Fixing Higher Ed: An Interview with Kevin Connell, Author of Breaking Point

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on July 21, 2014.

College students are engaged in undergraduate research at many universities in the United States, but relatively few students complete full books while still in school. Kevin Connell, a rising senior at the University of Rochester, is one such anomalous student. He recently completed a book on higher education reform, Breaking Point: The College Affordability Crisis and Our Next Financial Bubble, and is now shopping the manuscript around to publishers.

Combining interviews and qualitative historical research with the quantitative approach that is a signature of Rochester’s Political Science Department, Connell’s book tackles the major problems of American higher education – soaring tuition costs, the crippling nature of student debt, and the predatory behavior of both loan lenders and for-profit colleges. He will summarize some of his findings in a series of upcoming articles for The Daily Pulp. For now, though, I caught up with Kevin to find out more about his project and where he thinks the American college system is headed.

Kevin Connell. Source: http://the-daily-pulp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/article-photo.jpg
Kevin Connell. Source: http://the-daily-pulp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/article-photo.jpg

DG: Kevin, elaborate on the origins of Breaking Point and your relationship with former University of Rochester president, Thomas Jackson.

KC: Dan, let me first thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about the single most rewarding experience of my life thus far. Breaking Point and my relationship with Professor Jackson are as intertwined as any two things can possibly be. I consider both to have begun on the very first day of college, when I stepped into Professor Jackson’s Constitutional Law course. At the time, I did not know who he was, other than he was a brilliant and seasoned scholar of constitutional law who taught PSC 223. It was not until I went home, after he had graciously accepted my invitation to lunch, when I researched him and found out the remarkable journey of his past. During lunch the next week, the two of us talked about many things, one of them being golf. An avid golfer himself, he proposed we should get together for a round after learning that I had been recruited for the varsity team at the U of R. In the two semesters that followed during my freshman year, I developed a very special relationship with Professor Jackson. He was everything anyone could ever hope for in a mentor.

The first thoughts for Breaking Point did not come until the summer. The University of Rochester is one of several colleges where students are required to reapply for financial aid every year. Consequently, there is always the possibility for the cost of next year’s bill to go up significantly. Unfortunately, this happened to me that summer. My mother, an elementary school principal at a local public school district who holds two master’s degrees and makes a very comfortable living. Yet, when the bill came, she had a heartfelt conversation with me, trying to explain that if these increases continued over the course of my entire academic career, that she could not continue to afford to send me to UR. It then struck me that if a person like my mother was struggling to send one child to college, how could a person with an average or below-average salary possibly afford to send several children to college? To what degree were others suffering financially to put their kids through school? Were we, in fact, faced as a nation with some sort of college affordability crisis? If so, when would the country reach its breaking point? After collecting a few statistics and drawing up a proposal, I pitched the idea to Professor Jackson for an honors thesis, which I planned on completing in my junior year. Enthusiastic about my idea, Professor Jackson signed off on the project.

Working from news articles, congressional reports, and the like, I had a pile of research that stood three feet off the floor. Feeling that I was prepared to do what no other junior had done before in the UR Political Science Department, I pitched the idea to the Chair of the Senior Honor’s Thesis Committee. However, expressing that my project was not “quantitative” enough to satisfy the committee’s expectations, he told me that the committee would most likely reject my proposal. I marched straight to Professor Jackson’s office and explained what happened. Not concerned in the slightest, he told me to keep going, and that we would turn it into a book. Over the course of the next year, I wrote, sending Professor Jackson a few chapters at a time, which he would give substantive comments that I would then respond to. This continued throughout junior year, until finally finishing the last draft in April 2014.

DG: What would you say is the main argument – or arguments – of the book? What aspects of American higher education do you believe need reform?

KC: While there [are] several sub-arguments, each of these smaller arguments are directed towards one ultimate end; that a college degree must be responsive to what the job market demands, especially considering that taxpayers are largely funding higher education with federal subsidies that go toward Title IV student aid under the Higher Education Act.

