By Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus and University Professor, Adelphi University, and Frederick Lewis Allen Room Scholar, the New York Public Library

I.    Introductionpdf-download

Last fall, I gave a lecture at Oxford University that was published as an essay in Oxford Magazine, the journal for the Oxford and
Cambridge faculties. In it, I discussed what I admire, what I abhor, and what I anticipate in American higher education. (Scott.)

In this lecture, I will offer some observations on these topics, taking my points from a much longer and detailed text the will become a book under contract with the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Invited lecture, The New York Public Library, March 1, 2016, adapted from Scott, 2015. The lecture was advertised as “The Modern American University: Observations from the Field”.

II.    What Do I Admire?

While there is much to admire about higher education around the world, I will focus my comments on the U.S. experience. Higher education here, especially universities, includes these key features. It is curator of that which was created and is known, whether on paper, clay or discs; it is creator of the new, whether facts, interpretations, fanciful musings, or new professionals; and it is a critic of the status quo, asking “why” and “why not?”

A college receives a public charter and is more than information alone, like a library or museum; more than belief alone, like a church; and more than emotion alone, like a club. It is all of these and more.

The vision of the university, and here I include four-year and two-year colleges, is to be dedicated to the search for truth and to the preparation of students to be able to distinguish between and among empirical evidence, epiphanies, and emotion or superstition. As Justice Felix Frankfurter said in a famous case regarding academic freedom, “It is the business of the university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It Is an atmosphere In which there prevail ‘the four essential freedoms of a university – to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be qualified to study.’ ” (Cabranes.)

The goals of higher education have been to widen access, especially at the undergraduate level, to students of all ages and backgrounds, whether enrolled full-time or part-time, and to promote excellence in teaching and research for the common good. In the beginning, it was thought that public higher education in the U. S. should be free, and for many years major systems of higher education, such as those in California and New York City, were free. Today, public institutions offer subsidized tuition to all students regardless of family wealth, but for many low-income families this is still not sufficient.

Private scholarship assistance programs for needy students are as old as Harvard, but state and federal student financial aid programs did not develop in a major way until the G.I. Bill in 1944 and the federal guaranteed student loan program in 1965.

Excellence in graduate teaching and research have been priorities and we can think of the numerous ways in which university-based research in the life sciences, physics, history, and archaeology have advanced our well-being and our understanding of what it means to be human. I give much more attention to these features in the larger text, especially to the four kinds of scholarship delineated by Ernest Boyer in his book, Scholarship Reconsidered, in which he discusses these categories:  Discovery, Integration, Application, and Pedagogy. (Boyer.)

Higher education in the U.S. has a rich history of evolution and expansion, both in borrowing from other countries and in developing new models. Over the past 150-plus years alone, colleges and universities have responded to societal needs by creating, revising, expanding, and eliminating subjects of major study.

The United States is unique in the development of for-profit colleges, some of which date to the end of the 19th century. Over the years, some of these schools and colleges have been bought and enlarged by corporations that saw and promoted the need for alternatives to traditional institutions and took advantage of opportunities for revenue available through federal student aid programs.

Colleges and universities were founded by visionaries and built by visionary leaders to serve particular populations and priorities. Harvard was the first college, founded in 1636, with a mission to provide a “learned ministry” through the “transformative power of the arts and sciences.” Balliol, Merton, and University Colleges of Oxford University, by the way, were already 400 years old.

The University of Chicago was founded in 1890 to provide opportunities in all departments to students of both sexes. It was to be a modern research university with English style undergraduate education and German style graduate and research programs.

Wellesley College was founded in 1870 with a focus on the liberal arts to prepare “women who will make a difference in the world … not to be ministered to but to minister.”

St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, traces its origins to King Williams School, founded in 1696, and received its charter in 1784. Its commitment was that “youth of all religious denominations shall be freely and liberally admitted …and (be made) free by means of books and balance,” In 1937, it adopted the Great Books curriculum for which it is still renowned.

The first community college grew out of adult education programs at a high school in Joliet, Illinois, in 1901. The network of public two-year colleges blossomed in the 1930s, flourished still more following the Truman Commission in 1948, and developed further in the 1960s. There are now nearly 1,200 of them.

