Episode 82 - Enrollment and the 2019 "Varying Degrees" Report

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith sit down with Rachel Fishman, Deputy Director for Research at the Higher Education Initiative with New America, to discuss the perceptions of higher education, including affordability, quality, and return on investment.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined today in-studio as always by President Wyatt. Scott, hi.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve, it's good to be back together again.

Meredith: Good to see you again. We are in our continuing series of podcasts about the changes that are facing higher education and the challenges that are facing higher education. We are concerned and perhaps because of our rather remote location, maybe we're more concerned even than others about the perceptions of higher education. You and I have worked together at a couple of small colleges and you had to really want to get to both of them. Cedar City is a little bit more on the way to something than the other place we used to work, but if you want to go to Southern Utah University, you have to want to come here. And so, the public perception of higher education generally and the willingness to leave home to get it or to be discomforted in some way to seek it out is important to us. And there are a number of organizations that help us sense how we're doing in the public's eye and we have a guest joining today that's especially expert at that. Why don't you introduce her?

Wyatt: Thanks, Steve. Yeah, we are so delighted to have Rachel Fishman with us today, Deputy Director for Research at the Higher Education Initiative with New America. Rachel, welcome.

Rachel Fishman: Thank you so much for having me.

Wyatt: What's the weather like in Washington, D.C. today?

Fishman: It's actually not too bad. We're having a bit of a heat wave for January. This weekend it was in the 60s…

Wyatt: Oh my, that is a heat wave.

Fishman: And now…yeah. So, it's not bad for January. I think it's going to return to the cold next week but I have spent lots of time in the Midwest, so I definitely don't miss the frigid winters of Chicago. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah. That is a place that can get cold, Chicago.

Meredith: Another place you've got to want to go, in the wintertime especially. You've got to want to go to Chicago in the winter.

Fishman: It's pretty cold there.

Meredith: Yep.

Fishman: Yes.

Wyatt: Well, speaking of places where you want to go…yeah, Southern Utah University, we are really a residential school. Most people move here to study and you just don't roll out of bed and then walk across the street and register. You have to make a decision to move to come here. So, some of the perceptions and things about higher education generally are particularly interesting to us. But Rachel, why don't we let you introduce yourself? We'd love to hear a little bit more about New America and your path to becoming Deputy Director for Research there and what some of the goals are for New America and then let's talk a little bit about some of the findings from this Varying Degrees report from last year.

Fishman: Sure. So, I've been at New America now for eight years…seven or eight years. I've actually started losing track, which by Washington, D.C. standards is really quite a long tenure. New America is a public policy institution located in downtown Washington, D.C. and…

Wyatt: Yeah, if you've been there eight years, that's two presidencies. That's pretty good for D.C.

Meredith: That is good for D.C.

Fishman: Yeah, that's right. So…

Wyatt: That's both terms. [All laugh]

Fishman: Exactly. And it spans a lot of sort of an important segment of my life. So, I haven't been Deputy Director for eight years. I've been…I started as the entry-level, mid-level policy analyst and my knowledge and my role within the team has just grown and changed over the eight years and I haven't wanted to leave because the work that we accomplish here really invigorates me every day. It's like every day I kind of just wake up and I'm like, "What am I going to do today at work?" And I'm glad to see my colleagues and it's such a great team and we really learn from one another. I mean, New America is actually quite large, it's over 150 people and we look at all sorts of policies: domestic policies, foreign policies, we have a very large open technology institute that looks at tech, but we also have our largest program which is education and I sit within the higher education initiative. So, it really…we look at education policies, we have an early education team all the way through higher education and we have a separate but overlapping workforce team that looks at not only sort of the degrees and workforce initiatives that are going on in the United States but also looks at apprenticeships, which is, given the current administration, is very important. So…and yeah, I was a policy analyst under the Obama administration and now we're in the Trump administration and now we have this policy playing out in the background of the Democratic primaries. And so, it's been just a really interesting time to be in D.C.

Wyatt: Tell us about the Varying Degrees report from 2019?

Fishman: yeah, sure. So, every year we…every year for the past three years, we have done a survey that is nationally represented about American perceptions and knowledge of higher education. We really wanted to get an idea of how American's feel about higher education, how we should hold it accountable if at all, how it should be funded, who should be the primary funded, whether it's a social good or a private good. We also ask a lot of questions about people's knowledge about higher education and how old they think the average student is? How many people do they think are borrowing loans? Questions like that just to get an idea…or whose loans are in default? Just to get an idea of where people's perceptions meet with reality. Do people really understand what today's college students look like? Because we know that today's college students are actually a much more diverse group than people realize or recognize and we have to make policies that meet these students where they are.

