Matrix On Point

Matrix on Point: The Future of College

The pandemic has rocked higher education. From Zoom classrooms to students leaving higher education, colleges have needed to change modalities to adapt to public health risks and the emergence of new technologies. Enrollment patterns are also shifting in a changing economy: while selective flagship public institutions and not-for-profit private institutions are receiving more applications, enrollments have declined, especially among lower-income students. What are the implications of these changes for economic mobility and racial equality?

On October 5, 2023, Social Science Matrix hosted a panel discussion featuring a group of scholars discussing the current state of higher education — and what lies ahead.  Presented by UC Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix as part of the Matrix on Point event series, and co-sponsored by the Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE), the panel included Jonathan Glater, Professor of Law and Associate Dean, J.D. Curriculum and Teaching at Berkeley Law; Michal Kurlaender, Chancellor’s Leadership Professor at the UC Davis School of Education; and Mitchell Stevens, Professor of Education at Stanford University. The panel was moderated by Lisa García Bedolla , UC Berkeley’s Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate Division, and a Professor in the School of Education.

Watch the panel above or on YouTube.

Listen to this event as a podcast below (or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts). A transcript of the event is available below.


[MARION FOURCADE] Hello, everybody. Welcome to this panel. My name is Marion Fourcade. I’m the director of Social Science Matrix. And as someone who has been witnessing the transformation of college firsthand, the topic of today’s panel is very dear to my heart– the pandemic, new technologies, recent Supreme Court decisions and a changing economy have rocked higher education.

The burden of student debt has become unsustainable. And affirmative action has been struck down. The diffusion of new, more decentralized modes of learning and knowledge production poses real challenges to the college model as does the arrival of computer programs that can write decent college essays.

Meanwhile, a cultural shift is brewing. The world is burning. And young people seem to crave for something different. So we thought now was a good time to ask experts, what lies ahead for higher education? And what are the implications of these changes for economic mobility and the pursuit of social justice? So we have a phenomenal group of scholars to help us discuss these questions.

Today’s event is co-sponsored by the Center for Studies in Higher Education. It is part of our matrix on point series where we address contemporary issues. So our next event in this series, which you may see soon on the next slide, it will be on October 31, where we will discuss San Francisco’s so-called doom loop, sorry, not the boom loop but the doom loop and the future of commercial real estate.

We also have several Authors Meet Critics events scheduled on Tuesday, October 17. We will discuss Massimo Mazzotti’s new book, Reactionary Mathematics. On November 14, we’ll discuss Dylan Penningroth book Before the Movement about civil rights, activism before the civil rights movement. So I know we do have an online, a quite substantial online audience. So you know drill. You just put your questions in the Q&A and not in the chat. So just make sure you do that. We’ll collect your questions. And we will ask them at the end.

Let me now turn back to today’s panel and introduce our moderator. So Lisa García Bedolla is Berkeley’s vice provost for graduate studies, and dean of the graduate division, and a professor in the School of Education. She uses the tools of social science to reveal the causes of educational and political inequalities in the United States, considering differences across the lines of ethnorace, gender, class, geography, and more.

She believes an intersectional and interdisciplinary approach is critical to recognizing the complexity of the contemporary United States. She has used a variety of social science methods to shed light on this question. And while doing all of this, she’s a proud mom of three young adults. One of whom is in high school. Professor García Bedolla earned her PhD in political science from Yale University and her BA in Latin American studies and comparative literature from UC Berkeley. So without further ado, I can turn over to Lisa.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] Thank you so much. I’m just going to stay here and just say, in addition to everything that’s been said, as a parent of a brand new college freshman, and having gone through the college application process now twice in the last four years, and just seeing it from that side, it’s an important time to really think about that process and what exactly is happening in higher education. And I’m happy to have such a distinguished panel to help us tease out those questions.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to introduce the three panelists and then have them so we don’t interrupt the flow of the talks. And then go ahead and start with Professor Stevens. So Mitchell Stevens, who’s to my left, he’s a professor of education at Stanford. He’s an organizational sociologist with long standing interests in educational sequences, lifelong learning, alternative educational forms, and the formal organization of knowledge.

His most recent book entitled Seeing the World– How US Universities Make Knowledge in a Global Era was co-authored with Cynthia Miller-Idriss, and Seteney Shami, with John Mitchell. He co-directs the Stanford pathways lab.

Michal Kurlaender is a chancellor’s leadership professor at UC Davis School of Education. Her research investigates students’ educational pathways, particularly K-12 and post-secondary alignment and access to and success in higher education. She has expertise on alternative pathways to college and college readiness at both community colleges, and four-year colleges, and universities across the country, and in all three of California’s public higher education sectors.

Kurlaender’s work focuses on the causes and consequences of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities through the educational life course and the impact of institutional policies and practices aimed at attenuating educational inequality. She also studies the impact of racial and ethnic diversity on student outcomes, including mandatory and voluntary K-12 school desegregation efforts, persistent inequalities and segregated schools, and diversity in post-secondary settings.

And last but not least, our lawyer is batting cleanup, Jonathan Glater, joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 2021. His research has focused on the ways that law promotes and limits access to education, especially higher education and the impact that education debt has on educational opportunities.

His recent publications include Qualified Sovereignty, Pandemic Possibilities, Rethinking Measures of Merit, The Civil Rights Case for Student Debt Reform. And he is also co-author with Amy Gajda on a casebook, The Law and Higher Education– Cases and Materials on Colleges in Court.

Professor Glater teaches courses like education law and policy, criminal law, and disability law. He’s also the faculty director of the Center on Consumer Law and Economic Justice here at Berkeley. And with Dalie Jimenez, he is also co-founder and co-director of the Student Loan Law Initiative, an interdisciplinary partnership with student borrower protection center, devoted to the study of the effects of student debt.

In 2023, he was named a member of the California Civil Rights council, a volunteer body tasked with developing regulations that implement California’s civil rights laws. He also serves as co-chair of the New York City Bar Association’s committee on education and the law. And so with that, we will start with Professor Stevens.

[MITCHELL STEVENS] Well, thanks, everyone. Am I good in Zoom land? Can someone affirm that? OK, great. Just delighted to have this opportunity. Special gratitude to those who gave up some of their warm San Francisco summer afternoon to be here. Especially in person, you’re rewarded with a little air conditioning, which I’m enjoying myself.

When I was invited by Marianne to join this conversation, I said yes right away, partly because I was very impressed by the co-panelists, whose work I rely on, partly because Berkeley is a very good place to think with as a student of higher education. And third, because the question posed by the panel is one that I think a lot about.

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions on racial affirmative action and student loan forgiveness, a lot of people across the country are asking, what happens now? Many have talked about higher education being at an inflection point for some period of time? And there’s an increased sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, anxiety about how this creature that occupies such a central role in American political, culture, and economic life will move forward.

And so what I’ve been trying to do in my own work is to place current controversies in a longer historical arc. I’m doing that in tandem with my colleague Rick Banks in the law school at Stanford, Emily Levine an historian in the graduate School of Education at Stanford, among others nationally.

