Nature and Needs of Higher Education

When reading research reports, I have a habit of noting specific citations if they interest me.  Whether I subsequently access the original source depends on how much time I have and whether the topic is relevant to an article or paper that I am writing.   I don’t retrieve older source documents as often as newer ones, since much of my writing involves online learning, a field that is evolving almost as quickly as the technology that supports it changes.  During the past year or so, I read a paper or two related to higher education policy that mentioned a 1952 report that the Rockefeller Foundation commissioned to examine the financing of American higher education.  Given the multiple issues relating to higher education that are currently being discussed at the state and national levels, I opted to locate and read a copy, believing that a 60 year-old report would provide an interesting reflection of the national policy agenda from a time that is seemingly light-years removed from where higher education finds itself today.

In November 1947, the Rockefeller Foundation created an exploratory committee on Financing Higher Education and Research after receiving advice from officers at a number of academic institutions.  The following August, the committee recommended that the Foundation create a commission to create an extensive report on the financial condition of higher education, and in April 1949, the Association of American Universities (AAU) submitted an application to the Foundation recommending that the Foundation establish a  Commission on Financing Higher Education.   The AAU has represented America’s and Canada’s elite research universities since its inception in 1900.  [AAU membership consists of 60 U.S. research universities and 2 Canadian research universities.]  The Foundation’s Trustees approved a grant to the AAU for this purpose, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York contributed a grant as well.  [Dates obtained from the Preface of Nature and Needs of Higher Education, published July 27, 1952.]

The Commission’s 12 members consisted of presidents or provosts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Union College, the California Institute of Technology, Stanford, Brown, and the University of Missouri.  Two lawyers and two “industrialists” were also members of the Commission.  The Commission met 16 times between October 1949 and July 1952 and produced 2 reports, the first of which, Financing Higher Education in the United States, provided a detailed analysis of the research that the Commission conducted.  The second report, Nature and Needs of Higher Education, presented the conclusions of the Commission.  Although at some point in the future I may go back and review the 60-year-old numbers and statistics contained in the first report, I elected to focus on the second report.  I found some of the findings and conclusions contained therein to be sufficiently interesting as to be worthy of renewed consideration, and perhaps a thoughtful discussion.

The writers of the second report introduced it by framing several beliefs, affirmed by the Commission’s unanimous endorsement.  First, higher education has contributed “much to the growth of American civilization.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 3)  Second, “it is essential to the future well-being of that civilization.” Third, “it shares with other American institutions the responsibilities of [world] leadership.” Fourth, the “ability to live up to new and extensive [global] responsibilities will rest largely upon the quality of the American mind.” And fifth, “this quality is not the product of higher education alone, but higher education is indispensable to it.”  The authors also noted that higher education in America had always been an expense that society bore in order to have colleges and universities.  They stated that in their wealthier society (1952), contributions similar to those in the past should be made to higher education, not because it might not exist without funding, but that without adequate funding, “a college or university which suffers from malnutrition may become educationally a corrupting influence.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 6)   The authors cited the passage of the Morrill Act (the 1862 legislation that created public land grant universities) as significant because it encouraged the expansion of the college curriculum beyond the “limited and rigid classical curriculum” and responded to the growing technological needs of the country such as railroad and mining engineering. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 9)

According to the authors, the new enthusiasm for theoretical learning and professional education offered by the universities formed in the late 1800’s weakened the liberal arts colleges that preserved the basic values of American cultural heritage. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 12)  The authors further stated that the special province of higher education was to develop the “intellectual capacities of those possessing unusual talent” and to “carry their formal education to the highest level of development of which they are capable.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 13)  The authors cited a statistic that 20 percent of all American youth attended college, a figure that was five to ten times that of the youth in Great Britain, Germany, and France.  Because of America’s broader participation in higher education, the authors maintained that higher education creates a society where “poverty and lack of worldly position do not bar individual opportunity.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 13)

It is likely that the last sentence in the paragraph above could be debated for years, particularly in light of the facts related to America’s current higher education enrollments where approximately 79 percent of those in the highest quartile of family income earn a four year degree while only 11 percent of those in the lowest quartile of family income earn such a degree.  I mention this, in passing, not for the purpose of provoking a debate about educational access, but to give context to the perspectives of those associated with the Commission more than 60 years ago.  The perspectives of those on that Commission are noteworthy in considering the current state and discussion around the importance and value of higher education in America.

The Commission further reported that college students should be recruited from high school students who are “intellectually equipped to meet the exacting requirements of higher learning” and who “have the incentive to make the effort necessary to develop his capacity.”  The Commission also stated that higher education should not be compulsory and that not everyone could benefit from higher education any more than the fact that not every person had the ability to “become a big-league ballplayer or a concert violinist.” According to the Commission, higher education “is limited in the numbers that it can serve.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 14)   Again, the latter point is an interesting perspective juxtaposed against the current framework in America, one where a much higher percentage of high school graduates attend college and approximately half of those attending fail to complete a four year degree within six years.   Today, writers and pundits who suggest that higher education is not appropriate for every high school graduate are in the minority; far more common are those who argue for increased funding to support developmental and remedial courses to ensure that every high school graduate has adequate opportunity and support to be successful in higher education.

