Reflecting consumer sentiment, state legislatures and even the federal government have begun to apply pressure. Some states are demanding higher accountability standards and the Department of Education has begun to impose so-called "gainful employment" rules on the for-profit schools such as University of Phoenix and Kaplan Education.
The principle is that in return for federal loan money—many for-profits get 90 percent of their funds from federal loans and grants—the schools must show that their graduates are getting jobs commensurate with the cost of the education. It's a concept some think might spread to traditional schools as well, which also get significant federal dollars. The law school sector, where there have long been complaints about shoddy post-graduate employment data, was stunned when a graduate of a California law school filed a fraud claim because he couldn't get a job.
Interestingly, the most significant outcomes problem that the U.S. News/Fidelity survey found was about the quality of incoming high school graduates. College administrators felt overwhelmingly that high schools had to improve their product.
[Catch up on the latest developments via the High School Notes blog.]
• Tight budgets: It's hard to generalize on school budgets because their fortunes vary widely. But one generalization may be in order: The rich schools are getting richer (Yale University just completed a $3.8 billion campaign to lift its endowment closer to Harvard University's) and the poor schools are in trouble.
State schools have been particularly hard hit, although in many cases they seem to be turning to private funding sources to keep growing. Schools like the University of Michigan and University of Virginia used to get 80 percent of their funds from the state; now it's often less than 20 percent.
As Eduardo Ochoa, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for post-secondary education, observed: "So many governors and state legislatures are cutting back dramatically the support for higher education to the point where I think that the traditional compact that we've had in our society for public higher education, which was perceiving of it as a public good and deserving of state subsidy, is being eroded."
But for all the cost pressures, there was little sense that schools were cutting actual expenses. The vast majority of administrators responding to the U.S. News/Fidelity poll expected to be increasing their budgets in the coming years. There was no expectation of any change in the system of lifetime tenure, which has been criticized as adding significant cost to faculties to promote research at the expense of teaching. And no expectation of much change in the faculty workforce.
• Changing academics: The poll found a marked emphasis on science and math—where the jobs are—as the key growth disciplines of the future, somewhat at the expense of the humanities. Officials are aware of the business community clamor for graduates with the skills to fill available jobs.
Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, described partnering with the energy industry: "We said, okay, what is it that you need to meet your workforce need and what is it that we need to do in order to meet our collective needs in workforce and research."