Carol Folt, the next president of the University of Southern California. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, CC BY-ND

How higher ed can earn the public’s trust after the admissions scandal

The college admissions scandal is exposing illegal and unethical conduct by dozens of people who paid or took bribes to get students into the University of Southern California and other elite universities. Concerns about social justice, meritocracy, parental overreach, privileges tied to wealth and philanthropy are rampant.

It’s also pointing to another widespread concern that troubles us as scholars who study higher education and the public good.

Americans have traditionally viewed higher education as an essential public good because it fosters a strong workforce and effective citizens. We believe that the admissions scandal is undercutting the public’s faith in its value.

Questions about accountability

Faith in higher education serving the needs of all Americans is the rationale for the annual investment of an estimated US$158 billion of public funds in public and private schools. Now, perhaps more than ever, Americans are questioning whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

Are we?

It’s hard to know, because it’s unclear who is supposed to hold institutions accountable on behalf of taxpayers. Yet all of us pay for federal, state and local tax breaks and research funding.

The admissions fiasco is hardly the first controversy to make higher ed look bad.

Most recently, athletic debacles have rocked Pennsylvania State University, the University of Maryland and Michigan State University. Legacies of racial, class, ethnic, religious and gender bias remain at many institutions.

Sloppy financial management has afflicted the University of Central Florida and Howard University. Conflicts of interest have plagued Baylor, the University of Illinois-Chicago and many others. Questions have arisen about whether schools are bowing too much to the whims of their donors at George Mason University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Each infraction and scandal chips away at the public’s trust.

Long-term investment

From the earliest days of the new republic, America’s leaders understood that a society freed from aristocratic and despotic dominance requires an educated populace to participate in its governance.

“Nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue,” proclaimed Ben Franklin.

In the intervening centuries, this nation has not only believed in this admonition but put its money where Franklin’s words were, as we documented in two research papers. Universities create life-improving, and even life-saving, knowledge. They contribute to society in important ways, ranging from the creation of the internet to advances in immunotherapies and vaccines.

Virtually every college and university takes advantage of public funds in the form of federal and state tuition subsidies and direct investments, federal and state research funding, and tax benefits for donors and charitable entities. In addition to the $158 billion in annual government funding, there’s $46 billion in donations from individuals, corporations and foundations – often eligible for tax breaks. This money is spent directly and indirectly on about 20 million currently enrolled students.

There is also the matter of the $1.56 trillion debt the federal government guarantees for student loans.

Declining confidence

Even before the admissions scandal broke, a Gallup poll indicated that less than half of American adults have faith in higher education. A Pew poll found that the public is worried about the direction higher education is taking.

Perhaps reflecting those sentiments, some state funding for higher ed has been redirected to other priorities. Parents and prospective students are asking themselves if college is worth its rising tab, including the mountain of debt former students owe in exchange for making their own gainful employment more likely.

Political parties are sharply divided on the value of higher education and whether public funding has kept up with need.

A former soccer coach at Yale has pleaded guilty and helped build the case against other suspects in the college admissions scandal. AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz

Accountability

A nongovernmental voluntary system of accreditation through which all higher ed institutions submit to scrutiny regarding self-defined financial, operational and academic standards and criteria has been in place for nearly 100 years.

The federal government, through the Education Department, has delegated authority to the seven regional and two national accreditation agencies. Meeting their standards on such matters as academic achievement and financial viability is mandatory to be eligible for receiving federal funds, especially student aid. States rely on this system as a proxy for financial and operational integrity too.

In our view, these scandals suggest that this approach to oversight is falling short, largely because the observations are kept confidential. If accreditors were to make all aspects of their review and findings public, their work would accomplish much more.

To be sure, some approaches to professional self-regulation, including the systems that doctors and lawyers use, do a reasonable job of earning the public’s trust. But clearer and higher standards of professional conduct are needed in the academic profession if the public’s trust is to be maintained. We and other colleagues argue that the academy needs to reaffirm its commitment to the public good as individual faculty members by ensuring that their own teaching and research advances the common good and is conducted ethically.

Among other things, all faculty and administrators must disclose conflicts of interest such as medical researchers funded by pharmaceutical companies who may potentially put patients at risk if they rel on inconclusive results. These rules demand rigorous enforcement.

Most of the voluntary institutional associations that encompass all of higher education running the gamut from community colleges to elite research universities attest to their members’ integrity and accountability. Yet they have few mechanisms in place to scrutinize members’ conduct other than relying on promises to adhere to the organizations’ principles and values. They should, and soon.

Other voluntary higher ed associations, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities and the National Association of University and College Business Officers, highlight the importance of self-regulation to maintain the public trust. Such groups need to prove that they mean it by at least requiring an annual personal reaffirmation of adherence to standards by the president on behalf of the institution, along with paying dues.

State coordinating bodies for higher education, the NCAA and the NAIA, governmental agencies like the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Education are also supposed to hold colleges and universities accountable. Most are overwhelmed by numbers of members and alleged infractions with limited capacity to enforce well-meaning rules, but each of these bodies can do more.

Trustees

What’s more, higher ed trustees are supposed to be holding the institutions they oversee accountable. Boards of trustees or governors have the ultimate responsibility for institutional performance and integrity, as promulgated by the Association of Governing Boards and others. As variously prescribed by the states, trustees are legally responsible for their institutions.

Trustees own the consequences of the actions of the people they oversee and the moral climate they inculcate. Individually, each trustee has a personal responsibility to know what “trust” means, even if only the collective actions of a board have formal authority. We argue that trustees should discuss annually the institution’s contribution to the public good and include this aspect of institutional accountability in their assessment of CEO performance.

Trustees have a fiduciary duty, but others must step up too, including the parents of aspiring students, college officials, coaches and all faculty members. For there can be no institutional accountability without individual responsibility.