Although the G.I. Bill in 1944 is hailed as the first great subsidization of higher education, it was not until the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 that Congress made higher education subsidies widely available to Americans. So why did this happen? Spurred out of panic after the Soviet launching of Sputniks I, II, and III between October 4, 1957 and May 15, 1958, Congress drafted a bill to counter the emerging Soviet advancements in technology, proclaiming that “The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles … as well as upon the discovery and development of new principles, new techniques, and new knowledge … which demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available.”

In order to compete internationally, we needed a strong workforce that was capable of producing efficiency and innovation. Although the world is more globalized than ever, higher education seems to have lost its direction in this regard. Through a series of fairly simple applications of information and departments that already exist, I make several proposals with the ultimate goal of making sure that the public investment of the taxpayer and the personal investment of the student in our higher education system is given a tangible monetary return.

DG: I have a slight issue with your premise, “that a college degree must be responsive to what the job market demands,” but I’ll get to that later. First, let’s get the contents of your book established, and then we can debate. You value efficiency and innovation in college education – please link this to the first half of your book, which examines for-profit colleges.

KC: Ironically, the people in charge of for-profit colleges illustrate best what happens when educators fail to make higher education responsive to job market demand, especially if higher ed is to be sustainable. Above all, my research indicates that for-profit colleges are far more concerned with their stock holdings and profit margins than they are for the welfare [and employment] of their students post-graduation.

Unlike traditional colleges, which are operated by an independent board of trustees with no obligation to quarterly profits or shareholders, for-profit colleges have just that. Owned and operated by larger companies, think of a for-profit college like you would of any other aggressive firm. Virgin, for example, has infiltrated markets ranging from cell phones to airlines. Higher education is no different than any other market that has potential profit. It would be like Virgin adding a college to their portfolio. For example, Kaplan, Inc. is one of the largest publishers of primary and secondary standardized tests, as well as a major provider of preparation tools for standardized entrance exams such as the SAT. However, Kaplan, Inc. also owns and operates several for-profit colleges that range from Kaplan University to Concord Law School. These institutions ultimately have an obligation to their shareholders, which has historically come at the expense of its students.

To support this serious accusation, our conversation begins with an initial understanding of the central innovation upon which profit hinges; the efficiency of a for-profit’s churn or attrition rate. Since for-profit colleges experience significant withdrawal rates, such as an 84-percent withdrawal rate within a four-month period from admittance at Bridgepoint Education, Inc., for-profit colleges rely on a continuous flow of applicants to fill seats. Although for-profit higher education firms continue to promise adequate student support intended to translate quickly into employment, their practices fail to fulfill their supposed commitments. From data collected in 2010 on for-profit colleges that were under investigation by the Senate HELP Committee and GAO, the relevant firms employed 35,202 recruiters, compared to 12,452 student support staff and 3,512 career services staff.

Personal accounts from former students in a report filed by the Senate HELP Committee substantiate the effects of these figures. For example, one UTI student reported his experience as, “I’ve indebted myself $15k dollars to show up in uniform and decipher procedures from a service manual, basically teaching myself instead of receiving accurate and consistent direction from an instructor regarding practical, procedural instruction.” This essentially explains the astronomical withdrawal rates, in that for-profit colleges appropriate a large amount of resources to recruitment, while allocating very little to instruction and student support once the student is financially committed. As another student from Kaplan testified in the report, “This is a corporate run school and as such… Money is the main object, not the quality of the education provided.”

Although this is but a tip of the iceberg, this short explanation of the for-profit industry puts into context the extreme inefficiency of the industry in regard to its commitment of making students career ready.

DG: What would it take to restore efficiency to the for-profit college industry? Then again, do you even want the for-profit college industry to survive?

