The results of Ithaka S+R’s first Higher Ed Insights survey, released yesterday, provide a rich set of information about the views of a group of people deeply immersed in the sector.  In full disclosure, I was one of the survey’s respondents, and the questions encouraged me to ponder and articulate my views on a number of important issues and trends, as I’m sure they did for others.

One thing that struck me about the survey and its results was the emphasis on the goal of increasing completion at the institutional level. The institutional completion goal seems reflexive to me, especially when applied across the whole sector. It presumes that the cure for poor performance on efficiency and equity in higher education is ever more higher education as we know it. The primary focus on completion as the hair of the dog solution begs the big question: Who does the completion agenda benefit, and how?

The basic question, “Is college worth it?” has two dimensions in the public mind: 1) the real cost of college and 2) the ability of a graduate to find a meaningful job. Completion is prominent inside the higher education policy dialogue, but is rarely heard in the larger public critique of the postsecondary system. In poll after poll, we are told that career advancement is the primary motivation for college attendance. That belief in a high personal return on investment is also the most powerful source for revenue growth in the higher education sector during its fourfold expansion over the past several decades.

My view is that the completion agenda is an insider’s agenda that is only tangentially related to the broader public interest in higher education cost, economic value, and economic mobility.

One reason for this tangential relationship to the value of higher education is that completion tends to keep the focus on the institution as the key unit of analysis in higher education. Graduation rates are institutional variables. Yet we know that program of study is the more powerful determinant of economic value. Field of study is a key focus for efficiency and equity in a world where access to college fields of study with wide variation in labor market value has become the major source of the growth in income inequality since the early eighties.

Using the individual institution as the primary focus of higher education reform also makes the postsecondary sector impervious to the unbundling of economic and non-economic value within and across postsecondary institutions—a transition that is necessary to maximize both equity and efficiency. (Ithaka S+R’s survey respondents recognize the importance of unbundling, ranking it as the most promising initiative to enhance the affordability of higher education for students.) This market based process of unbundling value as a means to rationalize product and service delivery has been at the core of restructuring in both the public and private sector since the eighties.

Finally, thinking about higher education on an institution by institution basis also does little to resolve systemic equity problems.  Individual institutional selectivity is the basic dynamic that sorts students in the higher education system.  Selectivity is based on test scores and other educational metrics that launder profound race and class inequality. The selectivity dynamic operating at the institutional level in higher education underwrites K-12 inequity and subsequently magnifies it in labor markets.  It also results in a growing disproportionate representation of white and affluent students in selective colleges exacerbating inequality in spending per student, graduation rates, access to graduate school and access to general education. Altogether these inequities make the higher education system complicit in the intergenerational reproduction of race and class privilege.

The best of higher education institutions, including my own, get better and better all the time but those of us privileged to be a part of that rarified excellence need to take more responsibility for the diverse peoples and purposes that now depend on postsecondary education and training, broadly writ.  We need to recognize that the elitist aspirational pathway from high school to Harvard, or Georgetown for that matter, has become a minor narrative in the modern American experience.  As such, it is no longer the appropriate frame for institutional change or policy in the broader public interest.