Higher Education reform at a crossroads…democracy hangs in the balance

In response to the previous two Badger Democracy blogs examining the future of higher education (Scott Walker, ALEC, and the future of the UW System; ALEC, Higher Education, and Lumina Foundation); UW Assistant Professor of Education Sara Goldrick-Rab  posted a blog titled “Reflections on Foundations, ALEC, and Higher Ed Reform in Wisconsin.” 

It is clear that Goldrick-Rab has the UW System and students’ best interests at the fore of her research activity. While the politicians and foundations she must work with may have a different policy agenda; she affirms the need for transparency and accountability in the process:

“We must avoid privatization of public education– and we want to educate people while growing and expanding the labor market so there are jobs waiting on the other end.  But the goal of expanding access to a high-quality education while driving down costs is a laudable one– as long as the role of public democratic governance of that education is preserved.”

A recent academic paper presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in April 2012 raises concerns about the changing role of Private Foundations and their influence on Public Higher Education.

“Advocacy Philanthropy” and the Public Policy Agenda was presented by Cassie Hall and L. Scott Thomas of Claremont Graduate University to the AERA annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada. The paper gives a well researched and documented overview of the changing role of private foundations, and how they are changing the face of public higher education.

Early educational philanthropies  were focused on infrastructure, building projects, research, and institutional grants directly to the college or university. Now, these foundations are focused on reform initiatives and hands-on policy work. Lumina Foundation President/CEO Jamie Merisotis stated the vision for Lumina at the 2010 Association for the Study of Higher Education:

We’ve learned very quickly that Lumina is—and must be—more than just a grant-making
organization. We increasingly recognize that, as an independent foundation pursuing a vital mission, we must also be a leadership organization….Yes, we follow the traditional but
extremely important approach of identifying and supporting successful practices and
meaningful research. But we also engage in public policy advocacy, and we use our
communications and convening power to foster partnerships and to build public will for

Three recent trends identified by the study show the evolution of private foundations over the past decade.

1. There has been a significant shift in foundation focus – towards completion, productivity, metrics, and efficiency; and away from academics and institutions. The primary issues are economics and consumer driven, and public policy.

From the Lumina Foundation’s 2011 annual report:

“…as the economic benefits of higher education attainment become more widely recognized, the public, business leaders, and higher education institutions are paying
more attention to the impact that college completion can have on economic development. There is a growing consensus that new models are needed to expand knowledge and strategies to develop the human capital needed for today’s economy” (Lumina Foundation, 2011, Jun 7, para. 1).”

2. The changing role of private foundations is contributing to an increased distrust in higher education institutions’ ability to enact reforms. To that end, more money is going to foundation research and policy organizations to reform policy; as opposed to higher ed institutions.

The following table demonstrates the majority of foundation grants going to private institutions (The University of California is the only public institution on the list):

Table 9. Top Recipients of Foundation Higher Education Grants, circa 2000-2009
Institution Name                                Years in Top 10
Columbia University NY                 10: 2000-2009
Duke University NC                            8: 2000-2004, 2006-2007, 2009
Harvard University MA                    9: 2000-2008
Johns Hopkins University MD        6: 2000-2004, 2009
Stanford University CA                      9: 2000-2001, 2003-2009
University of California CA               7: 2000-2006
University of Pennsylvania PA       7: 2000-2006
Note: Based on institution being in top 10 of recipients of higher education foundation grants at least five times between
2000 and 2009. (The Foundation Center, 2011)

In 2002, public policy research accounted for $124,500 of Lumina’s grant awards (less than 10% of total awards). In 2010, Lumina awarded over $12 Million in grants to policy research – over 50% of total awards.

3. Direct political engagement, policy, and legislative activities is a dramatic departure from the norm of an intentional differentiation between private foundations and politics.

Lumina’s investment and engagement with ALEC is evidence of this shift since 2008. In a report from the 2010 annual meeting of State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), the Lumina Foundation:

“…will expand its efforts by convening business leaders, lawmakers, higher-education groups, and faculty members to build consensus on specific policy measures. In addition…Lumina will draft model policies for states, including legislation. The group is already working with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative-leaning organization, to write and introduce bills in state houses. Lumina has also hired a director of state policy to coordinate the foundation’s efforts”

This dramatic shift in foundation practices raises several significant areas of concern.