So what I want to do in my few minutes today is offer some provocations for thinking about this particular moment in the context of American higher education and political culture since 1945. And I’m going to do a Schoolhouse Rock version of a Schoolhouse Rock version of a complicated history. I’m going to emphasize, basically, four points.

And this comes out of maybe a 20-year effort for me. I’ve been trying to figure out what a university is. It’s a harder question than one might think. I think of higher education, especially in the United States in the way that one of my art history professors described the Italian Peninsula, is that it rewards and exhausts a lifetime of exploration. You’re never quite done.

But we have made some progress, I think, on answering the question of, what is a university? And I’m going to trouble you with a tiny, tiny bit of theory here. I want to suggest that universities or higher education– I’m going to use universities and higher education interchangeably today, which is a problem because most of higher education in the United States is not a university.

But for the purposes of my Schoolhouse Rock Schoolhouse Rock, I think it’s probably going to be reasonable. OK, and they’re very complicated organizations. And it’s a complicated institutional domain. I have argued in large measure because it is simultaneously multiple things.

It partakes of organizational templates, organizational rules, cultural logics, styles of reasoning, emotional commitments that are native to the major sectors of contemporary life. Sometimes they are direct extensions of state to the extent that they’re publicly funded and regulated. Sometimes they have many business-like characteristics. They operate in many ways like business firms.

They are philanthropic organizations as well. They are members of civil society. They are not quote “not for profit” unquote organizations. And they also organize the private sphere in American life to some extent, to a considerable extent. We put the names of our colleges and universities on our children’s clothing, on our automobiles. We think of ourselves as Golden Bears, and Trees, and Cardinals. They get linked to conceptions of clan and family in ways that are really important.

And so I’ve argued that higher education kind of sits at the intersection of those different domains and partakes in all of them. And that makes them really complex empirically. I have increasingly convinced that it requires us to have a distinctive political theory of higher education. They’re like a jackalope, a hybrid creature.

And I think this is really important, especially because a lot of social science tries to work from a single premise. So a lot of social scientists say, well, Stanford or Berkeley, they’re really like– they’re really like business firms. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And it’s like, well, Stanford or Berkeley are like business firms in the same way that a mermaid is a fish.

I mean, if you presume that Stanford or Berkeley are primarily firms, you radically miss a lot of their complexity. So I’ll come back to that. But I want to just suggest that we’re dealing with a very– if we’re thinking about the future of something, we’re thinking about the future of a very peculiar organizational and institutional form.

OK, all right. So four big points after that. One is I want to remind us, this isn’t news, that in the decades immediately following World War II, US elites in government and higher education created a truly novel, like never before in world history, social welfare project. They transformed post-secondary education into a massive vehicle for social economic mobility that had never happened before.

The idea that college would be a vehicle for social mobility, except among a very small number of carefully circumscribed populations in particular empires and nation states had never happened before. And it’s remarkable to me how deeply that’s now taken for granted in the United States. But that really is a post 1945 idea.

And it was a peculiar form of social welfare. And I’ve been actually thrown out of rooms more or less by calling college welfare because, of course, in the United States, we put welfare in a bucket and higher education in another. That’s part of its magic. That’s part of its jackalopeness, I would suggest. But we did that in a very short period of time between 1945 and 1980. And it’s really– I used to think, OK.

I use this quote from Louis Menand a lot. Between 1945 and 1975, we had 500% expansion in undergraduate education, overnight. Yeah, good. I like 10 better than 5. OK, good. But I really appreciate that. And that, again, another massive social fact that’s almost completely naturalized. Oh, yeah. That happened.

And now we live in this new world with the University of California system, as if these things have always been there. They haven’t always been there. They weren’t there the day before yesterday. I think that’s a really, really important. And this thing about elites, this was not a poor people’s movement. This was not a movement at the margins. That massification was an active collaboration, we might call it a collusion, right between business, political, and academic elites.

We got Fred Terman here. We’ve got our friend Clark Kerr. We’ve got another academic statesman in the region, Emil Mrak who was the chancellor of UC Davis between 1959 and 1969. These were mostly, well-educated technocratic white guys, mostly. OK, this was a rich– this was an upper middle class, technocratic, voted for– endorsed by Republican economic development movement, if you will.

Now, not all of the academic statesmen, as I call them, were overeducated white dudes. We’ve got a great academic statesman on the right. That’s Mordecai Johnson, who was the first African-American president of Howard University, served from the 1920s to the 1960s, transformed that institution. So this revolution was not mono racial by any sense, but it was an elite movement. It was propagated by elites and often by political conservatives.

They did that under very specific historical conditions, which are now over. OK, what were those specific historical conditions? Well, there was the conclusion of World War II and massive anxiety among those same white technocratic elites about the perils, the risk of socialism and communism in the United States, and anxiety about the returning of hundreds of thousands of white men to an economy in which there was a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity.

There was a desire to reward those men, and manage their re-absorption into the labor market. Hugely important, not only because it changed how higher education was provided but because it tied higher education. It made it a legitimate reward for an important category of people, white male veterans. It fused the idea of citizen virtue right with higher education, doing that to manage important political anxieties.

And then this thing happened. And this is the Soviet launch, successful launch of Sputnik 1 into space in the 1950s, which created massive, again, almost uniform anxiety among those same technocratic elites and a sense of emergency to dramatically expand the human capital capacity of the nation state.

Soon after that, the Civil Rights movement creates both a challenge for the Johnson administration and an opportunity for Johnson to expand a progressive social vision for social mobility and inclusion, which then gets tied as well to the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

So you’ve got a war conclusion, a Cold War, a civil rights movement, a war on poverty, and unprecedented national prosperity. That’s what gave us the social welfare miracle that is the massification of higher education in the United States. For many people, it was fun while it lasted.

All right, so well– and that’s how you get these organizational miracles that we now inherit. And some of us have the privilege of living in– Stanford, Berkeley, Davis, that rich organizational ecology that now so many people worry is in peril. That’s all a function of this particular political and economic period. It didn’t last long. Well, why didn’t it last? Another complicated story, again, Schoolhouse Rock within Schoolhouse Rock.

But according to historians like the Berkeley-trained Robert Self, for example, the successes of the war on poverty in the middle of the 20th century in distributing public resources to Black and Brown people very quickly created anxiety among white voters about the legitimacy of redistributive projects, including higher education. As Self writes, it’s this part of the Bay Area that got us both the Black Panthers and Proposition 13.

So as that miracle of social provision begins to expand, white anxieties about that expansion very quickly begin to lessen citizen support for the expanded welfare state that the higher education of 1965 really, in fact, represented. Deindustrialization which begins in earnest in the 1970s breaks the Fordist contract with unions such that college becomes less discretionary for well compensated middle class lives.

So back in the day, you sent your two kids to the plant and your one kid to the University of Michigan. And she became an orthodontist in suburban Chicago. And that’s what social mobility was. But as the plants close, the necessity of having some other pathway into middle class prosperity puts pressure on post-secondary education, at the same time that public support for its provision is contracting.