According to the Commission, the functions of higher education “include four interlocking designs: liberal education, professional education, graduate study and research, and public service.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 15)  After a discussion of the values of each of these distinct areas of higher education, the authors wrote, “higher education contributes the trained experts, the scholars, and the leaders whose combined intelligence will help this nation to help humanity.  Intelligence alone, however, is not enough.”  Even in 1952, the Commission realized that diversity of institutions and the educational opportunities they provide to students are critical to the future success of higher education.  “Colleges and universities must justify their claims if they are to survive and prosper.” The authors argued that higher education should not be primarily under public control because “it is not an opportunity owed by society to all its citizens, nor an obligation that all citizens should be asked to assume.”

Another paragraph that appears to foreshadow much of the current debate about higher education among members of Congress and state legislatures emphasized the point that “control of the purse tends to bring control of policy.”  The Commission recommended that institutions seek broad-based support in order to broaden the institution and the audience that it reached. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 44)   The authors warned that reliance on a single funding source could lead to poor financial outcomes.  Needless to say, the states’ fiscal difficulties during the past five years combined with increased federal regulation in response to increased federal funding have reinforced the wisdom of that prophetic warning.

SAT tests did not exist at the time of the Commission’s report, but the US Army administered a test, the General Classification Test, to 10 million men during World War II.  Based on the outcomes of that test and the comparison of those outcomes to the success of students persisting through college graduation, the authors concluded that higher education should accept as its priority (but not as its exclusive audience) students whose intellect was among the top 25 percent of Americans.  Citing statistics available at the time, the Commission stated that only 40 percent of the intellectual top 25 percent of young people went to college. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 48)   Motivation was the reason cited by the Commission that many of this group did not attend college, although states like Iowa and Utah that promoted college attendance were substantially above the national average.

I was pleased to read that the Commission did not recommend that “only” individuals in the highest IQ group go to college as had been implied in the description of the Commission’s report and recommendations that I read in a research paper.  The Commission stated that “test scores are not an infallible guide in judging the promise of any particular individual” and “thus, college admission should not be denied to all those persons who received marks on a test less [than the top 25 percent].” However, the authors wrote that encouraging the attendance and completion of college by all those who comprise the top 25 percent should be a “special interest” of higher education. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 52)   Additionally, the Commission stated that greater care should be placed in the admissions process to select students who had a greater ability and desire to complete a four-year degree program.  While not stating that those who fall below the top 25 percent should be denied admission, the Commission believed that a much higher percentage than 40 percent of those most intellectual individuals needed to attend college in order for the United States to meet its global responsibilities outlined in the report’s introduction.  The Commission stated that there was a “great deal of waste which results from admitting large numbers of students to four-year colleges who will not remain for the four years.”  The Commission recommended that those “marginal” students be admitted to a two-year program. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 53)   Once again, the Commission addressed a problem that continues to plague higher education today: the continued persistence of all those admitted to college and whether or not a percentage of those pursuing four year degrees would be better served pursuing a two year degree or technical certification.

Despite the fact that the Commission claimed that higher education “is not an opportunity owed by society to all its citizens, nor an obligation that all citizens should be asked to assume,” the report devotes specific chapters to the topics of “The Economic Problems of Higher Education” and “The Sources of Support.”  The former chapter states that “higher education must have more funds if it is to render competent educational service to American society.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 58)  The authors reported that there were five common areas causing financial difficulties at many institutions:  inflation, the expansion of educational services demanded by the increasing complexity of knowledge, fluctuating student enrollments caused by the influx of veterans after World War II, needs for enlarged and modernized physical plants to keep up with new needs, and uncertain sources of income from endowment, gifts, and government.  Ironically, all  of these pressures still exist 60 years later.   Fluctuating enrollments, while not caused by the influx of veterans, continue to be  relevant if you examine the changing racial and financial demographics of America.

When the Commission discussed inflation, the writers cited the fact that increased student charges had been “the most available source of new income to meet rising costs.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 61)  Unlike the present era where tuition increases are more than double the increases in average family income and the consumer price index over the past 30 years, the Commission described a situation where tuition and fees generally lagged behind the increase in consumer prices.  However, the authors pointed out that increased dependence on student fees introduced instability into college and university operations, reversed the trend toward equality of educational opportunity, and made ability to pay a more important condition of admission than ability to think.  The Commission noted that in a 10-year period, from 1940 to 1950, the average incomes of doctors, dentists, and lawyers increased at a rate double that of the average professor. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 63)   Again, the Commission’s warning about the increased dependence on student fees creating financial instability and reversing the trend toward equality in educational opportunity appears to have been prophetic and unheeded.

