University presidents say they have been blindsided by charges that they are catering to the wealthy at the same moment that conservatives attack them for elitism, turning their once-untouchable institutions into political punching bags.
POLITICO talked to more than a dozen college and university presidents, from small colleges to Ivy League universities and top public institutions, who expressed fear that they’re losing public and political support at an alarming rate.
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The GOP’s tax plan is the clearest and most recent example of that backlash – and college presidents say it was a wake-up call. While the colleges successfully fended off some aspects of the plan they detested the most, the sweeping changes to the tax code would still target universities in a way they’ve never been targeted before, taxing the richest private schools’ endowments.
Chastened, university presidents acknowledge they bear some responsibility.
“It’s not enough anymore to just say, ‘trust us,'” Yale President Peter Salovey said. “There is an attempt to build a narrative of colleges and universities as out of touch and not politically diverse, and I think … we have a responsibility to counter that — both in actions and in how we present ourselves.”
Rice University president David Leebron put it this way: “If you go back 15 years, I think universities were held — not where the military is, but pretty much just below that. Now, we’ve fallen a lot. I think it’s a very challenging time where we can’t just go out in the world and say, ‘We’re an esteemed institution’ and people will credit what we’re saying.”
Added Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina and U.S. Education secretary under President George W. Bush: “We’ve long enjoyed a, ‘Send us the money and leave us alone’ kind of phenomenon. If we’re so great and have a great story to tell, let’s prove it.”
The presidents also said they’re trying desperately to address perceptions of elitism by taking every speaking engagement they can — touting their positive impacts on their communities to local civic groups, lawmakers and alumni. They’re drafting op-eds and sending them to any publication that will take them. They’re writing letters and economic impact statements for legislators. Some colleges are also working to recruit conservative students and students from rural areas more aggressively.
They say they haven’t received credit for the steps they’ve taken to address the widespread economic inequality on college campuses by pouring millions into financial aid, especially for low-income and working-class students, who rarely pay the full sky-high sticker prices at the nation’s most elite schools.
But complaints about the role of universities in American society have come from both sides of the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats alike have blasted rapidly rising tuition costs, which have rendered even some public universities unaffordable to many students. Liberals have expressed alarm at the extent to which top universities cater to the wealthy — pointing to a highly cited study this year showing that some universities are enrolling more students from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent combined.
Republicans, including the Trump administration and the president himself, have complained that free speech is being stifled on campuses and have questioned the value of a four-year degree for some students. Polls show Republicans growing particularly critical of higher education — but Democrats, especially working-class Democrats, also may be losing faith.
One poll found as many as 58 percent of Republicans say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. Less than half of households making less than $75,000 a year who identify as Democrats have confidence in higher education, according to another.
Some presidents said they blame themselves for failing to communicate the good they do for society — educating young people, finding cures for diseases and often acting as major job creators. While the presidents tended to defend their own policies, some said that other schools have concentrated too much on prestige — often in the form of a better spot on college rankings with measures shown to feed inequality on campus — and done too little to help Americans move up the economic ladder.
But there was also an element of defensiveness. Many argue the backlash they’ve faced is part of a larger societal rethinking of major institutions, and that they’re victims of a political cynicism that isn’t necessarily related to their actions. University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, for one, compared public attitudes toward universities with distrust of Congress, the legal system, the voting system and the presidency.
“We are part of that, and again, it’s not surprising we’re part of that when you’re at the point where even basic science is being questioned,” she said. “It’s hard not to say there’s some purposeful attempt to distort and diminish the value of higher education — and that’s concerning.”
Cauce said that only increases the pressure to counter those perceptions.
“I think this has been a wake-up call that we do have to do more to let the public know what’s true,” Cauce said. “It’s not enough to say the perceptions aren’t accurate. We have to figure out how do we really communicate that to the public. We’re educators so we should be able to figure how.”
Cauce said she recently wrote to every high school principal in the state of Washington reminding them that most low-income students can attend the University of Washington free of charge and asking them to have their counselors push the message to students who might think they can’t afford to attend.
University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias agreed, calling on more presidents to step up: “We have to prove our value. We should not take for granted that the general public knows the difference we make. And we have to pound that message again and again.”
The pressure has mounted at a crucial time for colleges and universities, as Republicans are putting the final touches on a new tax code that could, among other things, tax the endowments of the nation’s richest private schools — a move those schools argue would set a dangerous precedent by creating new groups in the tax code — and make other changes, including to the standard deduction, that college leaders fear will discourage the charitable giving many schools rely on.
Congress, meanwhile, has begun rewriting the Higher Education Act, the sweeping law governing higher education that could significantly overhaul student financial aid programs. The House GOP’s rewrite of the law, which passed out of committee this month, was deeply unpopular with higher education groups, who argued it would make college more expensive by rolling back some student aid programs, among other things. The bill made it out of committee as it was written, with higher education leaders’ complaints making little difference.
