How to Save Public Higher Ed: New Book Makes Case For Rethinking the Value of Colleges

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Listen to this week’s EdSurge Podcast episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Below are lightly edited highlights from the conversation.


It has been about a month since the American presidential election. With a new administration coming in, there’s bound to be lots of talk about things like making college free and how to help people afford higher education.

And today’s guest, John Warner, has just released a timely book with fresh arguments on how to frame this larger question of who should pay for higher education—and even how we should think about college’s place in American life. The book is called “Sustainable. Resilient. Free: The Future of Public Higher Education.”

Warner is a regular columnist for Inside Higher Ed, and his previous books include “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

EdSurge: You say in the book that one of the biggest problems over the last few decades can be traced to one source: The U.S. News rankings of America’s Best Colleges. Why do you see these as so destructive?

John Warner: The idea is that colleges would compete their way to excellence. And what that has devolved into over time is that colleges compete their way to getting students to pay them tuition. And I would argue [that has forced colleges into] non-core activities around trying to enroll students—like marketing. For instance, the University of Alabama has something like 30 people to go out and recruit students. Some absurd number of their students come from my home state of Illinois. They had something like 1,600 students from Illinois alone enrolled at one time. This kind of system where different states are swapping students in order to realize greater revenue through out-of-state tuition or to compete in the U.S. News and World Report rankings to increase their prestige has created what I think are these massive inefficiencies in the system.

You say in the book that we need a new narrative to talk about higher education, and you used a word that I was surprised by, and that was “infrastructure.” How is a public college infrastructure?

Think of your local college or university. They are an employer. They are a cultural hub. They are a technology hub. They fulfill all of these roles simultaneously, just in their day-to-day operations. They’re then also educating the populace of your state, community and locality. And in that way, they are creating these assets that the state, the locality, the community is going to be able to use on a continuous and ongoing basis. To me that’s infrastructure—the same way that we look at our libraries and our K-12 schools as infrastructure or roads. The problem is we haven’t been treating them that way. We’ve been treating them as the sort of private good.

States have been disinvesting for 40-plus years, with an incredible acceleration during the most recent recession and a coming disinvestment [due to the pandemic] that will probably dwarf the last one. It’s really going to be scary to see what colleges are facing.

So we need bold action. I think there is some recognition that the federal government has a role in this. I think you’ve even seen people who previously did not think that are starting to move [in that direction]. Like Kevin Carey at New America, who wrote a book [a few years ago] about “The End of College” and the beginning of the university of everywhere has been writing very persuasively about the need to give [more] money to public colleges and universities. I think there’s a broad recognition that we may lose this precious thing, but we’re in an emergency where there’s lots of bad things happening. And if we lose these things, they will be difficult to bring back.

You talk in the book about the much maligned lazy rivers that public colleges and all kinds of colleges have built in recent years—these luxury facilities. But I found you have a surprising defense of these lazy rivers, or at least a different way to think about them?

The defense of the lazy river is that there really aren’t that many of them. The reality is very few universities do this, and they are the large state universities. Most of the increase in cost in college for tuition really is from state disinvestment. Tuition goes up because states pay less. That is just a hard fact. There are other contributing factors, but they are more complicated. A big contributor is the cost of health care. If your health care costs go up five or 10 percent every year, that’s just a cost that colleges have to absorb. And the reality is [colleges are] trying to solve it through things like adjunctification—to have a cheaper faculty, and we have done that—we’re now at the point where a majority of faculty is not tenure track.

So let’s talk about what you recommend. The pandemic is going to make getting more state funding even harder. So what are some ways to get at this problem so these colleges don’t collapse?

So there’s kind of two halves to this. One is to change the orientation of these institutions from doing what, what I call operations on down—which is essentially how do we enroll students and capture the tuition and then we’ll worry about everything else—and instead move to mission on up. I would like to see institutions concentrating on the mission of teaching and learning—of educating students.

Now, the next step is a big one and it’s, how are we going to pay for that? We are not going to business model our way out of this. We are not going to tech silver bullet our way out of this. None of that is going to happen. We cannot increase tuition.

We cannot beg billionaires to fund all of our public schools. We need structural change. And the structural change really is setting tuition at free. Free tuition will force us to figure out a way to fund these institutions without relying on private money, particularly from students. States, obviously can’t do it by themselves.

So the only other source of money is the federal government. And fortunately in a lot of ways we’ve seen a growing comfort with a certain amount of deficit spending—particularly when interest rates are low, that we can fund these things that we believe are going to contribute to economic growth. And I think colleges and universities are a pretty good candidate for that kind of thing. Certainly better than cruise ships. There’s a lot of details to be sorted out. But in the end, it’s going to be some kind of federal state partnership.

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