon the standards defined by their accrediting bodies. On the surface, these appear to be an egregious external interference on quality standards determined at the faculty level; however, individuals familiar with the process know there are multiple paths to adequately documenting faculty credentials, including detailed justifications accounting for combinations of professional expertise and experience, related research and publications, as well as graduate coursework. These details provide important clarity and insight on complex processes that may appear entirely unnecessary to outsiders as well as insiders who are less familiar with the intent and variables considered in these decision-making processes. As faculty members who have been directly involved in similar scenarios and are intimately aware of areas of improvement in the accreditation enterprise in its entirety, we are careful to note that Vedder justifiably calls attention to areas requiring our attention, but seemingly without caution and awareness of how his message may be received and ultimately negatively impact those who would take action without further exploration of this issue.

In Chapter Fifteen, “The Scandal of Diversity,” Vedder advocates the concept of the university campuses as a “marketplace of ideas” (p. 269), yet inadequately speaks to the essential role of racial, cultural, and sociopolitical diversity and inclusion among students and faculty. His acknowledgment that “the white American male is no longer the dominant figure on campus” (p. 273) fails to address systemic realities that continue to minoritize historically marginalized groups. Expanded representation, while a critical first step, is a shallow indicator of inclusion across campuses. As Vedder notes, admission and matriculation of racially diverse cohorts does not yield consistent success rates. Due to broader societal inequities, certain student populations require additional and different types of support. For example, first-generation students, who are more likely to identify as a racial minority, will likely require more guidance from student support units, whereas students whose parents are college graduates are entering college with familial support. Further, Vedder cites data on student performance that suggests race and ethnicity impact potential student success. Because there are broader social implications for a diverse student body and alumni base and a desire to recruit, retain, and graduate diverse cohorts of students, providing equitable student support initiatives becomes an ethical imperative for university leaders. Curiously, Vedder highlights “failures” of impacted students without recognition of the responsibility universities have to equitably support all accepted students.

As a past president of my university’s faculty senate, I was particularly interested in Vedder’s conclusions on university governance. In Chapter Sixteen, “The Weaknesses of Current University Governance,” similar to our experience, he notes increasing concern regarding undue political interference in institutional governance (Purcell, in press). Vedder provides a concise overview of the distributed leadership models and shared decision-making processes among institutions, and he outlines a reasonable case for trustees to assume greater responsibility for the universities’ long-term success. Interestingly, the guidance he outlines for governing boards reflects commitments and quality assurances that all faculty and academic administrators should adhere to as well. Perhaps inadvertently, Vedder substantiates the need for shared governance despite its inherent inefficiencies.  

In the final three chapters of the book (Part Five), Vedder outlines his reform recommendations. At times, his recommendations appear contradictory. For example, he argues “a huge part of our higher education problems has arisen because of a vastly expanded federal role in higher education” (p. 301) while simultaneously stating his lack of optimism in “reform efforts originating from within the academy” (p. 304). Suggesting government entanglement is both the curse and the cure requires degrees of nuance and context that are not addressed in this book. Despite Vedder’s position that internally led reform would be modest at best, he details his recommendations in Chapter Seventeen, “The Three I’s of University Reform.” First, Vedder calls for increased performance data (i.e., information). Institutional effectiveness units often maintain a wealth of information, albeit with some data sets more readily accessible than others, as do program-level academic units throughout college campuses. He asserts the need for greater transparency without clarification on his implications for the cause of the seeming lack of transparency. Producing institutional data can become a resource-intensive endeavor, so it is especially important to clarify which data are needed and for what purposes.

Second, Vedder addresses the importance of incentives, which we agree can be highly effective so long as their related metrics do not curtail or undermine the integrity of our work. And finally, Vedder proclaims the need for innovation, which of course is an underlying goal of our efforts toward continuous improvement. Missing in this section is a candid discussion of the leadership context and organizational conditions in which innovation is supported and the ways in which we manage to stand in the way of our own progress.

