Houston is the future; higher ed is stuck in past (opinion)

Houston is the future; higher ed is stuck in past (opinion)


Houston, we have a problem.

—American proverb, Book of Apollo

Down in Houston, a city of extremes, there’s something called Chamber of Commerce Weather. It’s the one to two weeks each year the weather’s perfect. Not so scorching hot and humid it feels like swimming in soup. No spring rains, which, on Houston’s nonabsorbent floodplain, increasingly mean disaster. Not while the city’s encased in winter fog. And hurricane season is a definite no-go. None of the above helps convince a business owner to relocate to Houston. So, if you’re trying to recruit someone to the City With No Limits (and no zoning), bring them to town in this narrow window.

Weather aside, lots of companies have been opening doors in Houston, and lots of people have been moving there, with both population and economic growth well exceeding national averages. Between 2010 and 2020, the Houston metro area added 1.2 million new residents, a 20.3 percent growth rate. Job growth has increased over the last decade by 19 percent, compared to 13 percent nationally. And it’s not just the energy industry: the rate of new business creation in Houston has exceeded the norm in almost every sector.

Houston’s growth has been driven by diversity. It’s America’s most diverse city, ahead of New York and Los Angeles. Nearly a quarter of residents are foreign-born, and there’s no ethnic majority: the county is 42 percent Hispanic, 31 percent non-Hispanic white, 19 percent Black and 8 percent Asian. It’s also a product of youth. With a median age under 35, Houston is the second-youngest major city in the country, behind only Salt Lake City.

Houston represents America’s future (and, unfortunately, its future weather). Dynamism driven by diversity of every kind: race, ethnicity and national origin; religion; age; industry; and what goes where (mansions next to McDonald’s, strip clubs next to skyscrapers). And like so much of diverse America, it’s encircled by monochrome voters who continue to elect unfathomable characters to state office.

The one area where Houston lags behind? Education. Houston has fewer educational institutions per capita than the state or national average. The postsecondary landscape is dominated by the University of Houston, with 38,000 undergraduates. But UH enrollment growth accounts for a fraction of Houston’s population growth. When I recently heard about the new Houston University of Science and Technology, I thought progress was being made. But then I learned the closest building to the “university’s” listed address was actually Harris County Juvenile Court, and the website was an attempt to scam prospective international students out of $399. That’s also very Houston.

Why hasn’t higher education kept up? The University of Texas—likely now the world’s wealthiest university (ahead of Harvard)—wanted to open a Houston campus and went so far as to purchase a huge tract of land. But plans were scuttled in 2017 due to state politics and resistance from UH, prompting this reaction from the UH System’s Board Chairman: “The University of Houston is pleased that UT is not expanding in Houston. This was a group effort by elected leaders, our board of regents, our administration and supporters to stand our ground against an unnecessary duplication of resources that didn’t align with the state’s plan for higher education.”

It’s hard to imagine a sadder example of parochial interest outweighing public interest or a better example of why higher ed revolution is nigh. As the Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotis noted last week in Inside Higher Ed, colleges have lost the public’s confidence: recent polling by Public Agenda–USA Today found that about two-thirds of Americans say colleges are stuck in the past and not meeting the needs of today’s students. With record dissatisfaction now translating to record enrollment decline, it’s clearly no longer business as usual. And this could all be but a prelude to a kiss (off). Robert Ubell points out that the political right continues to call for ever deeper cuts to higher education. The next time Republicans control all levers of the federal government, we can expect a (not-so) Great Defunding Event.

So as Merisotis says, it’s indisputable that “colleges must build a stronger case for the value of higher education.” And especially in Houston. Between 2013 and 2017, the percentage of Houstonians agreeing with the phrase “education beyond high school is necessary for success” fell from 73 percent to 54 percent.

While dozens of colleges and universities around the country take steps every day to try to build this case with one initiative or another, I’m not confident universities like the University of Houston are capable of it. Nothing against UH in particular—other than their board and lobbying—but while the current model works for some students, many drop out (41 percent of UH students fail to complete within six years) or graduate into underemployment (about 40 percent of the fortunate 59 percent, if in line with the national average for underemployment of recent graduates), resulting in negative outcomes for about 60 percent of students.

More pertinent, I question whether it’s possible for a nonselective, non-brand-name university (or even the community of nonselective, non-brand-name colleges) to capture the attention of distracted Americans and change the conversation. Brand college is damaged (see, e.g., mass loan forgiveness, which, if upheld, will help tens of millions of young Americans who graduated high school in the last 15 years, but will raise hella questions among tens of millions of young Americans who’ll graduate in the next 15). As David Sacks of PayPal Mafia fame noted last week, “the need for wide-scale student loan forgiveness is confirmation that universities have a negative ROI in a huge number of cases.” I hope I’m wrong and I’m sure Arizona State would beg to differ—although how many Mike Crows are out there, right, Mike?—but it’s likely we’re too far down the path for nonselective colleges to change minds.

But that’s not true of all colleges. While nonselective colleges experience steep enrollment declines, the most famous colleges are seeing record interest. As amply demonstrated by application and enrollment numbers, the toppermost of the poppermost continue to command attention, engaging and inspiring students. And for those who win the admissions lottery, elite colleges and universities provide by far the clearest pathway to socioeconomic mobility due to need-blind financial aid and lemminglike employers who continue to dole out the best entry-level jobs to graduates of these institutions. Most Americans who still feel positively about higher education are thinking of these universities.