Wyatt: What are you seeing as the changes? What are the trends in perceptions?

Fishman: The trends have stayed relatively stagnant over the past three years and we have…just like any good research, the research has evolved over the years and really tried to hone the questions and make sure that we're asking the things that we really want to ask. But in general, there is a sense that higher education is not fine the way it is. There's a lot of concerns about affordability and access. And then there's sort of a divergent viewpoint among Democrats and Republicans because you also…because you know, I sit in Washington, D.C. and so, we're often very concerned about what's happening with these policy conversations, so when we look at differences between Republicans and Democrats, there's a divergent viewpoint over whether…that Democrats view higher education more as a good for society and Republicans view it more as a private good that is an individual benefit. And so, it's interesting seeing those interplay of answers year over year and seeing how people are kind of dead fact in their opinions, even as I think the higher education affordability question and even what's going on in the primaries right now with today, Elizabeth Warren just announced if she becomes president, she's going to use Executive Power to basically forgive lots of debt of Americans, lots of student loan debt. And so, it's interesting to see that play out on the survey and see people dig in in their opinions.

Wyatt: Yeah, everybody that just finished making their last payment is going to be frustrated with that. [All laugh]

Fishman: Yeah. I think there's a lot of questions about the legality of doing things through Executive Order and there is questions of the Trump administration and how they're interpreting…

Wyatt: Right.

Meredith: Right.

Fishman: And the Education Department is interpreting. So, there is…it has been an interesting day of sort of, "How?" and "How would we do this?" and "Why would we do it this way?" and "Is that even a good idea?" So…

Wyatt: You know, since we're talking about…since you brought that up, I'm looking at your report and one of the things that's interesting to me is the comparison between opinions between Democrats and Republicans. And the one chart in particular, Republicans seem to be more confident that they can find good, stable jobs with only a high school diploma than do Democrats.

Fishman: Yes. And I think that also feeds into their beliefs that higher education is a private good or that it is just a private good for individual benefit. They're more likely to say that as well and I think that just goes to show that if you already think that it's a private good with individual benefit and you already think you can find without…with only a high school degree, then your ideas surrounding funding or free college or forgiving all debt are going to be influenced by those opinions, by those perceptions.

Meredith: Well, right. Because why should you be taxed to pay somebody else's student loan if you yourself did not take advantage of going to college or university and don't think that's a necessary thing, correct? I mean, that's one of the ways that people might think about that.

Fishman: Yeah, there's a couple interesting things going on here. One is that almost everybody…it's only a…it's really neck and neck when you look at…so, when you look at the data for this question, "There are lots of well-paying stable jobs that people can find with only a high school diploma or GED," actually most people agree with that. So, most of the general public…I think it's something like 62%. We've tried to ask this question a number of different ways. We're always shocked at the response. I think the year before this, the way we asked the question is…basically it was something like, "There are lots of well-paying, stable jobs that people can find if you don't have a college degree" or something like that. And then people agreed with that and we thought that was kind of a weird answer and so, my thought was last year how we could ask it was basically, "Is there lots of well-paying, stable jobs that people can find with only a high school diploma or GED?" And going into field with that question, I think all of us were like, "There's no way people agree to this question. There's no way people think you can find well-paying, stable jobs with only a high school diploma or a GED." And we were absolutely floored to see the responses that people actually think that this is true. And so, we're trying to figure out what is going on with this question because all the actual data we have out there about the educational payment and income and job stability does not agree…proves it is not true. This is a really weird disconnect between the American public and what the data show us on the ground about earnings and educational attainment and the types of jobs people have. So, this year, we're asking the question…we're actually about to go into field again with this survey so it's going to go into field at the end of this month or the beginning of February and we're following up this question with an open ended response that if you say you agree with this that there are plenty of jobs if you only have a high school diploma or GED that you need to name a couple of those jobs. So…

Meredith: I thought you were going to say you were going to follow up with, "Are you nuts?"

Fishman: Yeah, it kind of is my like…because I think we're all like, "Like what? Like what?" And so, what's really interesting is we do focus groups a lot pretty much every year with various groups of people and it usually helps influence the questions that we ask on this survey. And I think leading into this survey, we asked people a question like this and people generally agreed and when we followed up with, "Well, what do you think those jobs are?" And the younger people—so, we were interviewing a lot of students—they would say like, "YouTube star." Which…

Meredith: [Laughs] Right.

Fishman: Is kind of like…

Meredith: Absolutely.