The City College of New York was started in 1847 as the Free Academy, where the founders said: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people … can be educated and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

My own university, Adelphi, was conceived in 1895 by a group of suffragists, abolitionists, and free thinkers about religion who wanted to create a great university in Brooklyn that provided equal opportunity for men and women. Over the years it evolved from co-ed to all-female enrollment and back again; it pioneered in preparing women for leadership positions in New York City public schools; it created the first university department of dance in the U. S.; it started one of the first baccalaureate programs in nursing soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; it started one of the first schools of social work; and it started the first university-based doctoral program in clinical psychology.

Of course there are many other stories of colleges started for different groups, especially women, Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and Native Americans because they were generally excluded from mainstream institutions.

I admire the vision of these founders, and the many others who started colleges with a commitment to a liberal arts core in small towns and emerging cities across the country. The increasing number of students attending high school, the need for teachers, ministers, and doctors, and the growing need for scientific agriculture, mining, and manufacturing, all fostered the creation of new colleges, just as in earlier times federal initiatives for population dispersal to the west had fostered new institutions to both attract new citizens and be closer to population clusters. Even today, most students who attend public colleges live no more than 50 miles away.

By the time President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, there were some 200 colleges in the country, most of them private and church-affiliated. The “land grants” were sold and used by the states to start new schools or to fund existing state or private colleges in order to create more schools of agriculture and mechanic arts.

Colleges are “anchor” institutions for community development. Imagine if a local chamber of commerce wanted to set goals for strategic planning to attract a new enterprise: it would want one with a product or service and activities for the community of which everyone could be proud; it would want a highly educated work force that would become engaged in voluntarism; it would want one that would generate payroll and other taxes; and it would want one that would be sensitive to the environment. Well, that describes a college or university.

Colleges and universities are also “second chance” institutions, enrolling students who have been out of high school for a few years or for a decade or more, and welcoming students who transfer in after starting study elsewhere.

These and many other features are what I admire about higher education. It is the historic focus on expansion of opportunity, the commitment to high quality, the governmental policies supporting higher education for a public purpose, private philanthropy with a commitment to the advancement of the citizenry, and institutional missions designed to serve the growing nation that helped make higher education in the U.S. the gem that it is in so many ways, but not all.

III.    What Is It That Causes Me Anguish?

The vision described above has not been fulfilled as fully as it might have been. In addition to the variable of population as an influence on higher education institution location and growth, there are two other powerful forces: politics and public investment.

In the United States, as elsewhere, the original sins of racism and slavery, instruments of public policy and investment, denied African-Americans and Native Americans access to higher education. It is true that a few freed slaves and their children gained access to Middlebury in Vermont, Bowdoin in Maine, Amherst in Massachusetts, and Oberlin in Ohio as early as the 1820s and 1830s.

However, it was not until the second Morrill Act of 1890 that opportunities increased, with federal appropriations to support predominately African-American colleges in the seventeen still segregated slave states which continued to exclude these students from the original Land Grant institutions. This support, which did not attempt to enforce integration,  is part of the 400-year legacy of racism and slavery that continues to this day in terms of African-American family income and wealth, housing choices, access to good schools, and a tradition of college attendance.

Therefore, given my belief that higher education is an instrument for democracy, one cause of grief is the increasing evidence that legislators and their backers lack a commitment to access for those who come from less-advantaged backgrounds.

For example, the federal Pell Grant program was designed to provide tuition assistance to families at the median household income or lower, including the children of minority families. Yet today in the United States, a child born into a family in the top 25% of family income has a nearly 90% chance of graduating from a four-year college, while a child with the same native ability born into a family whose income is in the lowest 25% has less than a 10% chance of earning a baccalaureate degree.

Another feature that causes me anguish is student loan debt. Federal student loans were started under the National Defence Education Act in 1958 and the program became the Guaranteed Student Loan Program in 1965. The latest version, Direct Lending by the government, was introduced in 1992. In 2007, following cutbacks to the federal loan program in order to increase funding for the Pell Grant program, banks and other non-bank lenders entered the market in an aggressive way and began offering variable rate loans with risk pricing. Some interest rates were at 16% and more.