And my colleagues Laura Hamilton at Merced and Kelly Nielsen write about this very nicely in the context of the public provision of higher educational resources in California. So I’m not making this stuff up. There’s plenty of places to go, but we’re still in Schoolhouse Rock. OK, so things change really quickly, very quickly.

Number three, and this is one that took me way too long to figure out, the project of using higher education for social mobility was always truncated and incomplete. And public commitment to it was always equivocal. I compare this to the high school diploma, which achieved the status of right in the United States in the early 20th century. And national consensus, cultural consensus by the end of the 20th century was if you don’t get a high school diploma, you haven’t failed high school. High school has failed you.

But no such social contract was ever accomplished for higher education. It was always a– it’s something you maybe are owed, maybe, but you also need to fund it yourself. And it depends on how virtuous you are, how much we’re going to help you. That’s how we ended up getting this $1.6 trillion in student loan debt with which Jonathan Glater knows so much about, and has shaped so many lives, and he’s now shaping a lot of political culture.

The Berkeley-trained sociologist, Beth Berman writes really nicely that that equivocation was baked into higher education provision as early as the 1970s, when the economist Alice Rivlin reasoned and argued successfully that higher education diploma is a mixed good. Because the society benefits from me getting a four-year degree, but so do I.

And so since the college diploma, apparently unlike a high school degree, is both a public and a private good, the compromise for financing was that financing of it would also be shared. So I point that out to say that there’s never been clarity in the United States about who is owed higher education and who’s responsible for paying for it, all the way from the very beginning.

OK, number four, yep, I’m almost done. And this is no surprise to those of us here. Four-year college degrees have come to divide America culturally, economically, politically, and even in terms of life expectancy, as we’ve learned recently from our colleagues in public economics.

There’s absolutely no question that this divide has come to shape American politics and perhaps contributed to political divisions that may or may not be irreparable. And I think we’re still– could take a while to figure out the extent to which the social provision projects of the Cold War created the conditions for the politics that we’re living today. And I have a bunch of easy solutions to this problem for over the next 35 seconds, which I’m going to say right– no.

I’m going to suggest, however, that all of these things are connected. The problems that we’re facing today are products of a long standing, still ongoing conversation about what higher education is, who deserves it, and who should pay for it. And there are a lot of unanswered– there’s a lot of questions that have been unanswered in American political culture to that question for generations.

So these aren’t new questions. It’s the conditions under which we’re being obliged to ask and answer them what have changed. So we could say what happens now. I would actually like to take a more active trying to say, what do we do now as agents and actors of history? Perhaps we are among those technocrats who built the future back in the 1950s and ’60s.

This is not a what happens next story. This is a what informed civic action do we want to mobilize for? Yes, I’m almost done. And then there’s, who is this we? Because last I checked, advocacy for higher education has itself become politicized. It has itself become identified with the left.

So if there is going to be a “we” like mobilization that’s going to include, I’ll say, my political opponents as well as those who agree with me, then some kind of narrative of shared fate and opportunity is going to have to be created if these enormous and increasingly divisive problems are going to be collectively addressed. I’ll stop there.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] And next we’ll hear from Professor Kurlaender.

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] That was great and tough to follow a Schoolhouse Rock presentation. All right, so I’m going to try, in my remarks, also try to make a few big points. But first, I will start with some trends on where most Americans go to college. I’ll get into the value proposition, is college still worth it? And then make three assertions about the future. And there’s some great connections and really appreciate the context of history here. So make some connections to the historical context.

All right, so just first– and I won’t have too many data figures, but just a few to situate our current context. And this is college enrollment rate over the years. If I had shown the 30 years that Mitchell had shown, you’d see just a huge increase in who’s going to college over the last century.

And then importantly, what to pay attention to now is the last 10 years of stagnation. And in particular, this is all 18 and 24-year-olds, but really, a stagnation and even decline since 2010, which is largely a function of declining birth cohorts. So this is the recession of the 2000s. But then also, we’re expecting an even bigger one as a result of declining shrinking birth rates from the Great Recession.

And so that is one of the reasons. Now of course, we’ve seen in the popular press. And I’m going to just put– this is the overall, the 38% roughly today. There’s been some rebound from the pandemic. It’s obviously higher among students who are going straight from high school. So that’s just good to put in context as well.

So again, we’re predicted to grow– to decline as much as 15% in the coming years, when what’s determined as a baby bust. But of course, if you’re following the popular press, it’s beyond just this declining birth rates, that there are other reasons why we might see declining rates of college enrollment. A big one is increasing cost of attendance, financial burden that’s been placed more on individuals than on our state systems. We’ll come back to that.

The pandemic was a particular decline. And that we know was mostly felt by low-income families. And it was felt at particular institutions. I’ll say more about that in a minute. There’s also been a strong labor market, which isn’t predicted to stay this strong for this long. And then finally, there’s this question of value right which we’re seeing. And I’ll speak to that as well.

All right, so I wanted to show this just to remind us because I know we’re going to spend some time on college selectivity. But I just wanted to first just show the distribution of enrollment by selectivity. This is from Nick Hillman’s work. Actually, Mitchell has a lovely one by race in the New York Times opinion piece that you had published with Richard Arum, which I also like as well.

So this just shows you the distribution of enrollment by selectivity. And since we spent a lot of time focused on those selective colleges, including Berkeley, and Harvard, and UNC. And in fact, a very small share of students are enrolled in these selective institutions that are represented here in the purple.

What I like about the Opportunity Insights income data is it allows us to even look at the top 0.1%. And so we can see this elite. And there’s been a lot in the press around– a few great papers that have come out on those elite institutions. But then again, just note that broad access, that yellow if you will, which is where the majority– between the yellow and the moderately selective, where yellow is over 80% of students accepted.

Sometimes the 100% of students accepted is where the majority of US students go to school. And in particular, it’s where low income students are going to school. It’s where I spend most of my time thinking about. And California has a really great system, the community college system where we have seen some of these most dramatic kind of declines and persistence issues in the pandemic.

I wanted to show you– since my lab and work we do connects the California, just to bring it close to home. In California, we have a unique system. In fact, ours– if I showed the US rates, you’d see that about 70% of students are enrolled at four-year institutions. We have a reverse system here because of our big community college system. In fact, 1 in almost 4 community college system students in the country is a California Community college student.

So on the top here, you see all California public high school students. You’ll see about 31%, this is in the year right before– the year right before the pandemic, don’t go on to any college. And 37% go on to a community college. 13% go to a CSU, 8% to UC, and then some private and out of state.

SED means the students who are in K-12 identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. And so we see more of them don’t go on to college. And about the same rates are across the segments. The other important thing to note here is, also, the lower rates of overall college enrollment among Black and Latinx students and the really high rates of community college enrollment, more generally in the state relative to the country.

Finally, you might note that Asian students have the highest overall in rate enrollments at UC. And that’s by a lot, at 22%. That’s the green bar. So the goal here is just to be able to look at how this opportunity across California is distributed across a variety of groups. So just our own context.