Wyatt: Yep.

Fishman: Not what I would call a well-paying, stable job.

Meredith: Hey, that's stable. YouTube stardom is stable.

Fishman: Yeah, and I don't know if that's what people are thinking. That's why we've asked an open-ended follow-up because we kind of want to see, "What are these responses that people give?" And we also want to see whether the responses people give once we—again, this is going to be open-ended so we're going to have to spin them together and kind of figure out what these different sectors are that people think you're able to get a well-paying, stable job—but it could also be the gas, I mean, it might be these sort of one-off, "Well you could be a YouTube star" like "Anyone can make it in America!" But it could also be that a lot of people think that certain jobs don't require post-secondary education. They might really be…even though we say on the survey repeatedly that when we mention education beyond high school, we're talking about all educational opportunities, not just associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees and beyond, so I'll be interested to see if people list things that actually do require a degree and people didn't realize that—or some sort of post-secondary credential—people didn't realize that when they answered the question that there were plenty of jobs that the jobs that they are listing actually do require a post-secondary education.

Wyatt: Yeah, and what does it mean by "lots?" There are lots of…

Fishman: I know, and that's always the thing…that's always the thing. We tried to make it very general like, "Lots of well-paying, stable jobs" to see if…that's why we're still like, "How do 60 something percent of people think that this is true?" Because it just doesn't add up to me.

Wyatt: No. It's interesting, 50% of Democrats agree with that statement that there are lots of well-paying, stable jobs.

Fishman: Yeah, it's still in the majority, right? It's like right on the…

Wyatt: But 76% of Republicans agree with that.

Fishman: Yes.

Wyatt: So, it's a substantial difference.

Fishman: It's a substantial difference, but there's still this general belief and we just don't know what to do with this finding. I mean, especially because, again, we are very transparent on the survey by what we mean by "educational opportunities after high school" and we are very clear on this question that we mean you would stop with only a high school diploma or GED. Another question we've added to help us understand the finding of this question a little bit better is one…we have a question that we ask later on in the survey that is the comfort level of someone, themselves going into higher education or recommending a pathway of higher education to their children. And as it turns out, most people would recommend their children pursue a degree. We ask it about associate's degrees, about bachelor's degrees, about apprenticeships, about technical certificates and everybody sort of has this positive feeling about recommending it to their own child or for themselves. And that holds true for Republicans and Democrats. So, despite this sort of feeling that there's lots of well-paying, stable jobs, people want to go…people actually kind of recommend to their family members that they should go pursue higher education, despite this finding. This year, we've added to that battery. We've added that, "Would you recommend a child of yours to just stop with a high school diploma or GED?" So, is it that people feel…we're trying to get a sense of is that people feel that for others there are lots of well-paying, stable jobs that people can find with only a high school diploma or GED and then once you personalize it, people are like, "Heck no, I would never recommend my own child just stop with that degree." So, again, this will be really interesting to see and just sort of dig a little further into the nuance of how people are actually perceiving education beyond high school.

Wyatt: You know, one thing that I liked about your study was is that there just seems like there's been so much press, so much news about questions of the return on investment and the value of a higher education degree and all that stuff, but looking at your data, it kind of restores a little hope for me because there's…it's really high percentages of people.

Fishman: Yeah, it's…not only that, you see this divergence between the Democrats and the Republicans over the social good/private good which I think makes a lot of sense given just the general…where both Democrats and Republicans sit on this issue in general. But when you look at the funding tucked into that, both Democrats and Republicans support investment in higher education from both states, from the federal government. They actually feel very positively about their local institutions. I mean, certainly Democrats feel both more positively want more, even more funding compared to Republicans…not even more funding, they feel…they agree with that statement even more that we should put more funding into higher education. But Republicans still agree with that, too. So, I think there is this sense that we should be investing in our institutions of higher education. That people should have an affordable pathway into higher education.

Wyatt: What's the most surprising information out of all this for you?

Fishman: I think it's probably that finding. I think we've heard so much about Republicans…Pew has a survey out there that shows that Republicans have turned sharply negative about higher education institutions in America compared to how they were feeling years ago. I mean, there's a lot going on with that sentiment, but they actually will say that higher education is leading the country in the wrong direction.

Meredith: Right, that they've become more indoctrination camps than higher education.