“I think the political environment is shifting and that more people are recognizing the need for real accountability when it comes to higher education access and completion,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told POLITICO.
Coons and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) recently filed a bill that would charge a penalty to colleges with the smallest populations of students on Pell Grants, the main federal aid program for low-income students and the traditional measure of low-income enrollment. Coons said he hopes those proposals find their way into the Senate’s Higher Education Act rewrite.
“As Congress begins to work on revising the Higher Education Act, we’re going to have important, and hopefully constructive debates about how to work with both underperforming schools struggling to graduate students and selective institutions that aren’t doing enough for low-income students,” Coons said.
The pending rewrite of the higher education law, along with the Republican tax plan, both factored into a recent decision by Moody’s Investors Services to downgrade higher education’s fiscal outlook to negative. But the decision was also driven by financial woes many schools are facing, as tuition revenues have stagnated as public pressure has kept many schools from raising their sticker prices and charging full freight.
“Affordability remains a primary area of focus, with a market that is increasingly sensitive to higher education’s price versus perceived value,” the Moody’s report said.
Some leaders see the Republican tax plan as a particularly dangerous shot. Higher education, they fear, has become defined as a liberal constituency in a way that could continue to erode support at the federal and state levels. Critics, however, have argued schools haven’t done enough to control tuition. Others have blasted universities for restricting speech by creating free speech zones and pushing similar policies.
“The public has become increasingly disenchanted with the way higher education is reacting in this very hypersensitive world,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, who has led colleges — including large publics like Ohio State and elite privates like Brown — for more than two decades. “Universities and colleges, which for many years were viewed in the highest regard, have themselves become much of this public angst.”
Gee, unlike some of his colleagues, believes the schools themselves are mostly to blame.
“Those institutions driven by prestige are the ones that have lost their moorings in a lot of ways,” Gee said. “Obviously it’s pervasive because we’re seeing it reflected in politics right now. I think we’re seeing it reflected in the fact that higher education continues to lose support from the general public.”
The problem, however, has been building for some time. Years of tuition increases, for instance, have led students and their parents to question whether they can afford to attend the best schools, and whether it’s worth it. The data are clear that a college education is worth it — it’s among the most effective routes to boost salaries and professional status.
But it’s also become clear that many elite colleges serve mostly wealthy students. Data released this year by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a group of economists who used tax records to study campus economic trends from 2000 to 2011, make the case. At Princeton, 17 percent of students come from families in the top 1 percent of earners and just 14 percent are from the bottom 60, according to the data. At Yale, 18 percent of students come from the top 1 percent; just 16 percent come from the bottom 60.
It’s not just the Ivy League. At the University of Michigan, just 16 percent of its student body comes from the bottom 60 percent of earners, according to the data. More than 8 percent of University of Virginia students are from the top 1 percent and just 15 percent from the bottom 60 percent of earners. At the University of Alabama, it’s 6 percent and 21 percent.
“Access, affordability has got to be part of it,” Tulane University President Mike Fitts said. “People feel like these institutions are the gatekeepers to success in society … they can’t feel like they’re shut out and their kids are shut out.”
College leaders argue that — especially in recent years, as public pressure has mounted — they’ve worked to change the trend, including spending more money on need-based aid and boosting low-income enrollment and taking a fresh look at their admissions standards, which have long benefited wealthy students.
Yale, for instance, has seen 50-percent increases in the number of students attending on Pell Grants and first-generation students on campus over the past six years, Salovey said. In this fall’s entering class, 16 percent were Pell eligible and 17 percent were first generation.
Cauce said the University of Washington spends about $430 million on financial aid a year and that there are currently 10,000 undergraduates attending free of charge.
But few people know about the progress that has been made — and public resentment has taken root.
Cauce said she regularly asks people in Seattle how much they believe her university charges for tuition. She usually hears a figure in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. The sticker price is actually just under $11,000 for in-state students.
“There have been some who have been thinking that universities are accumulating endowments and that these are not being deployed,” said Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis. But, Wrighton said, his university covers the full cost — “that’s room, board and tuition” — for students who can’t afford to attend. Still, he concedes, “when you look at the sticker price, it is off-putting.”
“The word is not getting out as effectively as we would like,” he added.
Universities also need to learn from the moment and become much more reflective and open to criticism, some say.
“We resist accountability at our peril,” said Spellings, adding that colleges and universities are being asked to “provide higher levels of education at a lower cost.” By 2020, she said, 70 percent of jobs will require a postsecondary education. College is “exactly the cure for economic mobility.”
“We’re being asked to do what higher education has never been asked to do before,” Spellings said. “We’ve always done a pretty good job of educating elites in this country. … Until our colleges and universities reflect the demographics of the state, we have work to do.”