1. Foundations lack external accountability and are concentrating power away from practice.

One expert interviewed by Hall and Thomas levels the concern:

“…the most disturbing element [of the current approach to highereducation philanthropy] is that, in America, we elect officials to determine the direction of thecountry, yet foundations are working to set the public policy agenda. Foundation officials are notelected, foundations do not pay taxes, and there are no accountability or transparency measures. It’snot that they shouldn’t have a voice, but trying to direct government is another thing; it could be abig misstep on their part, and there could be a backlash” (Anonymous, personal communication,June 23, 2011).”

2. Philanthropies are stifling innovation by promoting large-scale, prescriptive grants.

The foundations are pre-determining what is necessary to reform the higher education system, and selectively researching to promote their desired outcome. This accounting from another Hall/Thomas interview, regarding Lumina’s resource allocation to “intermediaries” (companies and consultants hired by the Foundation for research, policy study, etc.):

“…we have some specific goals and objectives that we want to achieve in this area, and here you go, intermediary, we are going to give you this money and you are going to manage this effort for us—you are going to get us from A to B—and this is what we want you to do with our resources. So it is very explicit, or at least more explicit than it had been, and I think that might be a change in terms of the role of intermediaries” (Anonymous, personal communication, April 12, 2011).”

The consequences of such behavior are limiting the debate on how best to approach higher education in the future:

“…there are an awful lot of ideas that could be out there that never see the light of day now because the competitions of ‘tell us how you would tackle this problem’ and those sort of wide open invitations to send in proposals just are not there. There may be some really good ideas that do not see the light of day anymore, because the ideas in many ways are becoming the purview of the foundation staffs and whoever they bring in or not. So it is being controlled by groupthink more than it used to be” (Anonymous, personal communication, May 19, 2011).”

3. Foundation advocacy and insertion into state/government policies has resulted in an outsized influence on the part of philanthropy.

An expert accounting by Hall/Thomas about this influence:

“ Lumina’s financial size (it has grown to more than $1 billion) as one of the 30 largest foundations in the nation and its aggressive push of its 2025 program have made the Indianapolis-based foundation the buzz of the higher education community. Still, [it is] a smaller being among the cluster of the nation’s bigger and
much older foundations, and some marvel that this midget among giants is moving like an 800-pound gorilla”

This “outsized influence” is coming at a time when all public education is being defunded at the state level, increasing the burden on our institutions of higher learning – one of the pillars of democracy. Institutions are scrambling for funds; which makes the acceptance of private funds to fill the void not only more appealing, but necessary.

The issues at hand are accountability, transparency, and legitimacy to the claim of productivity. The study by Hall/Thomas clearly demonstrates that a public policy agenda is not only present – it is of the highest importance to foundations like Lumina. Absent of public accountability and legislative oversight, the face of the UW System could be drastically altered – and not for the better. Professor Goldrick-Rab and her academic colleagues have their work cut out for them, if they are to work within the system for legitimate reform in the best interest of the University of Wisconsin.

The claim to “job creation” promised by Lumina Foundation as a rationalization for reform will be examined next. The concept that the more people with college degrees translates into more jobs needs to be examined, and will be. Using historical data from US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the next Badger Democracy blog will show that may not really be the outcome. It may, in fact, lead to more people without jobs – and more student loan debt.


One thought on “Higher Education reform at a crossroads…democracy hangs in the balance

  1. I think it’s something darker and moire devious than foundations pushing policy. Walker has complained that Wisconsin workers don’t have the “skills” employers need – the type of skills taught in trade schools not colleges. Walker has been pushing for people to NOT go to college. So this new push is something more ominous – pushing low cost off-campus/distance degree programs will divert more and more people from pursuing a traditional degree, leading to the death of many public institutions of higher learning – and ultimately privatization of the system, possibly with private companies paying the state for the right to use the “UW” name. That I believe is the ultimate goal.

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