So what do we know about an increasingly complex enrollment profiles? So today’s college student we know is a much more complex student than the era that Mitchell described. Today’s student is more likely to be enrolling part time, to be working while in school, to have attended multiple institutions, that is to pause and maybe restart.

And what we know is that they don’t necessarily stop out. That they start– they might start later, start after working for a period, pause in enrollment. And so the majority of today’s college students look very different than the college students of a half a century ago. And we also know that there are many off-ramps for students in colleges– so too few on-ramps and too many off-ramps.

And that there’s a lack of articulation between the institutions that many students transfer in and out of. All right, so with that, we are not surprised then, perhaps, that the completion outcomes are quite weak in college overall. And again, so here– I’m sorry. I thought you were giving me a time zone. I know I’m talking fast though.

So what’s important is, as we know more students are going to college than ever before, again, save for the declining birth rates. But we also know that completion rates have stayed largely stagnant and have even declined for some minority groups. And so overall, the completion rate is about 68% of students overall. But we also see that there are big differences by gender. Women are more likely to finish than are men.

Students who start immediately after high school are more likely to finish. And we see a similar pattern by race as we did with enrollment. That is Asian students are much more likely to finish. And here I should have said, finish four-year institution means getting a bachelor’s degree, a two-year institution. These are six years later.

These are students who aren’t finishing with even any credential, as long as six years after. And so in fact, about 1 in 3 students who enter community colleges leave– don’t return after a year of even starting. So the completion outcomes, even for associate’s degrees, are quite low in our system, which has also added to the critique of, what’s the value? No, this is national, national data.

All right, so is college still worth it? And lots of press on this. I’m happy to get some pushback on this as we continue to a conversation. But the short answer is, yes, period, full stop, as we see average wage premiums. And in particular, that just means over the course of a lifetime, we know that. And there’s several estimates for this.

But on average, there’s like a 68% increase in your overall life– of your lifetime earnings, comparing college recipients to those who don’t get a college degree. We also know that in the knowledge economy, there’s a huge demand projected to be a huge shortage of college educated workers in the coming decade.

Lots and lots of research on the personal well-being or the connection, the correlation between getting a college degree and other life outcomes. And that includes everything from health indicators– from even happiness metrics. Again, these are all endogenous and correlated items, but even civic participation. I bring you to several organizations that show the ways in which education pays.

There’s also public benefits. And Mitchell referred to those. And that’s everything from the likelihood of not being unemployed, to increased wages, but also for civil society in terms of the likelihood of voting. So great economic and civic benefits to a college degree. And yet we still see critiques.

So what are the caveats? And this has gotten a lot of attention in the recent years, looking at average wealth premiums and other metrics to look at return on investment, if you will. So first, we know that the degree completion matters. And so that premium really comes about from completing a college degree.

We also know that there are important differences by fields of study. And we also know that the debt and the increased cost of college has made that wage premium smaller than it ought to be, that is middle class families who have spent huge amounts of money to get their student into school have now less wealth to presumably transfer on to their children.

All right, so I’m going to make three assertions around the path forward. The first is perhaps an obvious one and will be connected across our three talks, I think, which is to address the affordability. So that is a restrengthening, maybe after Mitchell’s talk, a restrengthening in the public investment.

So we’ve known that, basically, individuals have had to bear the brunt of the increased cost of college as opposed to state systems and federal systems to reduce the debt. And to really– the conversation in California has really been also accounting for the full cost of attendance.

Lots of financial aid reform in California is featured around how to increase the basic needs of students to be able to live in the state while going to school, so housing. And that includes community college students who are also living in the same expensive state despite the lower tuition that they experience relative to the four-year.

And the other one, which I hope we’ll have some more time to talk about is what our institutions– what we can learn from the pandemic. And that is about sustained flexibility. And what do I mean by that? I mean higher education today looks very different than it did than March of 2020. And so we have done what faculty and our institutions never wanted to do in most places, not in all places, and have completely transformed.

Some have transformed back, but most have not. At least at the places that I study like California’s community colleges, they have not. And so they have really leaned in to the flexibility that students are demanding. Learning modalities, enrollment processes, getting rid of a 15-week semester to smaller blocks of units. A whole host of complete transformation that has come about.

As part of that flexibility also means that students, especially students in California have had to carry their pathways on their back, so to speak. What do I mean by that? I mean our systems don’t speak to each other. So students who stop and pause really pay the price and have the onus on them to figure out how to complete college when they’ve paused and stopped. And so we need much better flexibility and articulation between our systems of education.

And then finally, partly because the good that might come out of the public critique is more outcome driven policies, that is student completion, and equity, and completion. And so that is things like performance funding, which we’ll come to be in the California Community Colleges. CSU, while not done this way, has had a grad initiative that has really motivated the system to try to improve completion rates and to improve four-year completion rates in a four-year institution which shouldn’t take six years.

So what I would argue is that the pandemic has allowed us to realize some opportunities in this urgency and in recovery. And I have lots of examples from the community college and the four-year public systems in California about the ways in which they are trying to be flexible, to be a more concierge-style educators, education systems of the kind that for profits were doing before the pandemic, partly because that’s what many of their students demand.

So meeting the needs of today’s college students requires this institutional agility, I argue, and increased public investment, not just to, in terms of money, to reduce the cost to individuals but to support institutions to keep adapting. A lot of money came in recovery. Is that money going to go away to sustain the kind of adaptability that these institutions need to be able to keep responding to student needs? I think I finished in time. OK.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] About two minutes on the table. And as we transition to Professor Glater, I just want to add one more piece. We just did some polling in the Central Valley at least in California. And among those folks who didn’t go to college, the most common answer was affordability.

And I think it really speaks to our lack of communication about the fact that, in fact, these schools are much more affordable than they seem based on the sticker price. And so I think we’ve also not done a very good job in higher education of making clear the types of scholarships and supports that are available to the students on that other end of your graph. They were sobering results. Professor Glater.

[JONATHAN GLATER] OK, thank you. And thank you for coming out and enjoying the air conditioning with us. My name is Jonathan Glater. I teach at the law school here at Berkeley. And it’s really remarkable to speak after the two who have gone before me, who have really presented an incredibly sophisticated and nuanced description of where we are and how we got there.

As the lawyer on the group, my job is to pour cold water over everything. My contribution will be, I hope, both to put the challenges facing higher education in the present moment in the context of law and to provide a way of thinking about those challenges thematically. So I’m going to offer a framework along the lines that Mitchell did or I’m going to try to.

And it has these three elements– money and merit or excellence, if you like, but then you lose the alliteration. So money, and merit, and meaning which could also be institutional mission. And I want to suggest to you that contests over each of these terms are becoming more and more intense, which both means that access to higher education is under greater threat right now. But it also means that the possibility of radical change exists too.

And I’m going to try and convince you that that’s what it means to be at, what Mitchell called, an inflection point right now in higher education. So the cost of higher education over the past 50 to 60 years has increasingly been borne by students and their families for reasons that have already been touched on. Tuition growth has outstripped family earnings. And students and their families have responded by borrowing. This is the money problem.

