Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
The Next Wave of Higher Education
Featuring Sylvia M. Burwell, Michael Crow, and Scott Galloway
Is higher education due for a makeover? The pandemic has only accelerated the trends disrupting the traditional model of higher ed. So it’s an opportune time to look ahead and discuss what’s coming next, from closing the gap that has opened between elite schools and the rest to the waning of standardized admissions tests to the rise of online and hybrid learning from the fringe to the center. Along the way, of course, we’ll be answering the ever-acute question of what it is all supposed to be for.
Join us for a conversation on the future of higher ed with Sylvia M. Burwell, president of American University, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, and Scott Galloway, the founder of Section4, a content platform for accessible business education. Zachary Karabell, founder of The Progress Network, moderates.
This conversation was recorded on April 7, 2021.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): I’m Emma Varvaloucas. I’m the executive director of The Progress Network. We hold events monthly on a variety of topics, but always with a constructive take. And this event tonight is co-hosted by Arizona State University, as well as Future Tense, which is an initiative based at Slate magazine, where they cover trends about the future.
A little note about logistics. So we’re going to run about an hour tonight with conversation amongst our panelists for about 50 minutes. We will take questions at the end, in last 10 minutes or so. If you would like a question answered by the panelists, please use the Q&A function. You’re welcome to use the chat function if you want to, you know, give an errant thought, cheer on maybe something our panelists say but if you want a question answered by our panelists, please use the Q&A function. You can enter a question at any time, but we’ll take them in the last, uh, 10 minutes.
So I think everyone likes you know, as quick of an introduction as possible. So I’m going to introduce our panelists very quickly, and then we’ll get the conversations going. So we’re here today with Sylvia Burwell. She is the president of American University. Michael Crow is the president of Arizona State University. So two very innovative, pioneering universities that are bringing us into this next wave of higher education. And last, but certainly not least, Scott Galloway, who wears many hats. He’s a professor of marketing at NYU Stern, and he’s going to be especially speaking from his perspective today as the founder of Section4, which is a new platform for accessible business education. And our moderator tonight is Zachary Karabell, who’s the founder of The Progress Network, a prolific author, and incidentally, he has a book coming out next month called “Inside money,” which is not about higher ed, but it’s going to be an interesting read. And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Zachary who is going to get this ball rolling. So thanks everyone.
Zachary Karabell (ZK): Thank you so much, Emma. And thanks, Sylvia, Michael, and Scott in advance for joining me tonight, joining us. Book promo: it’s behind my left shoulder, your right. I think there’s something a little bit odd about a book about the history of capitalism being propped up by the Buddha, but we can deal with that oddity at another time. So I founded The Progress Network, and Emma has been leading this as some of you know, with this spirit of, we pay way too much attention in our contemporary culture to all of the things that could go wrong, and if the sum of all our fears comes true, it won’t be for lack of attention to it. But we’re also not necessarily paying enough attention to what could go right, and to the degree to which a lot of us are involved, and a lot of thinkers and doers are involved in the problem-solving of trying to create the future that we want to live in and that we want our children to live in, especially given that that future is unwritten, and it’s up to all of us to create a constructive one.
And there’s almost nothing more than higher education, which is, I suppose, in nature a more forward-looking, potentially optimistic thing, right? Why bother getting a degree if the world is going to go to hell in a hand basket in 10 years? You go to school, you try to enrich yourself, you try to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself, your life, and train, presumably because one believes that there is a world to be worked in and constructed, and that that process of going to school is an integral aspect of being launched on a more constructive path, or at least in theory. You know, I speak as someone who was an academic, who left academia in a somewhat disillusioned way, more disillusioned about my own role within it than disillusioned with academia writ large.
And I’m sure part of it was, Michael wasn’t around at ASU, Sylvia was still making her way through various things and eventually into government, and then into American University, and Scott was just a, you know, a twinkle in our collective eye. But there are real challenges in higher ed. And what I want to start with is kind of to ask each of you to address the following, because I think it’s fascinating. I wrote a piece in August for Time magazine about what I thought then was the sort of unworkable equation of lots of universities trying to bring people, bring students, back to campus in the midst of a pandemic, partly in order to justify the non-academic portion of the economics of higher education, namely the room and the board, and that that was a necessary product of the strange economics of a lot of higher ed.