Fishman: Yeah. And so, there's just a lot going on with that. That finding is housed in a survey that's…about lots of institutions that are going to cause a very strong, opinionated feeling. They ask about the media, they ask about churches, they ask about…so, you think about how your mind starts getting primed asking questions about unions and higher education and churches and the media, given everything that's going on in the current atmosphere. Also, the general demographics over the years of Republicans have shifted. The general demographic of Republicans are whiter, more male and tend to be less educated as of the last presidential election. And so, that certainly is going to shift some of the internal dynamic of how Republicans felt years ago when the demographic of Republican was different than the demographic of Republicans now. But it also depends on the way you ask the question. So, we asked whether people felt positive about a higher education agree or disagree and people, for the most part, regardless of party identification agreed with that statement. Whereas Pew asked it, "Do you feel positive or do you feel negative?" So, the person would have to input "positive" or "negative." So, next year we're actually asking it both ways to see how it changes people's answers. Like if you have to agree with a positive statement, are you more likely to just agree with the positive statement? Or if you have to insert "positive/negative," does that dramatically change how people of different parties or—we're talking a lot about party demographics here but there are a lot of other demographics that we look at—does it change fundamentally some of the other demographics we've looked at?

Wyatt: Here's another interesting question: "Higher education in America is fine how it is." That's a…this question that you've got in your survey is sobering for us and it reminds us that we need to be vigilant about keeping up-to-date or whatever it is, but, "Higher education in America is fine how it is" and what this survey shows is that only…what? 27% agree with that?

Fishman: Yeah, it's about a third.

Wyatt: One third—33%.

Fishman: In previous years, it was about one in four, so, it's hard to say with a margin of error whether or not people are feeling more positive from one in four in 2017 and 2018 to one in three, but still overwhelmingly people think it's not fine the way it is. We do ask a follow-up question to this that's open ended that's like, "Well, why do you feel that way?" And people…the overwhelming response is cost and affordability, which I think makes a lot of sense, especially given everything that we've basically seen in the news for the past four or five years where there's a constant talk about student loan debt, how it's 1.5-1.6 trillion dollars, what that means for a generation of students who now have debt and what that means for millennials and Generation Z mobility. And, too, the past couple of presidential races where I think even since 2012, 2014, we've really ramped up a conversation of whether or not college should be free. And now, with this primary season going with that even further with whether or not we should forgive student loan debt.

Wyatt: Beyond cost and affordability, what are the other leading comments that people make when they say that they disagree with the statement that higher education is fine?

Fishman: It is overwhelmingly cost and affordability because I think those issues are just at the forefront, but you'll hear other things. Again, this is an open-ended response so people can say multiple things, so almost everybody sort of touches on affordability and cost. I think there's a sense from some that higher education isn't teaching what you actually need to know in the workforce. And then there's a little bit of that sentiment that students are being indoctrinated. But that is like…that falls, I have to say that's way, way, way, way, way down. When you aggregate the answers up, it's mostly cost and affordability issues.

Wyatt: So, what you're saying is most people feel good about higher education, they just feel like we're too expensive?

Fishman: Yeah, for the most part, I think that's right. I also think that people don't have a…they don't have a recognition of where higher education sort of falling short or how different today's students look from what they perceive students to look like and why we need policies that could help those students.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, I live in southern Utah which means that I drive a truck, right?

Meredith: [Laughs] Right.

Wyatt: And I would say I'm fine with my truck, but I do have a little bit of an issue with access and affordability with my truck because it was kind of expensive. [All laugh]

Meredith: Yeah.

Fishman: Yeah.

Wyatt: Quality has a cost, and that's one of those challenges. We absolutely need, in higher education circles, we need to find ways to drive the cost down. But I think that the public needs to understand that quality is expensive. Of course, for us in Utah, we're like the second least expensive tuition of any state in the country. So, it's more affordable here than it is at a lot of places. Tuition at SUU for a year is less than $7000.

Fishman: Yeah. I mean, I think we…what we're missing and what's really hard to ask about are questions about return on investment. We're trying to get savvier with how much you think a student should borrow. We have started asking as of last year a question that said, "Who should pay what share at different income levels?" Especially, again, as we've started talking more and more in the policy space about, "Should things be free? How can we be more equitable about access and affordability within the higher education?" So, we asked a question for low income, middle income and high income. Of course, we define that because everybody thinks they fall somewhere within middle income, so we're very explicit in how we're defining low, middle and high income. And we ask who should pay what share? Who should pay the most out of all the actors, and who should pay the least for each of those income categories? Which I found to be very fascinating. So, a lot of people thought the lowest income individuals shouldn't really pay much for higher education and I think that makes a lot of sense that the government should pick up the tab for people who have low and middle income. Especially for Democrats, they believe that the government should really do more to pick up the tab for low and middle income. For Republicans, it was more that the government should pick up the tab for lower income individuals and less about middle income individuals. And then once you get into high income earners, which I think we define as those with family incomes over $135,000 that the student and the student's family should pick up more of the share in accommodation of earning savings and loans. So, there's this general sense of benefits should be targeted for students at different income levels.