OK, student debt now burdens tens of millions of students, undermining that promise of social mobility and personal financial security that higher education is supposed to offer. I say this recognizing that higher education is not just about return on investment, but when the price tag gets big enough, it’s very difficult not to focus on the money. That has a remarkable way of concentrating one’s attention.

OK, so I’m not talking about college as a useful tool to make our lives more interesting and the world more comprehensible. That’s dropped out of the discussion because the debt burdens are too great for people to focus on that. So debt is a complicated– and that’s the point of this quote. So I don’t want to lose sight of this idea that there is more to higher education than the finance.

Debt is a complicated policy instrument. It makes higher education accessible, but it also makes that access riskier. And that risk in turn means, for some students, the investment in higher education is a terrible deal. It’s a bad investment. For other students, repayment obligations can affect career plans, life plans, family plans.

We get more research on this almost every day. And the experience of the global pandemic has exacerbated differences along socioeconomic lines, leaving less wealthy people and lower income people more precarious. Of course, there’s a racial dimension to this too because of, who needs to borrow larger amounts? Who has more or less wealth? Who has higher or lower income?

Black people in particular, we tend to borrow more and struggle in repayment more, not least because we tend to earn lower wages. And some advocates of cancelation have characterized student debt cancelation as a racial justice initiative for this reason. During the pandemic, student loan obligations were suspended, a teasing experiment of what broad-based cancelation might look like.

Borrowers now face those obligations. And many of them are worse off financially post-pandemic than they were before. So I’m going to return to cancelation in a moment, because that’s another way that law enters the story. But it’s important to note first that student debt is a creation of law. We talk about student debt– again to Mitchell’s point, we take this thing for granted.

But pre-1958, really, it was just– it was like borrowing using a credit card. It was just debt. The idea of student debt is something that is unusual, that has particular characteristics, that is treated exceptionally by the bankruptcy code, all of that is statutory. That’s all new. We take it for granted, but the government can change the terms on which higher education is offered. States can change the terms on which higher education is offered.

So fulfilling a campaign promise, the Biden administration attempted last year to cancel a huge swath of student indebtedness. This is really a remarkable, political event and something to bear in mind as we’re thinking about what’s possible going forward. This was a fringe idea, as the media characterized it prior to Biden’s move to do it, that moved all the way to the center of political discourse, and then to the federal Supreme Court.

If you would ask me three years ago whether student debt would present itself as an issue to the federal Supreme Court, I would have laughed and said that’s absurd. Because both I wouldn’t think cancelation would be a viable political move. And I wouldn’t expect the court to have any interest in taking up the issue as salient to law.

Cancelation would have benefited tens of millions of borrowers, disproportionately borrowers with smaller balances because they would find themselves debt free. Interestingly, the research on student debt is consistently found that those with smaller dollar balances are more likely to struggle in repayment. So this would have had an oversized effect on some of the most vulnerable students.

And I’m happy to say more about this during the Q&A. I don’t want to really engage in an extended policy debate over the wisdom of debt cancelation right now. I don’t have time. But as an initial matter, I note that the idea that we always enforce our debts, that’s a national value, how can I not understand? That’s a rule that’s absolutely followed all the time except for all the times when it’s not.

And so this is a political judgment that we can make. And the real question is, what are the costs and benefits of mitigating this form of debt? So let me get to the– let me get to the law. Oh, no, see. I’m going to skip this because you have already covered.

OK, on a tenuous legal theory of standing, that is of the validity of the claim, so standing– can you go into court and claim that you have been injured or have you not suffered an injury? So you can’t just go to court and seek an advisory opinion. On a tenuous theory of standing, attorneys general from several states challenged the Biden administration’s cancelation effort. And the plaintiffs argued that the language of the legislation that the administration relied on did not mean what it seems to mean.

And so I’ve put the language up there. I joked with my students that the question before the Supreme Court is whether waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision means waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision. Supreme Court says it doesn’t. Supreme Court says it doesn’t mean that they can waive or modify any statutory provision, OK.

If folks want to dig into the legal reasoning, we can. But the insight I want to draw from this foray by the court into student debt is that higher education finance is actually inherently a political question. And in deciding this case against the administration, the justices and the conservative justices in the majority were making moves on multiple chess games at the same time.

One, first one on the list is the contest over the growth of the administrative state. So should the Department of Education have the power that the Biden administration is asserting that it’s having or should the authority of executive agencies be reined in, be limited? So that’s one context that the court is resolving.

The second one is the setting of precedent. What happens as a result of the court deciding that the Secretary of Education does not have the authority to cancel debt on the scale that the administration is proposing? Because if the court says that the administration can do this, what can the administration do next?

OK, inter-branch competition, what we call in law school separation of powers. So this is an executive branch move, not a legislative branch move. And the court, the third co-equal branch is saying the executive is overstepping. If the legislature wants to authorize the executive to take this step, that’s OK, but the legislature has not clearly done so because waive or modify doesn’t mean waive or modify. Therefore, the executive cannot take this step. So this is a contest over who has power.

Institutional credibility, meaning the credibility of the court, which has been trending downward pretty dramatically over the past couple of years. So is there a cost to the court of making a decision that looks, to my third point, like an act of partisan advantage? Because this is conservative justices undermining a signature initiative of a Democratic president.

OK, but for our purposes, so those are the different board games. And there probably others too on which the Supreme Court is resolving the question of debt cancelation. But out in the real world, the Supreme Court is keeping higher education risky for students who had to borrow because cancelation is now not on the table to the degree or in the manner that it would have been. So the move by the court that means it’s undermining access.

The interesting thing is that the administration has responded with innovative regulatory moves, developing more favorable repayment plans for borrowers, for example, like the SAVE plan. Do I have that? I have that. There we go. The SAVE plan which adjusts the amount that students are required to pay on their monthly obligations.

OK, also canceling the debts of students who attended for-profit schools that engage in fraudulent misconduct, for example. And disproportionately, those schools target Black and Brown students. So these are meaningful policy moves that the administration has undertaken, perhaps, over the longer term, more impactful policy moves than one time cancelation might have been. That can’t be right. We’ll see.


Yes, I get her too. OK, so much for money. Let me move ahead to merit. So the court is– the Supreme Court is also stepped into battles over admissions at selective institutions. The decisions in the cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina squarely raised the question of, what is merit? That is, what criteria should selective colleges and universities– which most students to be clear do not go to, but they’re the institutions that get all the attention.

What criteria do they use when deciding whom to admit? And admissions to these selective institutions has been fought over forever. People of color were consistently and systematically excluded. The practice of taking race into account in order to ensure access to these institutions to applicants who were members of these historically excluded groups, that’s called affirmative action. That’s called affirmative action.

And you can view this as trying to help those who are worse off or you can view this as distorting a racially neutral merit-based system. All depends on what your baseline is for purposes of analysis. The nominal plaintiffs in the suits against Harvard and UNC were Asian-American applicants for admission who charged the consideration of race and admissions caused denial of admission.