What I don’t think I expected, and what I want to ask all of you about, is the degree to which this is not, at least for many schools been an implosion year, but in many ways has been an accelerant year. And it’s, you know, whether it’s admissions being up 10 to 30% at top tier schools because of the end of standardized testing requirements, or you know, many other schools like ASU also seeing a great boon of students, whereas the next, you know, a lot of the other tier community colleges, the Cal State system, actually saw a contraction.
So I guess my question for all of you is, one, is this just kind of an anomalous year? Is this the COVID year, and we shouldn’t be extrapolating future trends? Is this its own higher ed equivalent of “this year saw the winners win and those who are struggling struggle more”? And again, is that this year, or has this accelerated trends in place? And is there anything positive about that dichotomy that’s opened up, particularly if you think it’s going to be positive? So, I don’t know, Sylvia, why don’t you start? I mean, anyone can start, but I think you’ve all been thinking about this.
Sylvia M. Burwell (SB): Yeah. So I would actually characterize this year and COVID as an accelerant. And an accelerant to sort of the fundamental concepts that you’re talking about in terms of The Progress Network and going to the future of what higher education looks like. And when I say an accelerant, I think what we’re going to see more and more of is what I like to say is the consumer at the center of higher education, that we are focused on the basics of affordability, access, and quality, and that drive to those things, and that being what shapes what students are coming to and what they’re doing. One of the places at American University where we see a large increase is in two of our premier programs: our School of International Service, and our School of Public Affairs. And people are coming, and they’re more focused. I think that they’re thinking about the value proposition, and they’re thinking about how they are going to use this next step in their post-secondary education.
So I think it is an accelerant to change. I think the questions of what we’re going to do, all of us in higher ed to make sure we’re meeting the consumer where they are—we’re thinking about the whole student, student thriving. We’re thinking about what it is, we’re thinking about the affordability issues. And that’s what I think we’re going to see over the period of time, in terms of “This year is speeding us along. How should we use technology? What is the importance of a residential experience? How do people get access at different times in different places for what they want?” All of those things are going to move forward.
Michael Crow (MC): I agree with the Sylvia. An accelerant year is definitely not anomalous. It is basically an exemplar of where we’re headed. So you get 8 billion people plus on the planet. You shrink the economy of the planet down to picosecond interactions. You allow everyone to travel and move around. You interface our species with every other species, with every complexity that you can imagine. And lo and behold you get “complexification.” And so some institutions of higher education will adjust to that. We took this as a year where we are definitively a greatly transformed institution in the last year: new methods of teaching, new technologies that we’re investing in, new ways of reaching out, new ways of connecting to communities, thousands of our faculty trained in new ways to teach and learn 10,000 K-12 teachers that we brought in, 40,000 high school students that we brought in, and some of our advanced stuff that we have going on.
And so, I would say, to sum it up for us is that during this pandemic we not only, you know, we shut off the force fields around ASU that were keeping people out, unnecessarily and undemocratically keeping them out. We’ve now not only shut those force fields off forever, in this last year, we dug them up and threw them away. So we don’t have any force fields anymore. We just launched our ASU Knowledge Enterprise, Learning Enterprise, and Academic Enterprise that has organized the university with three different functional ways of operating, one of which is completely geared toward you know, finding learning assets for any learner anywhere, drawn from our same teaching learning and discovery environment simultaneously operating in an in-person environment on campus, and then also being available with no force fields, no force shields to somebody that needs what we do. And so anomalous? No. Accelerating? Yes. Accelerant? Yes. unbelievable complexity ahead of us on every dimension. And so this is just a taste of it.
ZK: Scott, you’ve been vocally critical of the traditional framework of higher education. You started Section4 to create a less traditional one. What’s your take?
Scott Galloway (SG): I think higher ed has moved from being the greatest upward lubricant in the middle class to being the enforcer of a caste system, and those trends are accelerating. If you look at when innovation or digital technology comes into any sector, the effect is a flight to quality, or a concentration of power. Amazon, for instance, brought technology to retail, and they’ve added more market capitalization in the last 10 years than all of European retail is worth.