In fairness to university leaders, Vedder admits the challenges institutions face amidst public policy that impacts their operation. He addresses these challenges in Chapter Eighteen, “The Failure of Government Higher Education Policy” through which he delineates state- and federal-level funding and oversight. In his review of government oversight, particularly at the federal level, Vedder could have more clearly addressed the critique of university budgeting and allocations beyond the core instructional mission of the university. While he addressed this issue of co- and extracurricular expenditures in previous chapters, there is a definitive opportunity for federal oversight and related accreditation standards that call for increased attention to funding instructional activities versus the subsidizing of what should be auxiliary and self-funded units, including personnel expenses. Perhaps Vedder’s call for information transparency in Chapter Seventeen starts with increased transparency of university budgets and their related decision-making processes.

In his concluding Chapter Nineteen, “Reforming Higher Education,” Vedder likens the reform process to that of disease diagnosis and treatment. He fairly recognizes the broader, systemic changes required as well as institutional level reform. Vedder suggests the current state of affairs is one of “crisis that seemingly is difficult to end” (p. 355) yet the possibility for abrupt change remains. We prepared this review in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and believe higher education is facing its greatest challenge in modern history. The existing concerns Vedder details are magnified by the current public health pandemic, inadequate public leadership at all levels of government, social disruption stemming from centuries of racial injustice, and unprecedented economic instability. If the long-term viability of higher education was in question in January 2020, where do we stand now? How do we demonstrate legitimacy in the current context? Fortunately, there is ample literature on strategies for internal effort to more fully achieve our institutional missions, including betterment of society and contribution to the common good. While Vedder argues that the reform we require will originate externally, we agree with his assertion that we have “a capacity for surmounting challenges and indeed even shown a love of innovation and change” (p. 356). We therefore encourage interested readers to explore the scholarship of Adrianna Kezzar, Elaine Maimon, Jeffrey Buller, Walter Gmelch, Connie Schroder, Brent Ruben, Richard De Lisi, and Ralph Gigliotti. A selection of their contributions is included in the references.

Professor Vedder’s expertise in economics provides an important disciplinary lens for the discussion of higher education, particularly as it informs leaders’ stewardship of public resources, their commitment to maintaining public trust, and the collective effort to sustain institutions’ contributions to the public good. Informed by research and decades of experience on campuses throughout the United States, his commentary provides timely attention toward issues that require collaboration across stakeholder groups. Restoring the Promise is recommended for anyone with an interest in or responsibility related to higher education, including university leaders, governing boards, faculty members, policy makers, and community partners. Readers are encouraged to remain discerning consumers of opinion while reviewing his recommendations, particularly in light of context, perspective, and lived experience, and to continue their exploration and research of these complex, multifaceted issues. Unpacking higher education’s problems, developing solutions, implementing change, and monitoring outcomes for continuous improvement will require broad representation of stakeholder groups and varied expertise. Vedder is one of many who are grappling with the full scope of reform needed in American higher education; yet, he remains an essential voice supported by his critical candor.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 14, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23368, Date Accessed: 8/8/2020 7:28:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Purcell
    Kennesaw State University
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER W. PURCELL, Ed.D., MPA, is an associate professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Kennesaw State University (KSU). Purcell is a leadership scholar whose research explores leadership capacity building in organizational contexts. Her research to date focuses on organization development within higher education through institutions and professional and research associations. To better understand cross-sector partnerships involving institutions in higher education, Purcell and her research team have explored the role of boundary-spanning leadership among university employees as well as the institutional infrastructure to support these collaborations. Purcell is a proponent of shared governance in higher education and is past-president of the KSU faculty senate and university council.
  • Jennifer Wells
    Kennesaw State University
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER B. WELLS, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership at Kennesaw State University. Wells is a scholar in student development and higher education assessment; publications editor of the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS); former university administrator in institutional effectiveness and student affairs; and was actively involved in the institutionís recent reaffirmation process. Wells current focus is on the effectiveness of the CAS Standards, the importance of continuous improvement efforts, and the gamification of higher education.
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