There’s a really complicated question to ask about causation that I don’t have time to go into, but maybe we’ll talk about it in the Q&A. And I’m happy to get into the weeds. But the insight is that the conservative justices understand any effort to promote access for one student as harmful to other students. And that’s the quote I pulled from the majority opinion in the case.

So in this way, the court rejected rationales previously endorsed such as the pursuit of a diverse class of students. The conservative justices, in espousing colorblindness, meant that admissions criteria at selective institutions should not be picked with an eye to their racially disparate effects. Instead, if the neutral criteria that the justices endorse produce less racial diversity, that result was not a factor in assessing those criteria.

OK, so this decision finding consideration of race and admissions unconstitutional also was an attack on institutional autonomy because the colleges and university are arguing that they should be able to do this. And the court is saying, no, no, you cannot. The court is rejecting deference to colleges and universities to choose whom to admit. And this relates to my final topic, institutional mission, the meaning question.

This slide is blank because we’re just finding out. We don’t know yet. We’re going to see what happens in the coming years. We’re not seeing policy innovation yet like that in the student loan context. There is language in the opinion that suggests schools may consider experiences of applicants affected by race, which seems at odds with the larger rule espoused in the opinion.

But if the numbers of Black and Latinx students do not fall, I expect to see repeat litigation alleging that colleges and universities are now doing by stealth what they were previously doing openly. Colleges and universities values themselves will be the subjects of that litigation. This is one of the reasons, I think, this inflection point will manifest as intensified contest over these questions– who gets in, where, and how it’s paid for.

OK, so to the question of meaning. There are contests over institutional mission and values out in the open now. And this is just the most recent example. Do you remember the US News and World Report rankings just came out, modified method of ranking the institutions. Vanderbilt fell five spots.

And whereupon the university administration just excoriated US News and World Report saying US News is measuring the wrong things. What they’re measuring is not our indication of either our students merit or our own. So in doing this, Vanderbilt is showing that how we assess institutions, how we assess students reflect choices we’re making.

There’s nothing inevitable. There’s nothing actually that is neutral or obvious about whatever tool we use to say a student has merit or an institution has merit. And in the coming months and years, I anticipate that colleges and universities will, with increasing frequency, have to articulate and justify their institutional views, actions, and practices.

Why do we do what we do? Colleges and universities cannot take as given the anything we do. Think of whom we hire. Think of the food we serve in the cafeteria. Think of the terms on which we employ grad students, everything. Any action can be seen through a politically partisan lens.

We can try to pretend otherwise, we can lay claim to some sort of scholarly neutrality and determination to follow the evidence. But commitment to that kind of research, ideal itself, has to be justified. It’s a political commitment. We will have to embrace our political and politicized role if we want to sustain our mission as an academy of learning.

So what does this all mean? Oh, I did keep the picture. OK, what does this all mean? It means greater readiness to engage in expression of the ideas on which higher education institutions rest. And my example of that here, this picture just always makes me like almost weepy.

So these are young lawyers, recent law school grads who flocked to the airports and were working under these conditions in response to the first anti-Muslim ban by the Trump administration, which to me is laws playing a role in a political battle, not in the way– not in the same way I’ve described up to this point. It is being used in ways people did not anticipate.

OK, we, like these students or like these young lawyers, need to be ready to engage in expression of the ideas on which higher education institutions rest. We have to be committed to support and protection of students as a core value. It means being ready to justify both our commitment to research and our respect for expertise when choosing what to do and how to do it.

And those battles will be taking place in the courts, in the court of public opinion, and in legislatures. We will continue to attend to the role of law in shaping what these institutions we are also invested in do and become in the future. So with that, I’ll stop. How did I– 15 seconds, OK.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] Perfect. Perfect. And if I could invite our speakers back up here for the Q&A and thank them for wonderful talks. Two quick things, just in case people don’t on the US News. And we don’t want to debate that. But folks should know they actually purposely changed their methodology each year in order to create that movement, when we know institutions of higher education don’t actually change that quickly.

And the second thing I wanted to share is that in this polling we’ve been doing in the Central Valley, interestingly while there is some support for debt forgiveness, there’s much more overwhelming support for free college. So this idea that you don’t want to pay people back for a decision they’ve already made, but the free college idea is actually quite popular among all demographics. So just as a framing for our conversation. Any questions or comments? Yeah. And if we could wait for the mic just for both for the people on Zoom and for the accessibility of the room.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] I have a couple. So first what happens when the enrollment cliff hits for the many nonselective colleges? How will they remain open? And then the second question is, how can law school tuition continue to rise?

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] I think so. You can hear me, yeah? OK, so I think there’s going to be an existential crisis in some of the nonselective institutions. And I think this is why I argue that being able to be responsive to what students want. And so that is– and that includes some of the tough labor issues. so. I’ll just, again, look at our own state, where the faculty senate of the community college system is very strong. And there are lots of labor considerations, for example, downsizing programs, or courses, or things like that.

And so I think there will be this combination of legal policy organizing around what happens in some of these colleges as the enrollment declines. So again, in the last even two decades, we’ve seen increases in community colleges in the state of California. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming decade what happens to those.

I can imagine, again, we’re in a district system. So you can imagine some campuses that are creative, collapse to create in-person residential type campuses and others that will have more online options, again, to address the different types of needs of students at these open access institutions.

And if I can add one layer because it’s not– people aren’t talking about it as much is many of our Cal State campuses are actually under-enrolled. And so you have UC oversubscribed in the sense of applications increasing. And then you have Cal State campuses they can’t fill their seats. And so the master plan at least in California doesn’t seem to be working at the moment.


[JONATHAN GLATER] I was hoping– I was hoping to dodge that one. Is this on? Can you hear me? Is this on? OK, I can’t tell. Why wouldn’t it?


OK, so that’s the real question. It’s not how much it costs question. It’s a who pays question. So I gave this– I was speaking at your institution a couple of years ago. And a student asked a version, but was much more rude about it than you were. And I said, why do you care how much it costs?

We could spend less on it. We could have worse facilities. We could pay faculty. We could do a number– but that’s not really what you want. What you want is someone else to pay and make it super deluxe. That’s what I would want. The cost has to be born– has to be allocated somewhere. And costs are going up. Cost of everything goes up.

But the policy conundrum, I think, is not the cost going up. The policy conundrum is who’s going to pay that cost so that the students don’t have exactly that very pragmatic problem you’re alluding to, which is what happens after they graduate and they have to pay off these outstanding amounts.

Right now, the last research I’m aware of, [? found ?] law school, financially, is still a good bet in terms of the positive hit on lifetime earnings. But that doesn’t mean, it feels great for my students to graduate with well into the six figures of indebtedness. That’s going to affect what they do. It’s going to affect where they live. It’s going to affect the timing of having a family, getting married.

These are not positive policy benefits. These are the effects of making debt the policy tool of choice to put higher education in reach. And that’s where I would target– to the extent I hear frustration in your question, that’s where I would direct it.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thanks. These are all very interesting. I wanted to ask a question that goes back to the 1930s again and ask about whether a particular item thing that happened then might be relevant to today that wasn’t in the narratives. So in the 1930s, we had this constitutional revolution in the United States where all of these old gilded age cases were thrown out.