We’re seeing the same dramatic flight to quality happen here—applications to Berkeley are up 24% in one year. The most frightening thing about it is that those “quality,” elite institutions no longer see themselves as public servants. They see themselves as luxury brands. Every year the dean stands up and brags that we didn’t turn away 90% of our applicants, we turned away 94%, which in my view is tantamount to the head of a homeless shelter bragging that they turned away 94% of the people who showed up last night. What that will do is feed into the tier-two colleges, and give them more pricing power to sell a Hyundai for a Mercedes-like price. And the wheel spins. We’ll continue to affect a transfer of 1.5 becoming 1.6 becoming 1.8 trillion dollars, preying on the hopes and dreams of the middle class.
The good news is there might be some disruptors; both Sylvia and Michael could be described as such. They’re people who haven’t lost the script, who see education’s role as an upward lubricant for the middle class as where we should be. But the net effect here could be disastrous.
ZK: On that, Sylvia, do you spend any time being concerned about what the top 50 universities think, in terms of competitiveness, or is your eye elsewhere?
SB: Scott has articulated a real potential problem. Although I think we would all agree that higher ed is not actually about exclusion. It’s about excellence. I think the market will become more differentiated. We do have to have a world where the consumer, in order to prevent what Scott just described, is the dominant force of the next 10 years in terms of higher ed. We’re going to have to focus on how we think about higher ed, really and truly, from the trifecta of access, affordability, and quality.
To do that, we have to see beyond the traditional approaches of four-year degrees. Two-thirds of the nation does not have undergraduate degrees. In the next 10 years we want that number to change. We have to think about what people need: what they want, when they want it, how they want it. That’s the concept of lifelong learning, of post-secondary education, being something that people do in different ways at different times. We are going to have to serve those needs.
I think Scott’s point is fair—there is a top tier that is not a part of this thrust to increase access. Another thing to mention is that we know community college applications numbers are down. Numbers of applications from some underrepresented minorities are down. Not as many financial aid forms are being filled out, which indicates that folks from a certain socioeconomic milieu aren’t coming. And so we all have to focus. You asked what I focus on, and of course my focus is on American University (AU). My Chief Online Officer started the day we put everyone online due to the pandemic. Because I believe that while we are going to be excellent at the traditional, four-year, face-to-face residential college, we have create greater access through other means and mechanisms so that we can try and push against the forces that Scott described.
MC: I agree with Scott’s characterization of the system being seriously messed up, but let me augment how seriously messed up it is. We have an entire higher ed system where the coin of the realm is scarcity, where status is derivative of exclusion. Well, that might be fine for small honors colleges in private universities, or institutions that are just going to have a few undergraduates and some professional schools, who are going to manage it with their own resources and bring in only the upper couple of percent of high school students. But the rest of us have got to take on the task of democracy building, and democracy building only works if the educational attainment of the population continues to rise, particularly as the more modern knowledge-driven economy moves forward.
What we have now is a situation where the “top” universities are those that only admit high school students with A averages. That’s how you get to be a top university. What we’ve decided to do at Arizona State University (ASU) is to prove that that’s not the case, that we could break out of the stranglehold. The old British model of elitism has regained its strength in the United States, a granting of social status not through what family you’re born into, but through what school you go to. That has to be seriously attacked. That’s the reason that not only have we gone, since I’ve been in office, from 40,000 ASU students to 150,000, but also from 6,000 students in engineering to 25,000. And we’ve become one of the top-five research universities in the country that doesn’t have a medical school.
We have to be manufacturing all of these different pathways to success in the future. We’ve got to start holding public universities and some private universities that take large amounts of public resources accountable for their outcomes. And we’ve got to drive innovation and technology forward, or we’re going to revert back to, “Oh, I see you went to Kings or Queens College, Cambridge. You’re set.” For, you know, all 300 of you that got to go to the University of Cambridge. We can’t work that way across the scale of the US.
ZK: This does raise the question of what the actual point of a college degree is. Is it credentialing? Is it some sort of entree ticket? Is it supposed to carry with it a set of skills?
SG: At least at New York University (NYU), I think we’re in the business not of educating or socializing, but of credentialing, full stop. What has effectively happened is that that corporate America has said, “we’ll pay a graduate of the business school $140,000. It’s probably worth $100,000, but your HR department posing as an admissions department does a lot more diligence on these individuals and makes them jump through so many hoops that you are a fine filter, and your exclusion combined with our fetishization on hiring only people from elite universities creates this caste system that we’re all benefiting from.”