It was a combination of these so-called “alternative” loans; the fact that student debt may not be cancelled through bankruptcy; the dramatic increase in the number of students attending private for-profit colleges by using federal grants and private loans, all encouraged by policy-makers; and the fact that the federal government did not reduce its interest rates on either new or outstanding loans to the prevailing commercial rates, that caused a surge in total student debt which is reported to exceed $1.2 trillion.

In 2014, the average debt load for a recent graduate of a public college was $25,550; for a private non-profit college it was $33,300; and at for-profit colleges it was $39,950. (The Institute for Student Access and Success.)

Therefore, media headlines about six-figure student debt do not tell the complete story. This is voluntary debt. There is no reason for anyone to graduate from an undergraduate program with $100,000 or more in debt. Those who do, do so voluntarily, usually in order to pay the tuition and associated costs necessary to attend what they consider to be a more prestigious college than one that is more affordable.

In fact, only 0.2% of student borrowers have $100,000 or more in debt. Of these, 90% are in or already have graduated from a graduate school or an advanced professional school like law or medicine.  Some 40% of all student debt is for these students, who average close to $60,000 in debt per person.

These comments are not intended to diminish the negative effects of student debt on college going, degree completion, employment choices, and purchasing decisions, such as for housing and automobiles. In fall 2015, some 58% of four-year colleges and universities reported that they failed to meet their enrollment targets, and many admissions officers cited family concerns with student debt as a major cause of the decline.

Another source of anguish is found in the student loan default rates. Partly induced by unmanageable debt, relatively low college completion rates, and the fact that students may not discharge their debt through bankruptcy, as they can every other kind of debt, and the practices of some large for-profit colleges, the default rate has spiralled upward. For example, last summer, the average student loan default rate for public colleges and universities was 13% and for private non-profit colleges and universities it was 8.2%. At private for-profit colleges, it was 21.8%. This is not a good way for college students to start their adult lives.

Still another source of anguish is the dismal record on graduation rates. Of 100 high school graduates, about 70 will graduate – from high school; 49 will enter college; and 25 of these 49 will graduate with a four-year baccalaureate degree in six years. Some of the delay in average graduation rates is due to cuts in support to public institutions, and a subsequent decline in the offering of courses needed to complete degree requirements in a timely fashion, and some is due to the number of hours average students work to pay for tuition, auto insurance and other obligations.

According to the (U.S.) National Center for Education Statistics, “59% of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2007 completed the degree at that institution by 2013.” Furthermore, the six-year graduation rate was 58% at public institutions, 65% at private non-profit institutions, and 32% at for-profit institutions. (NCES Table 326.20.)

While historically the states provided more funds to public institutions than the federal government did, the declines in state funding since 2008 and the increase in federal support for Pell Grants and veterans’ education benefits have reversed this pattern. Between 2000 and 2012, when the number of students in higher education grew by 45%, state revenue per FTE student fell by 37%. One estimate is that government support for colleges and universities represented about 34% of expenditures in 2010, down from 60% in 1975.

Note that students at for-profit colleges have more debt, higher loan default rates, and lower graduation rates than students at other institutions. Yet these institutions are claimed to be market-based alternatives to taxpayer supported colleges, models of “free enterprise solutions” — even as they take 90% or more of their revenues from the public.

The selection and training of board members is another topic that deserves more attention, and is the primary subject of my book. College and university trustees hold the institution’s charter in “trust” and are responsible for all aspects of the enterprise, even for those parts they delegate to others. They have the traditional board duties of care and loyalty, but also a requirement of “obedience to mission” essential to all non-profit boards.

Unfortunately, college and university board members often know little more about higher education than what they remember from their days as students, what their children may have experienced, what they have garnered when being asked for donations, or what they read or hear in news media. Public higher education institution trustees have been called unresponsive to campus constituents because they are politically appointed.

Trustees often do not know the true history of their own institution, the history and dynamics of other institutions in their sector, the history of colleges and universities in the United States, the history of higher education as an enterprise, or the types of governing, advisory and coordinating boards that exist. At times they seem not to know that institutions are committed to long-term, mission-based aspirations, not short-term, market-driven goals.