Wyatt: I was interested in…one of the fun things about this report is that you have all this data based on Democrat, Republican, independent. It's interesting that they…and we live in a very red state, Utah, but it's interesting that Republicans are more satisfied with higher education than Democrats. Is that because of the cost? That Republicans are OK with it being more expensive?

Fishman: I mean, it's hard to say exactly why they're more OK with that. I think everybody is generally not OK with higher education the way it is, but I think a lot of this goes into, again, how Republicans are feeling about it being more of an individual good.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Fishman: Where it's like, "Well, it's up to the individual to purchase that good, buyer beware, whether or not they need a degree. It's an individual choice and what they choose to go into higher education for, well, that's on them." And so, I think that that's probably feeding into that sentiment, but it's hard to know exactly.

Wyatt: It's hard to know.

Meredith: Yes.

Fishman: Yeah.

Wyatt: There's…another one of your questions, "Which of the following is least important for colleges and universities to do?" So, this is like golf. The bigger the score, the less important it is. "Which of the following is least important for colleges?" And 53% of those you surveyed, "Promote engaged citizenry." And then the second least important is, "Assistance with personal and intellectual growth." And I think that a lot of university employees…

Meredith: Would say those are the two most important things we do.

Wyatt: Would say those…yeah, those are right at the top.

Fishman: Yeah, and the reason why we ask that question was to actually highlight that disconnect in a way. I mean, I've run a previous survey of current and prospective students that was, at this point, I don't know, five years ago? That was one of my first projects here five or six years ago. And their findings there show overwhelmingly the reason why students are entering higher education is because they want a good career and a good…a well-paying job. And that doesn't mean they want to make a million dollars, I mean, it's wonderful if you can just make a million dollars, but they want that stability, they want a career and they want to feel invested in their career and they want to have that payoff. So, I think that is tantamount for both parents and students. Again, we see this in all of the focus groups we run, too. We've done parent focus groups and this is what they want for their children is jobs, jobs, jobs. Well, we find this disconnect when we're talking with…. I would say traditional four-year institutions, the more residential, research universities, that they don't want to consider themselves workforce programs basically. They want to consider themselves educating somebody to be a global citizen and there's more to pursuing higher education than just that. And while that is true, at the same point, you have to understand the perception of people and what they think higher education is to them, and what they think it is to them is something that's going to prepare them for a job. And along the way, if the global citizen…a liberal arts education, when done right, is going to help somebody become an informed citizen and have all of these options, but that's not what people are holding up primarily in their minds.

Wyatt: Yeah, there's a lot of secondary benefits, but their…that they get along the way, but they're coming for the job.

Meredith: And I suspect that…now, I'm just guessing from the tone of your voice versus the old, grizzled tones of our voices, that you're significantly younger than we are. I'm just guessing that.

Wyatt: Well, she does have a four-month old. [All laugh]

Meredith: She does have a four-month old child, so I'm guessing…but the reason I say that is I daresay that that has changed since Scott and I were in school as undergraduate students in a significant way. I think that if you were—and we've had guests on that have said this very thing—that if you had run this same question by a group of students in the 70s and 80s when we were in college and university, that they would have said that the most important that we're here to do is learn and that the job thing may have been second or third. But it has certainly risen to the top with the current generation of incoming students. They see that as the university's primary role.

Fishman: Yeah, and I think that's because more and more people are having to enter higher education in hopes of securing a stable job. Despite what they're saying on this survey about there being plenty of jobs, we know that enrollment, for the most part, has been growing. I know they've sort of stagnated and declined in the last few years but that's because we're in an economic recovery, but as soon as we hit another recession, we'll see those enrollments tick upwards again. And I think there's…never before have students been this invested in their education by having to borrow loans or having to front their own earnings or their parents' earnings to help pay for it. And so, more people are in higher education than ever before and more are looking to see a serious return on investment because they're making a serious investment of their own money in ways that in the 70s you didn't.

Meredith: Right.