The insidious Antichrist here is the US News and World Report, which rewards status and compensation largely driven on exclusivity and rejection rates. The rankings have been so terrible for society, because they have created one metric: we’re going to push you up in the rankings if you reject more and more people.
This is personal for me; I make no money in this sector. I actually lose it with my half-baked research. When I applied to University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), there was a 60% admittance rate. I was unremarkable. My mother was a secretary. I had a 3.2 GPA and 1100 SATs. They called me—they already had 60% men in the class, sorry. They only let me in after I appealed. They said, “you’re not qualified, but you’re a native son of California, so we’re going to let you in.” I rewarded the vision of the regents of UC and the California taxpayers with a 2.27 GPA from UCLA. And then I went on to apply to Berkeley. The admissions director called me and said, “you don’t deserve to be here, but we think you have a great future, so we’re going to let you in.” And that created an upward spiral for me. I’m going to pay $11 million in federal income taxes this year. So I would argue it was not only philanthropic. It was a great investment in America.
Slowly but surely higher ed has come to represent America. We’ve decided our collective goal as a country is to take the 1% and turn them into billionaires, whereas it should be to take the bottom 90% and give them a shot at being the top 10%. This year the UCLA admissions rate isn’t going to be 60%. It’s going to be 9%. The greatest platforms for financial security in the history of mankind, US corporations, have to fall out of love with Chanel and Hermes posing as Stanford and Harvard. Universities are just following where the money goes, and that’s the US corporations who only recruit now at elite universities. We need to totally reverse rankings and say, are you adding any value to society that might be a component of the rankings? And then two, we need to figure out a way to get corporations to commit to hiring more people that don’t have a college degree.
I think this has become a huge societal problem. When Harvard’s total admitted freshmen class is 1400 people, and they have an endowment that is the GDP of El Salvador, they’re not a nonprofit, they’re a hedge fund educating the children of their investors. Where’s the morality? Stanford’s endowment has gone from 1 billion to 30 billion in the last 30 years. Their applications have tripled. They haven’t increased their freshman class one seat. There are universities like Cal State who are doing God’s work and expanding their enrollments, but mostly we have totally lost the script in higher ed.
ZK: If there’s a thesis of “all’s well” in higher ed, and Scott is the antithesis—the whole system is corrupt and sclerotic—it seems to me that you, Michael, and Sylvia, are offering a synthesis. What is it?
MC: I like Scott’s story because he was a UCLA undergrad. On my office desk is a UCLA catalog from August 10, 1950. I use it as my inspiration. At that time the admission standards were, did you have at least a B average? Did you take some of the courses they wanted you to take? If you got in, the cost was zero—there was no tuition. We are doing everything we possibly can at ASU to build the modern version of that. And we have made huge progress.
What has been difficult for us is, with every step we take, there’s a mindset that if you’re big, then you can’t be any good. If you change your academic departments to become more reflective of transdisciplinary learning, then somehow you’re producing transdisciplinary mental midgets. This is measurably false, but there is so much momentum around the notion of status, both for the faculty and for the students, that every time we have tried to break away from that, it has been extremely difficult.
That’s one of the reasons that we decided to be what we are now: a world-class research university with 20,000 undergraduates who come from families on public support, who have incomes below $25,000 a year. Since we’re not supported very much by the government, the financial question is, how do we pay for kids to be able to come to the university to cover the actual cost, while constraining the costs as much as we can? It goes back to what a public university was designed to do. It was designed to provide access to students from every family background to be able to move forward unencumbered and do almost anything.
We have also thought about how unfair it is for so many people who went to college and didn’t finish. That’s why we did the Starbucks program [in which Starbucks employees can receive a tuition-free bachelor’s degree]. We’ve got 18,000 students in that program now and 6,000 graduates out of it, no cost, no debt. But even that wasn’t enough. Now we built a thing called the Pathway program. We don’t care if you didn’t graduate from high school, we don’t care what your situation is. We have ways for you to earn your way into college if college is where you’d like to go, and we have ways for you to earn your way into certain careers, if those are the directions that you would like to go.
Our faculty, who are research-grade faculty of world-class stature, want to do all of that. They have become super-faculty. The main thing for us has been changing the faculty-centric model to a student-centric model, and empowering our faculty to be able to educate at scale and with speed, and to be innovative.
