Higher ed in crisis? Make that plural, says veteran observer

Carol Christ, Goldie Blumenstyk

Carol Christ, right, listens as Goldie Blumenstyk answers a question from the audience at the Faculty Club. (UC Berkeley photos by Barry Bergman)

Goldie Blumenstyk, who’s followed the world of colleges and universities for more than a quarter-century as a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled her new book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know. A reader need only peek at the introduction to find her answer.

“Yes,” she writes. “Higher education is most assuredly in crisis.”

But does that spell doom, she goes on to ask, for “the thousands of colleges that make up American higher education,” ranging from large, well-endowed private research institutions to small, struggling liberal arts schools?

“It certainly does not,” she answers. And while there’s no “killer app” to set things right, she points to “the complexity, resources, diversity and resilience” to be found in higher ed, as well as the fact that earlier predictions of disaster turned out to be premature.

Goldenstyk this week brought that central message, with as much nuance as she could cram into an hourlong event, to a standing-room-only crowd in the Faculty Club’s Heyns Room. She took part in a lively conversation with Carol Christ, a former Berkeley English professor and administrator who was executive vice chancellor and provost from 1994 to 2000 before going on to serve as president of Smith College from 2001 to 2013. Christ returned to Berkeley as director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, which sponsored Tuesday’s discussion.

Both have seen significant changes in higher ed over the course of their careers, as had many in the audience.

Goldie Blumenstyk

Goldie Blumenstyk

Blumenstyk, whose speech reflects her New Jersey roots and reporter’s temperament, touched on what she called “a confluence of economic, technological, political and demographic forces that are now bearing down on colleges” — forces, she said, that are putting business models for colleges under “unprecedented stress.”

But she agreed with Christ, who suggested “there’s not one crisis in higher education, there are multiple crises.” Christ, citing her 11 years at the helm of “a small women’s liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts,” observed that the crisis for schools like Smith — namely, how to recruit enough paying students to make their economic model work — is very different from a leading research university like UC Berkeley, which just logged a record 78,800 applications for 2015-16 freshman admission, a 7 perent increase over the previous year.

Blumenstyk emphasized the importance of place in the college experience, whether at Berkeley — where, she said, “I’ve been utterly charmed by the fact that I wake up in the morning to the sounds of the music” from the Campanile — or the for-profit University of Phoenix, known chiefly for its online programs.

“It doesn’t have to be a campus as beautiful as this one,” she said, “but I think it does bring something to the experience.”

Above all, Blumenstyk underscored the ways “colleges take the inequities in our society and magnify them,” with particular attention to what she termed “the economic divide.”

“Our country is getting browner, and it’s getting more stratified, and so are the colleges,” she said, noting that California is “at the tip of this demographic change.”

“And for all the billions that we’ve been spending on public and private financial aid, you’ll still find lower-income students and minority students far more concentrated in community colleges and for-profit colleges, and upper-income students and white students more concentrated at four-year private colleges and publics,” she said.

“We’re a nation that looks to its colleges as engines of economic mobility, and of social mobility,” Blumenstyk said. “And if that’s not working, that’s a big problem for our country.”

As evidence, she cited what she called “an important and terrifying fact about American higher education today”: In the United States, she said, an adult from a wealthy family is nine times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24 as one from a poor family — with all the implications for social and financial success that entails.

“If nothing else I say tonight” resonates, Blumenstyk told the crowd, “if you can take away that statistic, I think this lecture will have been a success.”