Fishman: I mean, we started to see more lending in the 80s, but not to a level that we now have. So, I think a lot of that is feeding into it. And I think higher education should have these lofty pursuits for students. So, making people…having an informed citizenry, this goes back into the public good of higher education, but I think what's happening is that higher education is not doing a good job explaining why the economic impacts of the degree. You know, why you would take in a four-year degree, why you would have both depth of a major and breadth of all the other requirements that you have to do. I think students in our focus groups are always like, "Why do I have to take Women's Studies 101?" And it's like, "because that's going to give you so much…it's going to open your world to being able to think critically on your feet and connect things in different ways that you might not understand now." But instead, they're just like, "Why do I have to fill out…why do I have to do all of these arbitrary requirements? I could be in and out of school much more quickly and I wouldn't have to go into as much debt." Just today, the Center for Education and Workforce published a report showing that actually the economic returns to a liberal arts degree are quite high. And I've felt that and known that all along that we're doing a disservice saying, "Oh, people shouldn't be English majors'' or "People shouldn't do XYZ. People should only go into the STEM field or pursue vocational or technical interests so that they see this return on investment." And as it turns out, over a lifetime, these liberal arts degrees don't pay off at the beginning, but they do pay off over time. And I see that in my own field of work. Most of my colleagues, including myself, have a liberal arts background. I mean, I have a French degree. Do I use my French degree every day? No, I don't use my French degree every day. But I learn…I use those skills that I learned when getting that French degree every day of my life.

Wyatt: Yeah, my…I have two undergraduate majors, but one of them was philosophies, the other one economics, so, my leading major was philosophy. And I'm a philosopher every day. I think, I read, I write, I engage people in interesting conversations. So, I…

Fishman: And those are the skills employers are always looking for, right?

Wyatt: Yeah.

Fishman: They say…we have this gap of knowledge and when you press on employers what that gap is, they say that we can't find employees that can critically think, that can write, that can do all these things that a liberal arts education—again, when done right, when high-quality—is going to equip students with.

Wyatt: So, Rachel, I think this is one of the disconnects in thinking. We certainly see it as something that freshmen struggle with a bit and I think the public generally, but we should stop thinking about majors and thinking about careers or goals. Because, for example, if you want to be an accountant, you've got a path. You probably have to have an accounting degree.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: But, if you want to be a researcher at a think tank, you've got a whole variety of degrees you can take.

Fishman: Yeah, you can't major in research or a think tank? [Laughs]

Wyatt: There is no undergraduate major for university president either.

Fishman: Right.

Meredith: No.

Fishman: Exactly.

Wyatt: So, you say, "This is what I want to do. OK, that's the career I want, these are the options for majors." And then you pursue your major to get your career. Instead of…a lot of people say, "I want to major in history but I don't know what I want to do with that." Then, when they graduate, they don't know what they're going to do because they didn't know what they wanted to do when they started and they still don't know what they want when they finish. But, if they know what they want to do, then it's a great preparatory degree.

Fishman: Yes. And I think that's where it's really hard for higher education to explain to these students, and I don't think we've ever done it well, and in previous generations we haven't had to because it wasn't as much as a personal investment as it's become, but why it is…why these degrees are so valuable. Why a liberal arts degree is actually valuable. And it is really funny because I sit a lot of different panel discussions in D.C. and every once in a while on the panel discussions, we'll come up and somebody will inevitably say our ask, "Maybe we should prioritize how we focus investments to be only in…only give students a subsidy that are enrolled in certain programs." And I just think that's losing the forest for the tree. And so, it's…I sit on the panel and I usually ask after somebody asks something like that or says something like that, I say, "Well, what do you have your degree in?"

Meredith: Right.

Fishman: "What's your undergrad degree in? Who in this room has a degree that's basically from the social sciences or liberal arts?" Who is…even if you went to a…I went to the University of Wisconsin which is a huge research university, but I was in the College of Letters and Sciences, as are most students at most public institutions. They're enrolled going to be in the liberal arts program within the university, and that's where most people who work these jobs where I'm at in Washington, D.C., that's where they got their start. And so, I think it's really short-sighted to suddenly turn around and say, "We really need to focus where we're sending students and we need to subsidize different avenues of higher education when, as it turns out, that liberal arts degree is still really deeply important and it has a really good return on investment as we saw today with the data that just came out.

Meredith: I've often thought that one of the ways we could stop that disconnect a little bit would be to engage students from the very beginning in talking about what it is that they want to do for a career. Not necessarily pushing them into a…obviously, as you've suggested, if somebody is going to be a CPA, they're going to take accounting and that's a pretty easy thing. But, if people come in, as many freshmen do, and literally have no idea what they want to do and in many cases even why they're there, they haven't discovered their "why," they oftentimes, I think taking some sort of an assessment—a career or interest or one of those types of tests that are given—can help focus people's thinking. I think, President, we're actually considering having a battery of those things for our incoming freshmen, aren't we? To get them thinking about where it is that they want to end up so if they say "college president" or they say "research" or "a think tank" or if they say, "washed up, unemployed musician"—which is what I am—then they know how to get there. Or at least that they can see that there are a number of pathways in the cases of…because my undergrad is in music, Scott's is in philosophy and yours is in French and none of those things would have been considered necessarily as direct…in fact, I daresay our path, the longer you live your life, the more circuitous your path becomes. And so, it's actually a great idea to know what you'd like to end up doing and seeing that there are a number of ways to get there, I think. Is that fair?