ZK: You need certain things to, say, be a social worker, that may not require a four-year degree. If those things are offered in an online format, which is inherently at a lower cost, taken with a perhaps wider reach, does the financial structure allow for that? Can you offer a $200 course, or does the system implode if it moves out of the realm where the price tag reinforces the purpose of not educating everybody as a way to maintain scarcity?
SB: We’ve been doing those kinds of programs and that kind of work at AU for a number of years. It’s an important part of how one thinks about the progress. I think what you have articulated in the question gets to one of the fundamentals, which is that the economics of higher ed has to change. The example that I have given at AU is if you take the rate of inflation over the last 20 years in higher ed, and you extend that out for the next 20 years, a child born today would end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars at a private institution. So it just doesn’t work.
We have to consider what has to change to get to the world that we’re discussing, where there can be the kind of access where you provide what is needed. Technology is a helpful part of it. With universities, first there’s the question of affordability, and then the question of who pays. We try and reverse those questions. We are always focused on the extremely important issue of student debt. But solving that problem at a point in time is not enough without solving the long-term issue that your question raises, which is how we think about the future of economics of higher ed. That has to do with the consideration of the value proposition. What do you get, and what do you pay for it? And how do you evaluate how those two things come together? What do you do to evaluate that which you get?
MC: If you listen to a very powerful—not all-powerful, but very powerful—force called the market, what you see is that there is a market for biology majors out there. We have 6,000 biology majors, and we’re going to grow it to 10,000 biology majors. We have 2,000 biology majors online. One of our online biology majors was just admitted to the Mayo Medical School, one of the most selective medical schools. We have a top-10 research unit in electrical engineering with 2,500 electrical engineering majors on campus and 2,000 online taking Star Trek-level electrical engineering at unbelievably low costs, with the most advanced technologies that people have to carry out learning. But I have to stop listening to people that come and say, “you can’t have people studying stuff online. There’s nothing very good about that.”
Recently we had a video done by 40 of our online biochemistry majors who got a letter from an elite university medical school saying they’d never admit anyone with an online degree because they don’t know anything about leadership or teams or society. One of the students in the video was a flight medic who was already a college graduate working on helicopter rescues out of Colorado. One was an electrician’s mate at the bottom of the ocean in a nuclear-powered submarine, working on their biochemistry courses. Half of them were nurses, trying to learn more chemistry and more science so they could move forward in their field.
The point of saying this to you is that there’s all kinds of ways to change the cost model. We’ve changed the cost model dramatically by generating up our revenue. We’ve increased our tuition revenue from $125 million a year to $2.2 billion a year. And with that revenue we’ve been investing in new technologies and methods. We decelerated our rate of cost increase. Scott, you’ll be happy to know that the average net tuition for our 45,000 undergraduates from Arizona is under $4,000 a year. For half of them, it’s zero.
So we’re excited about the fact that you can gain financial control by realizing that you’re existing in a marketplace for your graduates, your technologies, your tools, and everything else. It just required us to move away from being dependent on the government and move toward a public enterprise model. That changes all aspects of how we’re able to operate financially.
ZK: Scott, is it “build it and they will come” insofar as creating a robust set of online multidisciplinary tools, and eventually you gain status and credibility, or is the absolute challenge here, meaning that you could deliver the content, but you can’t change the status issue easily?
SG: I think AU and ASU are always going to have a certain brand halo that they deserve due to great research, their atmosphere of learning, the investments they make in technology, and their location. But I think this is what’s going to happen: The internet slowly but surely went in and picked apart every part of the newspaper piece by piece. First they went for the classifieds. Then they went for the car ads. Then the movie listings. In the same way, I think we’re going to see a great unbundling of universities.
Take the elite MBA. I think it’s the scarcest product in the world. What I mean by scarce is global recognition and transformative value relative to its total market: presidents, 220 Fortune 500 CEOs, and so on. The total universe of full-time MBAs among the top 20 schools is about 8,000 people a year. So there’s massive excess demand. How do you offer pieces of that elite MBA to someone who is never going to be able to go to Wharton? Maybe I’m a single mother managing five Tiffany stores in Dallas. I make $110,000 a year. I don’t even get invited to the big offsite at headquarters in New York. And I’m just never going to get an MBA. It’s out of my reach. Maybe I got three years through college, but I didn’t graduate, although I’m great at what I do. I want the American dream. Are there supply chain courses from instructors at elite business schools that I can take? Are there courses I can take where I can get some sort of micro-certification?