KC: Modest attempts to regulate the industry have not only failed to improve outcomes for students, but at times, they have made them even worse. An example includes for-profit colleges placing a greater percentage of their students into deferment or forbearance to comply with a 2008 amendment to the Higher Education Act that extended the two-year default rate of 30 percent on federal student loans to three years. Avoiding the risk of adjusting repayment plans only for the student to fall behind again and default, this ensures that college default rates remain artificially below the three-year 30 percent threshold. However, additional interest still accrues on the interest that is not paid off each month that a loan is in deferment or forbearance, leading to an end result of compounding interest. The compounding interest, over the course of this three-year window, eventually adds up to thousands of dollars in additional debt that could have otherwise been avoided, had the student been permitted to simply readjust their repayment plan.

Considering the failed attempts at regulation, the for-profit higher education sector is beyond salvaging. Consequently, Congress should implement a federal standard, under the Spending Clause of the Constitution, which would condition federal primary and secondary education funds on the states’ compliance to place legal bans on the operation of for-profit firms in their respective borders. Combined with several additional Spending Clause cases, South Dakota v. Dole stands as the primary case precedent for this standard, after it was deemed constitutional to condition federal highway funds to states that failed to comply with the federal drinking age. Thus, I propose that Congress should withhold primary and secondary education funds to any state that does not comply with the federal standard to ban the practice of institutions classified under §600.5 of the Higher Education Act as a “proprietary institution of higher education.” I would then transfer the $32 billion in federal higher education subsidies, currently funneled to for-profit colleges, to community colleges and state schools that would run short-term certificate programs with curriculum centered on emerging job market reports filed through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This would create a cheap and efficient way for millions of students to get the job training they need to be competitive expanding markets, while avoiding the current problem of students spending tens of thousands of dollars and years of their time on degrees that are not demanded by the job market.

DG: Your idea of a replacement program for those who are currently attending for-profit colleges is interesting; it remains me of the President’s interest in shorter college training programs for certain careers. Although I suspect the Tea Party will not approve of federal intervention in the for-profit system – you may get accused of being “anti-business” in the wake of publishing Breaking Point. Let’s talk about the second half of your book, the section about non-profits. Can you briefly outline the problems you describe in the book?

KC: In the unlikely event that my book gains the traction that I dream of, it is almost certain that those on the political right, most emphatically the Tea Party, would condemn this particular proposal as an assault on the free market. Nonetheless, I take solace in something that President John Adams once said: “Facts are stubborn things.” What these facts illustrate is a nefarious industry, driven by a ruthless lust for profit. From the time a student is cornered by a predatory recruiter over the phone, to the moment they withdraw from the institution with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no degree to show for it, an overwhelming majority of the millions enrolled in for-profit higher education leave these schools broken, their wallets empty and their dreams shattered. Congress has made repeated attempts to protect student consumers from the for-profit industry, yet these attempts have failed. Rather than press onward with inadequate proposals for a “uniform methodology for calculating job placement rates,” or “expanding the default reporting period,” Congress has the right and the duty to take a bold course of action that is capable of protecting their constituents from the threat they unknowingly face today, and will continue to face so long as serious steps are avoided.

As for Part II, I understand the flaws of non-profit higher education, which houses 88 percent of national enrollment at institutions ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities, as being two-fold. A closer look at non-profit institutions reveals that, while the objective to promote a higher quality of education exists, there is a more deeply rooted and self-interested enterprise at work. This most fundamental priority of non-profit colleges is increasingly referred to as prestige maximization, which stands as the first part of this two-fold explanation for rising college costs.

Prestige maximization is ultimately born from a structural incentive in how colleges are ranked by entities such as U.S. News & World Report, which causes colleges to spend more and more money each year. With increasing tuition established as the way to compete for prestige, the second phenomenon of excessive student amenities comes into focus as the second cause of rising tuition. In order to compete for incoming freshman, colleges have embraced a tactic of “wining and dining” students to signing the dotted line. For example, the bland food of college cafeterias [is] a thing of the past. Renovation projects in the millions of dollars have replaced hot dogs and baked beans with choices ranging from bistros to hibachi grills. Athletic facilities have undergone remodeling projects that span in the tens of millions of dollars, and have even in some cases included luxuries spanning from co-ed saunas to small indoor water parks. While these are just a few examples, this lethal combination of misguided priorities and frivolous spending has left students penniless for perks and prestige.