Fishman: Yeah, I think it's also important to…I think, too, careers when you enter college…and I had a lot of exposure to different careers growing up just because I lived on the east coast, I grew up in an upper-middle class family and so I've actually taken a class on, in grad school, about how at different ages the number of careers, you know, children, adolescents as you kind of go through high school and into college, career exposure. And even though I was sort of in that category that probably had exposure to more different types of careers than others because of the education attainment of my parents and the income level and where I grew up, I still…my eyes were open when I went to college and university and discovered there were all these jobs I never knew anything about. And then even further, I remember watching The West Wing when I was in college and them talking about think tanks and I remember thinking to myself, "Think tanks? That's a cool job. I don't know what that is, but it seems to me that would be kind of a cool job." And little would I know a few years later I would actually end up working in the think tank, but I mean, I had no real idea of what that was, what that actually looked like. It just seemed like a cool job I heard mentioned on television. And it wasn't until I started even going to grad school or I took a couple years in the workforce in between undergrad and grad school and I mean, that's when I was exposed to a lot of different jobs and careers. And I think sometimes it's hard when students enter higher education because they think they have a firm idea of, "I want to do 'X'" but they don't even know all the different career paths that are open to them. So, I think an assessment would be great but also just assessing what things do they really love to do or are really interested in and mapping out what careers could that possibly link to? Because in today's job market, there are so many different types of jobs.

Meredith: Yeah, we have a great concern for our rural students in that very same thing. You suggested you'd benefited from your upbringing…if you grew up in a really small, remote town, it's hard to know what jobs are available. There are only a handful in your town.

Fishman: Exactly.

Wyatt: Well, and if you're in a town…if you grew up in a small, rural place, many of those young people are torn between, "If I leave and get a degree, then I can't live close to my family."

Meredith: Right.

Fishman: That's right.

Wyatt: So, a lot of them are choosing very low-paying jobs so that they can stay with their family. And some get lucky and are able to do it, but as our world becomes more and more online, the opportunities for work in these rural places is going to keep growing. And I think that will help propel the desire for higher education in some of these rural spots. I'm fascinated by…we've talked a few times about personal benefit, public good, those kinds of things. I'm looking at one of the questions in your survey, "Who should be more responsible for funding higher education?" And it's comparing silent generation, baby boomers, all that to Generation Z. Was that questioned asked, do you know, Rachel, was the question asked, "The government because it is good for society" or "students because they personally benefit." Is that the way the question was asked?

Fishman: Umm…

Wyatt: Let me tell you why I'm asking that question. So, the way it looks on the chart that may be the way the question was asked, but I'm thinking of my mother who, if she was alive, was a member of the silent generation. She could pay all of her tuition costs with the equivalent with a part-time, minimum-wage job. And so, for the silent generation, it wasn't that difficult for someone to pay their own expenses. And so, it's got 39% of the silent generation believe government should pay the full cost for higher education. And then as you go to baby boomers, it's 55% and Generation X, 70% to Generation Z at 82%. And I'm wondering if it's all philosophy? Personal/private good, good for society? Or if it's related to how much the cost of education has grown for each of these generations?

Fishman: I think it's the cost of how much things have really grown. So, I mean, I think there's a general sense from the silent generation and baby boomers of…there's just a disconnect of how much Generation Z and the millennials have really had to invest in their own education. How they are really much more debt reliant. And how baby boomers were really able to build…the silent generation aside because they didn't need to go to higher education to secure a good job.

Wyatt: Yeah, yeah.

Fishman: And if they did, it was more elitists and so the more elite families sent their kids. It was really only the baby boomers and the returning GIs that really opened up the pathways into higher education where we started seeing federal funding and a changing labor market and all of those things. So, I think that a lot of it is the disconnect of the silent generation, the baby boomers who sort of either didn't really need a higher education, had very protected, unionized jobs and had a more affordable pathway if they did need higher education compared to today's students. I know Representative Virginia Fox who has been Chair of the Education Committee and the House when the Republicans were last in power and now she's Ranking Member. I mean, she had a statement a few years ago that was basically like, "Kids these days are really complaining about higher education and when I was their age, I just worked my way through. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and these kids just kind of have to help themselves." And I looked up how expensive it was for her to attend the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill back when she attended it and as it turned out, she'd only have to work basically part-time to cover her tuition.