I think we’re about to see what happens with the internet when it comes into a sector, that unbundling. The key will be one, companies falling out of love with elite universities being the only on-ramp into their organizations, this ridiculous, drunken intoxication with luxury. The most important thing that has happened in higher ed in the last month was Tesla announcing that they’re going to start hiring more people without college degrees. And two, we’re going to need class traitors. Michael is a class traitor. My faculty would hate his guts. He’s saying, “all right, I want to educate a ton of people. I am about expanding admissions. And if ASU doesn’t resemble Hermes, that’s okay with me.” That’s what’s called public service.
The other thing we have to wrestle with is that state funding has been flat for the last 30 or 40 years, because, and I say this as a proud progressive, we’re seen as graduating wokesters, not warriors. Generally speaking, across our 50 states, 50% of the people who decide the budgets for state-funded schools are Republicans. And it’s difficult for them to decide to increase the funding for what I’ll call the woke machine. When one and a half percent of the faculty of elite universities identify as conservatives, we’re running up against a notion that universities are not a place for provocative thought. The people who fund these institutions don’t want to continue to fund an ideology or a dogma that they think is contrary to what they believe in.
I think we’re going to see the great unbundling; the mother of all chins has fists of stones coming forward. If you think about disruption, it is essentially a function of whether you have raised prices faster than inflation with no underlying increase in productivity or outcomes. That literally defines American higher ed and tier-two schools. I thought COVID would be that first fist of stone. I’ve been wrong so far—it has only served to strengthen these problematic circumstances. But I’m hopeful about innovators like Sylvia and Michael as well as the unbundling.
ZK: I’ve got one more question for the three of you, briefly, and then we’ve got about 30 questions in the Q&A in 10 minutes. And obviously we won’t get to all of them, but I’ll try to cherry-pick along.
So one thing that clearly has been pandemic-disrupted is the vast number of foreign students coming into the United States. In fact, I mean, all of you know this, but US education of foreign students was one of the fastest-growing and robust US export sectors, because within the way we keep these things, a Chinese student comes to the United States, it’s actually an export of educational services to China. That was 400,000 students alone from China, and more than a million from the rest of the world. Between the difficulty of unbundling some of the immigration restrictions of the Trump years, combined with COVID, combined with a generalizable sense that maybe the future of the world does not run through the United States and American higher education, do you feel… Is that going to be an anomaly as well, or has that been a “knocking a trajectory in a completely different direction” in a way that’s going to be somewhat financially challenging, but also culturally problematic?
MC: I was on the phone yesterday with the Indian Ambassador to the United States talking through a number of issues that we have, and the large expanding programs that we have, joint ventures that we have. We see it as you know, for those that are innovative and adjust timing and cost and degrees and programs and work and so forth and so on, we see no decrease in demand at all. Like we’re not seeing any decrease.
SB: I think that we’re going to have to see where things go in terms of also how quickly we can get through some of the COVID… I mean, this is a critical year in terms of the question of the travel bans and that sort of thing, in terms of the number of students, and this is for all institutions, because it’s about their ability to actually come to the US. And I think the question is how long this lasts and whether that has long-term impact in terms of people making different choices. You start making different choices and that could lead to that. I think we all are seeking these students. It’s important to you know, all of us as universities, it’s important in terms of having to Scott’s point about different points of view in terms of that. There’s the different points of view politically, but there’s also, you know, the value that our international students have to being on our campus, to being part of that, as well as our scholars.
So I think we’re at a point where I think it could be for the institutions that are pursuing it like Michael, you know, we were focused on that last year. You know, last year we didn’t actually have a drop. We were very fortunate in our international students in terms of the numbers in our graduate and undergraduate. This year, we’re seeing smaller numbers with the visas and those kinds of things. But I think what this means for the long term, this is going to be a critical year. And you know, we’re all focused with the administration on doing everything they can to lift some of the constraints that are constraints for all of us and are impacting these numbers. So I think it’s a critical year.
ZK: So some questions from from people participating: one is the degree to which—and Sylvia, I know American University had been test-optional—but the degree to which this year has seen vast numbers of schools, largely by logistical issues, go to test-optional. That’s been ascribed for one of the reasons for the huge surge of applications. I don’t know whether that’s a hundred percent accurate. Maybe you could, you know, Scott, you might have some sense of that. I mean, is that a good thing for the democratization of higher education? Because there’s been a lot of criticisms of testing over the years.