The report noted that fluctuations in enrollment affected more than the fixed-cost operating model of higher education.  Specifically, the flood of students (many attending through the GI Bill) forced the colleges and universities to appoint adjunct professors whose contracts were not renewed when the bubble of veterans subsided and enrollments receded.  While it was a necessary action, the authors noted that reliance on a pool of adjuncts represented a personnel policy that was not “congenial to higher education.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 80)  We continue to wrestle with the same situation 60 years later across a much wider and more diverse higher education continuum.

Not surprisingly, operating expenses of higher education were an issue in 1952 just as they are today.  The Commission made the point that despite the fact that institutional operating expenses more than tripled from 1940 to 1950; the amount spent on instruction per student had actually declined when you adjusted it for inflation.  The authors stated that increases in endowments and appropriations were needed in order to meet the more complicated requirements of research and enrollment expansion.  During the 20-year period from 1930 to 1950, the proportion of educational revenues from student charges increased for universities from 56.6 percent in 1930 to 65.3 percent in 1950 and for private liberal arts colleges from 60 percent to 73 percent. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 123-124)   At public universities, the percentage of income from student charges increased from 21.5 percent to 30.9 percent over the same period. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 126)   Nearly all of this increase for public institutions was explained as an outcome of the GI Bill that allowed state and municipal universities to charge the government the out-of-state tuition rate for in-state and out-of-state veterans.   When new students took their place, nearly all of the replacement revenue was from in-state students, meaning less income from enrollments since in-state tuition was (and remains) less than out-of-state tuition.  One of the notable comments in the report was that the more higher education relied on tuition, the more it assumed the characteristics of a business enterprise, in that it had to market its commodity and satisfy its customers by teaching “what students were willing to buy, not what they ought to know.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 127)  Regardless of arguments to the contrary by defenders of traditional higher education, we see how this has evolved with the past decade’s arms race between colleges building lavish residence halls, recreation centers, and other amenities designed to attract students.  Few of these perks relate to “what they ought to know.”

Unlike the college cost-to-family income ratio today, the Commission reported that regardless of the tuition increases from 1930 to 1950, higher education was “still possible for a very substantial part of the population, provided the desire to earn an education was still present.” (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 133)   Also unlike the case today, scholarships and financial aid were correlated directly with the financial needs of the students.  The Commission recommended that no student should be given more aid than required to supplement his family’s income. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 137)   They acknowledged that some colleges were providing scholarships as a “discount,” but recommended against it.  Furthermore, the Commission did not agree that the federal government should establish a scholarship aid fund and unanimously recommended against establishing such an aid program. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 137)   Instead, they recommended that private foundations and corporations should be persuaded to step up their giving and wealthy individuals should be persuaded to give as well.

The Commission believed strongly that the strength of higher education was based upon its freedom, and that its freedom must be protected at all costs.  The Commission argued that the freedom of higher education could not be protected if it became dependent on any dominant support, regardless of how beneficent and enlightened it appeared to be.  The federal government wielded tremendous power and the Commission argued that the freedom of higher education would be lost if thousands of colleges and universities fell under the orders of one central institution or governing body. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 159)   According to the Commission, direct federal control would produce uniformity, mediocrity, and compliance. (Nature and Needs of Higher Education, 1952, p. 162)  While the report’s authors did not recommend a retrenchment of government support in areas like research and veterans benefits, it strongly advised against allowing another federal program to support financial aid, and it further recommended that foundations, corporations, churches, individuals, and states increase their funding to meet the needs of higher education versus having the federal government do so.

Personally, I was most surprised by the Commission’s final recommendations.  Given that the report was issued 60 years ago, the few descriptions of the report that I had read previously seemed to imply that the authors recommended access to higher education be limited to citizens who comprised the top 25 percent in intelligence.  However, in fact, the report encouraged prioritizing the enrollment of the smartest citizens since less than half of them attended college in 1950.  The strongest recommendations of the Commission were saved for its recommendation that an additional federal student aid system not be established.  The Commission’s concern that funding for higher education should be more distributed and less dependent on a single source were prophetic, particularly in light of the current, often contentious, debates surrounding the increasing regulation of colleges and universities by the U.S. Department of Education, and the calls for additional regulation of all colleges as the level of federal funding for today’s federal student aid systems increases.  While support for the abolishment of today’s accreditation system seems to be waning in comparison with what it was a year or two ago, proponents of today’s accreditation system still fear that the federal government plans to create an alternative system of recognition that bypasses voluntary accreditation. 

As Congress gears up for debates about the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, I wonder how many members of Congress, and those members of their staff on whom they depend for advice and counsel, will consider the Commission’s 1952 warnings that “uniformity, mediocrity, and compliance” would be the result if the federal government provides a substantial contribution to higher education. Perhaps of greater concern, however, is whether, as a government and as a society, we are capable of shifting course in order to avoid that result and its clear implications for our nation and the world.



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