One line of cases that survived though– all right, so this was the idea of substantive due process like the Lochner Era. So these were like– but the one line of cases from that era that survived was the cases that said there’s a substantive due process to send your kids to private education. And I’m recalling constitutional law class from a long time ago. So maybe I don’t have that exactly right.

But I was just– I’ve been thinking lately about– and this doesn’t necessarily cover the whole span of– this does not cover the whole span of colleges and universities, but the way that a lot of the elite schools are becoming– have become these luxury items, where you have these super small enrollments, especially at Ivy league schools and stuff where I think that there might be more political science majors at Berkeley than there are students in a class at Harvard for instance.

And so I’m just wondering, is part of the– is it maybe an important part of the narrative that this peculiar decision happened where– because there were serious push backs to limit private education that were going on 100 years ago. And then those got shut off by the Supreme Court. And then also could not be revived in the 1930s. And I’m wondering, is that an important part of the development of higher education? And does that maybe– I don’t really know the answer.

So I’ve just been puzzling over this if you guys have any thoughts on it. Because it strikes me, like if you read someone– what’s the name of this guy? Scott Galloway. So he’s an investor in education technology. But he doesn’t always talk about this when he writes about higher education, and critiques higher education, and says, oh, it’s this hyper luxury good.

I agree with him at least with regard to elite schools. I don’t think that’s true of all schools. But he’s talking up his investments also because he says, oh, these schools should have many more students. They’re bad. And we should bring in all this technology that I’m invested in, basically. It seems to be what he’s saying.

I’m just wondering if maybe going back to 1930s helps us get some traction on decisions that were made because I think the US is an outlier among wealthy democracies for the extent to which private universities are important within our higher education system. So I just want to throw that issue on the table and see if there are any thoughts.

[MITCHELL STEVENS] I’m not the legal scholar. So I’m going to let Jonathan do that. It does seem to me that with higher education, we’re talking– higher education is not provided by right. So there’s a way in which, I mean, the legal environment for post-secondary education may be different than what you’re talking about.

I do think on the rich institution question. And I think this is another magnet on the compass which is a very important, I think, opportunity is the– just as in the rest of the class structure, the wealthiest institutions have never been so much more wealthy than the rest of the sector.

OK, so what Emily Levine and I call the academic social contract that we now live under was really written in the middle of the 20th century when Harvard was rich. But it wasn’t as spectacularly more rich than Berkeley as it is today.

And the selective schools have become so much more exquisitely selective. So the hyper concentration of luxury right is, I think, another kind of secular strain on this process that I think should be scaring the daylights out of presidents and provosts at places like where I work.

And what I’m personally trying to do is figure out a way to guilt them into giving more stuff away because one of the things I would want to emphasize here is that colleges and universities are quasi independent actors. I mean, they don’t have to just comply with stuff. They can give more gifts. They can do different things.

But I do think that’s a big part of it. The four seasons hotelness of the institution that I work for is a political problem. It’s a moral problem. I know that, but it’s also a political problem which we might be able to turn into an opportunity, I hope.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] If I could just provide perspective on that point. I think it was two years ago. It might have been three. The return on the endowment at Yale was $15 billion. I mean, just the amounts of money. That was their gain in one year.

We’ve never been here before, in terms of that kind of wealth.

[JONATHAN GLATER] Maybe we should talk– because I’m not sure which case you’re thinking of. The cases that I’m thinking of– sorry, everybody. The cases that I’m thinking of are in the K-12 context, not in the higher ed context. And their issue was– there was an issue around religious instruction specifically. So I’m not sure it’s quite apposite, but maybe we can talk after because if you’re thinking of something else, then we can explore it, OK.

[JULIA SIZEK] OK, we have a couple of questions from online. So I’m just going to start with two different questions from two different anonymous attendees about student debt. So one of them is about– I guess, I’ll just read it.

Do you think that one or two years of general studies courses required by most universities add to the burden of cost for students and their families and therefore account for low graduation rate and success? In a society that is technology driven, could you speak of the merits of stacking those general studies courses up front and also their implications for student debt.

The other question is about how student debt is related to the general landscape of borrowing. So since cost of living is not often keeping up with wages, are low-income students doomed to being in debt forever given that market forces are not in their favor?

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] I’ll start on the fields of study. And there’s definitely, as I mentioned on the payoff to college, it does vary by fields of study. I think the general education question is a good one in the sense that, I think, we have seen, in places where there’s lower completion rates in particular nonselective and in particular community colleges, a cafeteria style approach around course taking that hasn’t served students well and a real effort to streamline that course taking with the goal of hitting a major and a degree path more quickly.

I think where it’s a real tension is these look very different than the elite places that Mitchell referenced. And so who’s entitled to that broad exploratory? So I worry a lot. So I think it’s a real tension, the desire. Most students who come into college, they want to finish. They want to have a degree path. They want to know where they’re headed. But there’s also a lot of value, as we know, from the origin of higher education for this exploratory that we don’t expect 18-year-olds.

And this is very different than other industrialized countries, where you immediately go into a professional path. And so again, I think in this heightened space, both politicized and the economic forces are going to mean that there may be further division between getting some students in a more CTE vocational focused pathway through community colleges more quickly and more efficiently, while there will be others who will have this very luxe, liberal arts experiences, which I think is not an ideal for the other fractures in our society right now.

[JONATHAN GLATER] OK, it’s a really interesting question. And it highlights the structures for allocation of financial aid because if you can think about the question as related to what’s the subject of study, but you can also think about it as a question of, what kind of aid do you get?

So imagine a world in which Pell grants, instead of starting at a number and gradually increasing were front loaded. So the first two years were fully covered by Pell grants. And the second two years, if you continue, then you have to borrow more to do it. Then this problem goes away. Then this problem goes away. And that’s not my idea. That’s Caroline Hoxby’s idea. We can think about things in different ways once we recognize the different dimensions of the problem.

Can I speak to the second question about student debt in the context of debt more generally? This is exactly the critique that this tool of social– this social engineering tool to make higher education more accessible to serve as an engine of social mobility actually is reproducing pre-existing socioeconomic and racialized hierarchies because of the obligation to repay at the back end. It’s exactly this concern. And I don’t know what to say beyond that. And yes, in response to the question.

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] I just want to add two things to this question. One is that I agree that we are just now accumulating more evidence on when does aid matter. So is it– is it front? There’s a lot more research on academic momentum, why we might want students to enroll in [? more, ?] to fully absorb the college experience to finish more quickly.

And then the other, yeah, so I guess I would just say we do need more evidence on when– at what point do we need additional aid to help students complete. And I think the evidence is still thin on that. I know we’re trying to do it in California, understand the ways in which Cal Grant reform, for example, could support more students.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] And if I can add just a quick personal frame on general education, which I think we in the educational field think it’s your opportunity to explore and learn new things. But for some STEM majors– one of my son, one of his quarters was Python, calculus, and introduction to chemistry. There’s no joy in any of those. The idea that you have to have these tools to get to the interesting part is, I think, also another piece that makes general education harder for students to get through because there’s no intellectual–

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] I will say also we’ve been stuck in this high school– I mean, one of the other ways to completely break the system is to rethink the role of high schools and this to begin with. And there’s a real opportunity now partly because of the enrollment declines to blur that space between high school and college.