DG: I could be wrong, but I suspect your solution involves ending frivolous spending. (And if I’m right, your book attacks a for-profit business sector while also talking about cutting expenses elsewhere – a surprisingly centrist strategy in our era of political and ideological polarization.)

KC: You are absolutely right about ending frivolous spending and attacking the for-profit higher education sector. Once for-profit colleges are eliminated from the picture, I propose to transfer the $32 billion in annual subsidies, which are currently rewarded to the for-profit sector by the federal government, to state schools and community colleges. This money would be proportional to the size of the higher education infrastructure within any given state, and would fund programs with curriculum that is based upon 10-year job market projections that are already published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So in that regard it is more about transferring money to efficient use, rather than simply cutting it.

The major “cutting” is actually intended to happen in the non-proprietary higher education sector. By creating new incentives for colleges to restructure themselves to maximize post-graduation performance, I suspect that [colleges] will cut much of their unnecessary programs, administrative bloat, and construction projects, reversing the trend of growth to replace it with a consolidated mission based on affordability, efficiency, and student outcomes. This will naturally reverse the growing trend of higher college costs, and eventually returning to a financially sustainable system once again.

DG: OK, I was partially right on the spending count. I should have clarified that, when I guessed your solution involved cuts, I was referring just to your solution for non-profit schools. But I digress. Clarify what you mean by non-profit colleges restructuring. Additionally, how does tackling student debt factor into your non-profit college fix?

KC: My proposal for restructuring non-profit colleges begins with President Obama’s “college scorecard,” which assesses a grade to the value of a college based upon a number of factors ranging from cost to graduation rate, and can be accessed on the Department of Education webpage. I propose to take this score and assess a credit rating to every college, which would be determined directly by their score. Based upon this credit rating, colleges would then be capped at the level of federal aid they are eligible for. This, in turn, creates an incentive for colleges to focus on student outcomes, since their score is conditioned upon the value of the degree in terms of post-graduation performance. As a result, colleges will no longer offer anything and everything as a way to attract students. Lower performing colleges will be faced with the decision to continue offering programs and services that do not result in post-graduation success and risk losses in federal funding, or secure future funding by implementing a series of comprehensive cuts to low-performing programs and services. From these cuts, there should be a reduction in operating costs to schools, therefore lowering the cost of tuition.

DG: This makes sense, as do your other proposed fixes to higher ed. But I want to revisit something I mentioned earlier – my issues with your basic premise, “that a college degree must be responsive to what the job market demands.” Speaking as a recent college grad, I agree with you that a degree should help toward a career, college administrators should consider job projections, and administrators should put their students’ adequate education before prestige or stock values. Still, reflecting on our conversation, I’m concerned that you’re creating a rather narrow definition of what a college’s purpose should be:

(A) The degree to which your rhetoric emphasizes job readiness and market responsiveness sends the message that college should simply be a form of technical school for all professions. As such, your premise could be used to argue that degrees which popularly aren’t thought to lead to a job right after graduation – humanities degrees in particular – should be discontinued.

(B) It’s true that plenty of colleges waste money with excessive perks and unnecessary buildings. Still, some of what might be deemed perks, such as improved dining facilities and new labs/performance spaces/technology-equipped classrooms, can greatly improve the quality of life and learning at a college. If we follow your premise far enough, it implies that a college should spend on little aside from teaching. As such, people who support austerity measures in this post-recessionary economy may cite your book as support for cutting back on basically all expenses.

Overall, I’d caution you to be careful not to portray college solely as a path to a career, and to acknowledge that, with the advances in data science, computing, etc. on campuses, your proposals won’t stop all tuition increases. College is and should be absolutely a place for career training, as you’ve argued here. But it’s also a place to become a more literate, well-rounded person, a place to preserve cultural arts, and a place where students can work with current tech and live decently. So beware of people using Breaking Pointas justification for dismantling the multifaceted nature of American higher ed.