SB: So we American University, has been test-optional for many years. And we have, because we actually believe it is a part of the step that, you know, we’ve been talking about in terms of democratizing and creating that access. And, you know, what we’ve found is, you know, that question of that trajectory of that student is a much better indicator. And it is, you know, when Scott was describing his own journey in terms of how people saw, you know, the real potential in terms of that, and that that’s such an important thing. And so we’ve been test-optional for many years. We have not seen it impact, you know, the question of quality, graduation rates, all those things that people argue that it would do, or, you know, even success in terms of employment and that sort of thing. You know, we’re still at a place where 92% of our graduates are employed or in graduate school six months out. And that didn’t change when we went test-optional. I do think it has impacted the number of applications to schools, but Scott and Michael may have a different opinion. But I do think it did impact those schools that are now test-optional and hadn’t been, I think that it led to more applications for a number of those schools.
MC: Yeah. So Scott’s two schools before he went there, UCLA and UC Berkeley, you know, they had no SAT score or ACT requirement in the old days. They were great public research universities. They had no tuition. All they said was, “did you take the courses that might help you be ready for college?” And “did you get, at least a B in those courses?” And if you got a B in those courses in 1950, you were admitted. And UC Berkeley in 1950 was already one of the greatest research universities ever built in the history of the world. Its faculty taught between four and six courses each in those years. There was heavy teaching, heavy engagement, deep research. And so what’s happened is that we’ve allowed the faculty at many institutions to become spoiled you know, they’re just not focused on their core mission.
So this is why I was talking about our faculty just a second ago. I mean, so our faculty, through the empowerment of technology, through the empowerment of owning their own intellectual designs, owning the designs of their intellectual unitswe, you know, we’ve built 35 new transdisciplinary schools and centers: a school of earth and space exploration a school for sustainability, a school of complexity, a school for the future of innovation in society, a school for human evolution and social change. Our faculty have designed those schools, built those schools, and moved those things forward. And the reason I say all of this is that those schools are now populated with kids who have either earned their way into the university by taking the right courses in high school, come in from the community colleges by moving in from that direction, or now they’re coming in—and this is important, Sylvia, and Zachary, and Scott—coming in through our pathways program That is, they’re literally earning their way into the university. The SAT test and the ACT test are tangential to that entire process. They’re of no material value in even predicting outcomes. So, you know, the SAT score only predicts freshman grade point. For a B student, it doesn’t predict graduation rate at all. Nothing. It’s of no material value to the process. It can give you some insights on maybe where to strengthen or take some additional courses or do this or do that, but it’s not material to the success of the student.
ZK: So there’s a series of questions that people have had about student loans. And this is obviously kind of on the table in Washington now. It’s been a particularly strong ask/demand on the more progressive side of the aisle, that there be widespread student loan forgiveness. I know all of you have thought about this. I’ve done some writing about this. I mean, I happen to think that it’s all lumped together as one big problem, but it’s a very variegated problem between, again, the for-profit university, which kind of preys on the “credentializing” needs of either minorities or someone who’s underemployed who goes into debt to get a degree that they then don’t finish, and then they’re left with the loans, versus someone taking on $22,000 a year for an NYU degree as an undergraduate. Those are, you know, I think those are radically different problems. The former being a severe problem and the latter, perhaps not. That’s just my own view on that, but I wonder, you know, do you feel like this is indeed something where the federal government should, as part of its year of spending do some sort of moratorium or reset?
MC: Right now it’s political pandering, and it will produce no outcome that will benefit the outcome of the society overall. The real problem we have is you have a poorly managed, poorly executed student loan program. Student loans should be for people going to college, pursuing their college work having a chance to move forward. We should be incentivizing people to graduate. Most people that have student loans have no degree. So we should be talking about how to help them to finish their degree by perhaps giving them a different deal on their loan if they need one to move forward. We also have a number of failed for-profit universities, which have completely bastardized the entire student loan outcome. You’ve got schools that have debt-to-degree ratios where you have $150,000 of debt per degree, across the student body.