And we’re seeing that partly with things like dual enrollment or students taking classes. And so I think we have long wanted to rethink, at least, the 12th grade year if not the 11th and 12th in a way that could also reduce the time and the opportunities for students to get to their fields of study of interest more quickly.

[MARION FOURCADE] Thank you. That was really fabulous. I really appreciate the political lens that you are casting on this question. And so I wanted to ask you a little bit about the Democrat-Republican divide on college achievement. I know the Piketty, the Piketty graph showing the flip between the top 1%, essentially the top 1% most educated flipping from right to left. And the bottom flipping from left to right. But if we dig deeply across different states, types of colleges attended, and so on. What do we learn about this divide between Democrats and Republicans?


I don’t know. You’re the expert. It seems to me– precisely because college is so much a political problem. I think it matters enormously to something about that.

[MITCHELL STEVENS] Have I seen research that passes– have I seen research that parses institutional type? I haven’t seen that. I’ve only seen on the relationship between amount of education and political affiliation. So it’s a really good question in that regard, but I don’t– there is something I wanted to– I mean, I wanted to– I’m increasingly paying attention to. And I want to just maybe insert in the conversation.

There’s another movement– there are two other movements underway that I think are relevant. One is what I’m calling the partial disestablishment of the four-year college degree as the sine qua non employment credential. And that’s a movement that I have cautiously joined for reasons we won’t talk about here.

But it’s driven in part by the Trump election of 2016 scared the daylights out of the education philanthropic establishment. They realized that college for all had gone terribly wrong in some ways. And so there’s been a national search for mechanisms of opportunity creation that don’t look, sound, feel, price like college.

Governor Newsom is one who has investing substantially in this movement, a national movement also to remove four-year college credentials as necessary qualifications in civil employment. That movement is also being turbocharged by a tidal wave of private capital in the educational sector.

And this is not like– this is not your University of Phoenix venture capital backers. This is Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, Cisco actively encouraging a rethinking of a credential ecosystem. And that expansion of private capital is almost no social scientists are paying attention to that.

So I mean, I think it’s another magnet on the compass which is a fundamental rethinking in the private sector of what the credential marketplace of five years from now should look like. It’s completely unregulated, almost completely unregulated. There’s not even clarity on which branch of the federal government would be responsible for that new sector. Again, there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation as we might say. Yes, exactly.

[JONATHAN GLATER] Micro credentials.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] I think we have time for one or two more questions. I don’t know if we have any online.

[JULIA SIZEK] Yeah, we do have some online questions. So one question that we have from Kenny is about the relationship between selective and nonselective colleges and given the fact that many of these nonselective colleges are experiencing enrollment declines, what would happen if they were to close? And how do we think about the relationship between the nonselective college and the selective colleges when we look at the industry as a whole?

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] Yeah, I mean, again, I think I would argue that most students, they start at community college often for any number of reasons– financial, regional. We still have four-year college deserts in California. And they most will tell you they want a bachelor’s degree, whether or not they should get that is another question and in what field.

But the point is, I think that I would argue that part of where the master plan failed was to really allow for better intersegmental relationships. And this is a problem in other states, but not necessarily the magnitude of that problem isn’t as big in other states. I think we have made it– we have put all the onus on students instead of on institutions and instead of systems to solve this.

Again, so I think in under declining enrollment, as I’ve said, I think there will be some really tough times ahead for some of our colleges, including potentially the CSU. Though again, it’s the far residential remote CSUs that have struggled. We still could put more four-year CSUs in the LA county region and not satisfy the need for transfer students– the transfer students have.

So it really requires our state to work together and figure it out. UC has pushed back on things like guaranteed dual admissions, that is high school students applying straight into UC knowing their first two years and partly because there’s space constraint.

And so let’s test them. Let’s test these students out first at community colleges, see if they can pass muster. So I think it just behooves us to rethink the structure as is implied in the question, which I appreciate. And so we’ll see. I think that the urgency of the declining enrollments will force us to some creative solutions.

And closures.

And potentially closures.

We’re starting to see closures.

You guys are really efficient.

[JULIA SIZEK] OK, well, so this is very fitting considering that we had many participants here on Zoom, including many people who are still here. So one question that someone had was about the future potential of higher education being delivered online or remotely and what you prognosticate for that.

[MITCHELL STEVENS] Well, I guess one thing I would say is– one thing that’s not going to go down is lifelong demand for educational credentials. That’s not going anywhere but up– nationally, globally. So I think– if I’m optimistic, I’ll see public investment in lifelong learning for, say, Californians going like this.

But the amount of private capital that’s going into that sector is going like this because I don’t think we’re going to see any diminution in demand. I do think that one of the things that we need to talk about is, what then is a college education? If I’m getting it in my living room with my pajamas on, is it the same thing as a civic project certainly. Is it substantively the same thing as the public sphere that is instantiated by the College of San Mateo?

I mean, there’s one thing I know the College of San Mateo is. It’s part of the California Public sphere. I can walk onto it whenever I want. I’m a partial owner of it. I will encounter other Californians whom I might not otherwise have met. Maybe I can get something online, but it’s not that. And so I think something for us to think about is, yeah, of course, digitization is going to keep going like this. Is that college? or what things is it not that may be of civic value to the people of California?

[MICHAL KURLAENDER] And the challenges College of San Mateo needs to offer about 60% to 80% of its courses online now to meet its enrollment demand. I mean, this is the tension. I agree with everything you just said. And the problem that college has is to keep its doors open. It’s going to have to increasingly.

And so think that genie is not going back in the bottle, at least not– Berkeley can require its students to come in-person. And similarly, we know we’ve just– we’re in a different space in digital learning. We’re all like recording our classes because that’s just good for students to do. So I think it remains to be seen is really the–

That’s right.


[MITCHELL STEVENS] That’s right. And we’re grateful to everyone in Zoom land who’s here, participating in this civil discourse.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] Well, if I can just add speaking of the cost of higher education and who pays for it, the two biggest costs are the physical plant and the people. And we’re already paying for the people. And if you want to have access, you may have to move to online in order to actually have more capacity, to serve more students with the same physical plant.

So there are other financial reasons that could be pushing more– our chancellor likes to talk about elasticity of place, not necessarily online degrees but opportunities to spend semesters or other time away so that the physical campus can manage more students.

[MITCHELL STEVENS] Elasticity of place. I’m taking that across the bay with me. I like that.

[LISA GARCÍA BEDOLLA] And the students are asking for it, but it’s complicated. And it has fiscal implications as well I wanted to say. So please join me in thanking our amazing panel for an incredibly informative and provocative session. Thanks to all of our folks online. And thanks to the Matrix for organizing yet another great conversation.

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