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APSCUF members may wonder about the comparison of the title.

This idea is not new, to me or to higher education in general.  In his Oct. 17 piece for The Chronicle Review (Lazerson), Marvin Lazerson connects the automatic industry, owning a house, and higher education as the three pillars of the American dream.  He notes in his article that two of those three are problematic today, and that higher ed is in the throes of change.

In case you think this connection is far fetched, I have heard the comparison made by a senior staff person in the Chancellor’s office.  That person openly says that they worry about the state system falling into the same trap GM did — not changing to match the times.

Is this an issue with PASSHE?

Although Lazerson is right in seeing the connection between the three pillars of the American dream, to put higher education in the same category as the other two businesses is wrong.  Let’s compare with an American automaker like GM (obviously, using generalizations).

First, one aspect of GM’s failure was an inability to attract buyers.  PASSHE doesn’t have this problem.  We have had 13 consecutive years of enrollment growth.  This year 12 out of 14 institutions had enrollment increases.  GM’s lack of buyers was connected to the lack of desirability of their product; our constant student growth seems to say our product IS desirable.

Second, many blamed GM’s financial crisis on the United Auto Workers and their contracts.  Whether that is true or not, no one can rightly claim that PASSHE’s contracts with APSCUF are out of line.  In fact, a comparison of PASSHE salaries to other border state public systems shows that we are not even the highest paid public university faculty in the region — currently we are significantly behind New York and New Jersey and in a dead heat with Maryland and Delaware.  More telling is the fact that only a decade ago this same comparison would have shown PASSHE faculty first.  The contracts of the last decade have not only lowered our standing comparatively in the region, but the average salary hasn’t kept up with inflation over that period, either.

Third, GM (and Chrysler, and Ford) were accused of producing a low-quality product.  Number 1 happened in part because of a perception about American car-makers’ quality.  Our 14 institutions have no such quality issues — by any measure, there is high student satisfaction with our product.  They recognize they receive a quality education at an affordable price (lower than the national average for public university tuition).  Why should we act like we are GM when in fact we are the Honda (a year ago I might have said Toyota, yikes!) of higher ed — affordable while providing quality?

Finally, a word about housing and the mortgage business that has led to its collapse.  Although public policy condoned the mass expansion of the housing market and the probably foreseeable errors of relaxing mortgage rules, higher ed policy has not pushed us to a similar expansion.  PASSHE’s growth hasn’t led to a lot of excess borrowing and building — we retain a AA bond rating (though, like Toyota, those are now seen as areas of suspicion, having tossed away public trust) — at least not in terms of classroom capacity.  We haven’t overbuilt; in fact, most faculty members reading this will concur in thinking we’ve shoe-horned students into classrooms for some time.  On almost every campus there’s a story about having to move desks from room to room to provide every student in the room a seat, or the companion story of just not having enough desks if every student shows up to seat them all.   This isn’t an overbuilt, overmortgaged growth explosion.  It’s been a very tightly controlled squeeze into the same facilities, with occasional modestly-expansive renovations.

We hear constantly about the need to change.  Or, in the phrase responded to in IHE last week, the inevitability of it (Holloway).

Obviously, we need change — it’s part of the human condition.  But a lesson to be learned from those two other pillars of the American dream is this: don’t reach beyond your grasp.  American carmakers and housing providers thought they could do a lot more than they could sustain (see the drop in GM brands and Chrysler offerings as examples).

So, let’s tweak as necessary, but let’s invest in and maintain our quality system that is generating a demand and a satisfaction that would be the envy of any carmaker.

We really aren’t like them.

— Steve