I mean, these are things that have to be sorted out. And then there are also failures in the system. We wish that we could be held accountable. So if people are coming in with low interest student loans backed up by the government to ASU, we want to be accountable for their success. So we need to be able to work with the government to have that student loan work, because the outcome, both financial and life outcomes for the student, is dramatically enhanced if they graduate. And if they don’t graduate and they have that indebtedness, now you’re talking real problems. So we have a student graduation crisis, we have a completion crisis, and then we have some loan sorting out to do. We’ve got everything, as you said, Zachary, into one pot. And we call it a massive crisis when, in fact, you know, you’ve got medical school loans in there and law school loans in there. You’ve got loans for students that took out $400,000 of loans to go to, you know, four years at Harvard and two years of graduate school. And so they thought that was the right calculation, and maybe it was. And so we’ve got to sort all of that out.
ZK: All right. So final question, which I’m going to give as the ultimate softball to Scott, because someone asked it in the chat. So I thought I would do it, which is, what do we think of tenure, and can these changes go on productively under the conditions of a tenure system? You have 90 seconds to make a passionate soapbox.
MC: I’m playing the violin for you, Scott. Go ahead.
SG: There we go. Look, tenure, like a lot of things, it started out as a great idea. We needed—when somebody said that the world might be round and not flat, we needed to provide them with protection. And in the humanities department, in the law school, people, when they say provocative things, deserve the license and the freedom and the protection to say provocative things to move our society forward. I’ll speak for the business school. You know, the difference between gap one and gap two and deep water and blue-water economics: no one is going to be burnt at the stake. And I believe that, effectively, tenure, we have social services or social nets for the poor or the undereducated in the form of food stamps or unemployment, and now we have social welfare for the overeducated in the form of tenure.
I think it’s a racket. I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s nothing but a transfer of debt. Tenure equals debt on young people who have seen their wealth cut in half. They used to control 19% of the nation’s wealth; now it’s 9%. I work with the finest faculty in the world. A third of them should be put on an ice flow. Tenure is nothing but an excuse for them to be obstructionist and exceptionally overpaid as they’re obstructionist, such that a young person can’t afford a house, can’t get married, can’t start a business. Tenure is the most corrupt union in the United States. And until we have class traitors that say, “look, you’re good. I’m going to pay you a lot of money, but boss, you’ve got to pull your weight,” similar to every household and every business in America, we are going to continue to transfer wealth from young people to incompetent people with PhDs.
ZK: You know, when I wrote that book 20 years ago called “What’s College For?”, which, you know, seems like a long time, but many of the issues—a lot of what Scott was saying, and all of you—remain very similar. Although we may be at a disruption point, the pace of change, to continue Scott’s ice flow metaphor, has been glacial at best in higher education. The joke was that I should have subtitled it “Or Why I Can’t Get a Job”. “Can’t” Being the double entendre of can’t—”won’t,” and can’t—”no one would ever hire me.” So there is that, you know, continual issue of higher education, it’s need to be heterodox and the drive to be orthodox. And, you know, I think these questions are so fascinating and crucial, you know, that higher education ends up being this chrysalis of “Who are we?” “What are we?” “What are we going to be?” And “What are our aspirations?”
And the one thing I can say from this conversation—and I’m not just saying it because we’ve had it, I’m saying it because I actually think it—is that, you know, the passion and energy that all of you have, both in the, you know, in Scott’s sense of outrage at how things are, but also in the sense of constructive outrage about, look, we could do so much better, you know? And Michael, you are doing so much better. And Sylvia, you are newly entered into this but are now passionately part of it. My hope is that all of you act as exemplars that move this sort of weird, lumbering, hopefully not titanic ship forward in a constructive way.
And I think higher education in the United States remains, with all of its problems, one of the signal achievements, collectively, of us as a culture that is a real powerful strength that I hope all of you remain central to, and that we’re all sort of part of. And, you know, part of the point of launching this Progress Network, again, is, let’s pay attention to what we’re going to do to move ourselves forward constructively and not waste huge amounts of time, either convinced that everything is going to hit the shoals and sink or focused endlessly, not on what we’re going to do about it, but on what can’t be done. And I think all of you are, you know, in various ways, really constructively focusing on that. And I’m really privileged to have had this conversation.
For all of those who are listening, please sign up for the newsletter. We keep doing these events and this will be posted in various and sundry platforms in the coming weeks. And thank you, Emma Varvaloucas, as usual, for making this all possible.
EV: Thanks everyone. Good night.
ZK: Have a great night. Thank you.
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