And that’s remarkable, because the top 20 brands enroll fewer than 1 percent of undergraduates. The stubborn refusal of our most selective universities to scale enrollment to meet demand is the scandal undergirding higher education’s headline-grabbing scandals. And it’s what prompted Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to attack them at a conference last month for chasing rankings that “xerox privilege”: “You compete for the most affluent students by luring them with generous aid because the most well-prepared students have the best SAT scores and graduate on time,” he said. “You seek favor from your peers from other elite schools with expensive dinners and lavish events because their opinions carry clout in surveys. And you invest in the most amazing campus experiences that money can buy, because the more graduates who become donors, the more points you score.”

I get why Harvard hasn’t figured out how to double or triple enrollment without fundamentally altering its undergraduate experience. The campus footprint is fixed. (But I still don’t get why Harvard enrollment hasn’t moved an inch since the 1980s. That’s sadistic, and also very Harvard.) My favorite recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper is one titled “Why Don’t Elite Colleges Expand Supply,” which begins, “In 1979, the incoming class of Yale College freshmen stood at 1,346 students. In 2015, the size of the incoming class of Yale College freshmen stood at 1,360 students, an increase of just 14 students. Over the same period, the number of applications to Yale College increased by over 300 percent, from 9,331 students in 1979 to 30,932 in 2015.” (To be fair, in 2017, after spending $500 million on two new residential colleges, Yale expanded its incoming class by 200 students.) And I get why Houston’s one selective university—Rice—has only committed to grow enrollment from 4,000 to 4,800 over four years. (By the way, only 37 percent of Rice’s first-year students are from Texas. And Rice doesn’t publish the percentage of students from Houston, leading to a strong suspicion that Rice isn’t elevating thousands of Houstonians.)

But you know where the weather’s a lot like a Houston summer? Singapore, where Yale’s ending up in a sling. In 2011, following a meeting between the presidents of Yale and the National University of Singapore in—fittingly—Davos, Yale announced a partnership with NUS to open a campus in Singapore. Called Yale–NUS College, the new campus aimed to “develop a novel curriculum spanning Western and Asian cultures” and prepare students for “an interconnected, interdependent global environment.” The unspoken objective was to demonstrate the value of a liberal arts education in a nation that Freedom House ranks 48th out of 100 (“partly free”) due to limited political rights and civil liberties.

All worthy goals and leagues better than top U.S. universities that opened campuses or centers in the United Arab Emirates (New York University, Harvard Medical School) and Qatar (Cornell’s medical school, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and Northwestern Universities)—which were more about profit (sorry, “surplus”) seeking, relying on $1.3 billion in petroleum-fueled dictatorship beneficence, than anything relating to public good. But while Yale’s goals have certainly gone global—and perhaps beyond, given the pretensions of the current $7 billion For Humanity capital campaign, leaving only the outer space or interspecies themes for New Haven’s next fundraising push—Yale’s alumni song, “Bright College Years,” concludes with what dictionaries cite as the premier example of anticlimax: “For God, for country, and for Yale.”

So what about country? “If Yale can open a campus in Singapore,” the University of California, Berkeley’s David L. Kirp asked last year, “why can’t it start one in Houston?” And by so doing, commit to enrolling about as many talented and ambitious Houstonians as Yale-NUS does Singaporeans (60 percent of Yale-NUS enrollment). With NUS’s decision to shut Yale-NUS College in 2025, Yale will be down a campus. So why not Houston? After all, despite conservative attacks on free speech, it’s still unlikely Texas will enact the kinds of Singapore-style restrictions that gave Yale fits.

Houston wouldn’t be Yale’s first rodeo. And it’s not like Yale can’t afford it. Our most selective universities are also the wealthiest (not a coincidence). Last year, Yale’s endowment grew by $11 billion—much more than it would cost to launch in Houston. Plus, thanks to UH, there’s a large tract of land available.

If elite universities like Yale need additional incentive, how about surviving as more than a pile of money? In France, following the gilets jaunes protests against elites, President Emmanuel Macron needed to show his bona fides as a man of the people, and he announced the closure of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the elite institution that had trained most of France’s political and business leaders since the end of World War II. It may not be a long road from a scolding by the secretary to expropriation. The way things are going, it could happen here soon under a left- or right-wing administration.

A $40 billion endowment ought to give Yale some sense of security: it won’t be penalized and lumped in with the hoi polloi. If that doesn’t work, how about some good old-fashioned collusion? The aforementioned NBER working paper claims to prove both that elite colleges value prestige above all else in limiting enrollment and “that a concern for prestige is socially inefficient.” The obvious solution? A pact for growth, allowing elite colleges “to coordinate their admissions policies.” (It wouldn’t be the first time for these antitrust scofflaws.)

So what if they all leaped together? Yale in Houston, Stanford in Stockton, Brown in Baltimore, Columbia in Cleveland, MIT in Milwaukee, NYU in Newark, Princeton in Fresno, Harvard in Detroit (Harvard could spend its money in the Motor City rather than on hiring Bill de Blasio), Penn in Philadelphia (wait, scratch that one). If the 20 top universities opened campuses in the 20 largest cities in greatest need of socioeconomic mobility, Americans would stand up and salute, and American higher education would have a legitimate shot at the break it desperately needs.

If you’re on the side of college, pray something like this happens in the next decade. If it does, I hope Yale gets Houston in the draft. Because I’ve always wondered what a gothic college would look like sandwiched between a gas station and a 7-Eleven. And I know which week to visit.


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Jorge Oliveira

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