How would you respond?

KC: Dan, I respect the position that you have taken on this issue and admire your advocacy for the liberal arts and the quality of life of students. Can the cultural enrichment from these programs and services benefit the student? Without a doubt. Do I wish that every single student could enjoy the privileges that come with this investment in cultural enrichment and commitment to the quality of life while attending? Absolutely. Is a system that invests in this model sustainable? No. If it was, we would not be having this conversation.

Throughout college, I have worked a menial job as a crewmember at Dunkin Donuts to help pay for books and put gas into my car. There, I have met living examples of the failures of the system that you support. One of my coworkers is a single mother of two, who graduated from a local, regionally ranked college with a major in Women’s Studies and a minor in Dance. After graduating, she could not find employment in her fields of study, so she took a position at Dunkin Donuts, making $8.00 an hour with no benefits to support herself and her two kids. When her student loan bills began to pile up, she applied to work at a local bank so that she did not default on her student debt. The woman has a bachelor’s degree and she can barely survive paycheck-to-paycheck, working two menial jobs that she would have been qualified to work without a college degree, and are in no way related to her field of study. Did this woman receive cultural enrichment and a high quality of life during her time at college? Yes, but where is she now? She, like so many others, will never have the chance to apply the skills that she learned at college.

Is cultural enrichment beneficial to society? Of course, I don’t doubt that. However, just because someone has a degree that has enriched [his or her] understanding of the world does not necessarily guarantee that society or the individual will benefit from it. Case in point, how is this young woman applying what she learned at school in a way that benefits society or [her]? What part of her education in Woman’s Studies and Dance has any relevance to making coffee and cleaning the donut case? Nothing.

Our disagreement derives from your assumption that society and the individual will automatically benefit from acquiring a degree that is culturally enriching. In no way do I criticize the academic merits of a liberal arts degree. I simply recognize that the job market does not demand the surplus of these degrees that exists today and that consequently, many have neither the time nor the resources to enrich society with their area of study because they are not employed in a profession that enables them to apply these skills. Therefore, both the individual and society as a whole mutually benefit when our system recognizes what the job market demands, in that the individual will be able to sustain themselves as a professional in their field, and society will be improved as the individual applies what they learned in that profession.

DG: I still think it’s an incorrect logical leap to go from saying that excessive and unnecessary spending at a college is unsustainable to saying that the entire current system of non-profit colleges, supporting diverse degree programs and some minimum level of student benefits, is unsustainable. Regardless, this is your book project, Kevin, and you clearly are capable of defending its arguments thoroughly, whether or not your future readers and I agree with all of its points.

KC: Two things will continue to rise without a doubt, should we choose to do nothing; tuition and underemployment. We can continue to downplay excess spending on the construction and operation of amenities projects, which span into the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars and have accrued to over a $1.2 trillion national student loan debt. We can also continue to ignore the fact that millions of students are leaving college with degrees that are not valued by the job market, resulting in an unprecedented level of unemployment and underemployment from college graduates. Regardless of what you wish to believe, Dan, these consequences of a broken system will continue to perpetuate themselves in reality if priorities are not redefined. Do I wish that hard choices had to be made? No. However, are they necessary to create a sustainable higher education system that ensures the financial security of the individual and the welfare of the nation? Yes.

DG: Kevin, thank you for participating in this discussion of what will surely be a controversial and compelling book. Good luck with pushing for your reforms in the future.

KC: Thank you, Dan, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and your readers. For anyone who is interested in following the book, I am attempting to develop a strong social media presence before I approach publishing houses to show that there is demand for my book. I welcome and would appreciate anyone to like, share, and participate on the page, and look forward to continuing the conversation that we had today. Good luck to you in the future, Dan, as a writer, educator, and historian. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you.

Follow Kevin Connell on Facebook and Twitter.

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