Wyatt: Yep.

Fishman: Whereas you could work more than 40 hours a week right now as a student at minimum wage and you would not even come close to covering just the tuition bill, not to mention living expenses at UNC Chapel Hill. So, I think that's where some of that disconnect is coming from of, "Well, you can just work your way through." And it's just not true anymore because there's a couple of things going on. The cost has gone up and wages have stagnated, so the purchasing power of wage and a lot of our aid hasn't kept pace up with the growing need.

Wyatt: Well, and the other thing that's changed is when Steve and I were going to college, we're baby boomers, the state was paying about 70% of the cost and tuition was paying about 30%. And today it's…at least in our state, the state is now paying just under 50% of the cost. But in many states…

Meredith: And we're a good state, yeah.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we're a good state. So, in a lot of states, the percent of it is continually dropping.

Fishman: Yep. So, more people entering, less money to go around, and you see sort of this cyclical recovery. With every recession, the state loses some investment and then it increases, but it just never comes back to the previous level. So then, another recession hits and it just takes more money away from the system and all of that money never usually returns. So, we just don't see that return in the way that we used to and there's just such a lot of people in the system and not enough money to go around and state budgets are fairly restrictive in what they can spend for. The federal government can keep throwing money into the system, we don't have to balance our budget. But a lot of states have to balance budgets and a lot of states now have laws that really prevent any revenue gathering from their tax payers. So, it's like their hands are really tired of where they can send…where they're obligated to send money. They have to balance budgets and there's almost no way to grow revenue in some of these states.

Wyatt: Yeah. The…one of the most striking differences is, and we've talked about this a bunch of times, but in thinking about who is supposed to pay for the funding, who is funding higher education, Democrats…80% of Democrats answered your survey that government should pay the cost, whereas Republicans, it's only 37%. What's…the other part of that that's interesting to me is that independents are at 70%. So, if these trends continue to hold with each younger generation believing more strongly that government should pay, and with independents being on the "government should pay side," we may actually see some changes in funding in the future. Even though it appears as though the funding has been going in the other direction.

Fishman: Yeah. I mean I think there…this goes back to the talk as a federal level. I don't think we're going to see state funding ever return to a level where it once was. The only way that will happen is if there is the federal/state partnership investment. And that's what a lot of the Democratic candidates are calling for. And I think there's a general sense of something needs to change in higher education on both sides of the aisle to make it more affordable, make it more accessible, but there's different opinions of what that should look like. And even among Democrats, where do you set that bar of…do you have free? Where do you set that bar, and how would we accomplish something like that?

Wyatt: Well, this has been absolutely fascinating, we could keep going. We will put…Steve, we're going to put this study online, I think. Aren't we?

Meredith: We are. We'll have a link to the Varying Degrees 2019 Report on our website if that's alright with you, Rachel.

Fishman: Of course, yep. And you should stay tuned because I think the next iteration is going to be out hopefully, fingers crossed, you just never know, but it should be out at the end of May.

Meredith: Awesome. Yeah, we'll have you back on when the new report comes out and see what the findings show. Maybe we should way until after the election, I don't know.

Fishman: Oh, I know.

Meredith: Things might change.

Fishman: Yeah, I know. I hope we continue to get funding to do this because it will be interesting to see what happens with the election with that always happening in the background. But, to be honest, it just feels like we're always in election mode here in D.C. Because we kind of are. [All laugh]

Meredith: Well, yeah. That's right.

Wyatt: Yeah, that was the way it was designed, actually, that the House of Representatives would be always running.

Fishman: Exactly.

Wyatt: So, we can't really complain too much because that's the way they wanted it to be.

Fishman: Yep.

Wyatt: But maybe it's gone a little further than we'd hoped. Anyway, thank you so very much, it's been a delight to visit with you and this kind of data is so interesting to think about and talk about. It was fun to read it, but it's more fun to talk to you about it. So, thanks.

Fishman: Yeah. It was great being on, I love talking to you guys about this.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today Rachel Fishman, she's the Deputy Director for Research of the Higher Education Initiative at New America think tank in Washington, D.C. and she's joined us from her office there, by phone. And we thank Rachel for phoning in and we thank you, our dedicated listeners, for following us. We'll be back with another podcast soon. Thanks for listening, bye bye.