Yet this knowledge is essential if board members are to serve as stewards of a state-granted charter, advise the president, provide connections with a broader world, and help guide their institution through the challenges of demographic, economic, technological, and political changes that are sure to disrupt long-range plans.  Knowledge of this history can give a board member confidence that challenges have been met before; that institutions are resilient and can change, sometimes in quick and dramatic ways; and that new initiatives and programs can be developed in response to societal needs. Board members will learn that some criticisms of higher education lack merit, and that some concerns are legitimate and should inspire action. The best board members know how to distinguish between the two, and know that what may work for banking, manufacturing, and entertainment boards may not work in higher education.

This is not to say that corporate boards are especially better. One need only ask what the boards of AIG and Lehman Brothers knew about their business models before the firms faced ruin, or what the boards of General Motors and VW knew about business practices intended either to save money and resulted in deadly car crashes or to by-pass federal environmental regulations by electronic cheating – although they may have fostered corporate cultures focused on short-term results rather than on longer term growth.

These board members may have possessed individual expertise, but seem to have lacked the capacity or willingness to ask necessary questions when in the group. They lacked the “virtuous cycle of respect, trust, and candor” necessary in a high functioning board to ask probing questions in a manner of mutual respect, thus offering dissent without being disloyal. (Sonnenfeld.)

I could say about what causes me anguish, but time is limited. However, I must say something about tuition discounting, i.e., unfunded grant aid, and the use of an approach called “high tuition-high aid” for awarding “merit” scholarships that do not take family income into account. Tuition discounting is used to give the illusion that the college or university is awarding the candidate a scholarship. Last year, the average tuition discount rate for private non-profit colleges was 54%, thus reducing the net revenue needed to pay salaries and light bills, etc. This is an unsustainable practice.

Discounting is used because most colleges do not have sufficient endowment income to (1) provide the amount of money required to supplement state and federal funds to meet the financial need demonstrated by a family, (2) provide an award in recognition of some talent or meritorious attribute in order to attract select students, and (3) to be competitive with other institutions offering such awards. Merit awards started with athletic scholarships, expanded in order to recruit students with other desired talents, such as playing the oboe, and increased in kind again to recruit students with special leadership accomplishments or high SAT scores. In large measure, we can blame this trend on the race for rankings.

One of the unintended consequences of tuition discounting for student recruitment at flagship public universities is that they are enrolling more students from higher income levels, because of the correlation between academic credentials and family income, and more students from out of state, in both cases limiting their capacity to enroll the low and moderate income in-state students for whom publicly subsidized tuition was intended.

Another unintended consequence of discounting and merit awards is that parents want to negotiate the amount of scholarship, using the award letter from one college in an attempt to convince another that it should increase its award, thus turning college into a commodity, like a car.

It is this reliance on tuition discounting, a lack of focus on student success and graduation, an excessive reliance on loans, inadequate attention to providing internships so that students can learn job-related skills as a supplement to the pursuit of a major they love, and a misunderstanding of when and how mediated online education works best, that lead to the claim that the business model of higher education is broken.

There is more to be said about what causes me concern, including big-time athletics, teacher preparation, remedial education, inadequate transfer policies, a limited view of the value of research, scholarship and creative activity, the lack of inter-institutional collaboration on degree programs and community improvement projects, the lack of support for part-time faculty, foundation grants that can prompt fast action but do not provide sustainable support, and more, but my comments on these and other topics will have to wait for another day – perhaps when my book is finished.

IV.    What Is It That I Anticipate?

So, what do I anticipate?

Most of the forces shaping the future of higher education in the U. S. are known. Surely they include demographic shifts, especially with regard to the number of high school graduates, the age of potential college-goers, the number of students who will be first in their families to attempt post-high school education, the income and employment status of students, changing career choices, and whether students will study full-time or part-time, be in residence on campus, live off-campus, or attend online.

There also are global forces, including the movement of students and faculty between and among countries, information and data moving freely, and institutions starting campuses and partnerships with universities in other countries. (Dew. PWC.)

Some forecasters have proposed varying models of institutional development for the future, including scaling back in size of enrollment, greater specialization and focus, becoming fully online, or becoming a hybrid college combining elements of all types.

Another force with which to contend is in the changing priorities for public funding. With prisons, security, military budgets, and pensions competing with funding for public higher education, we must find more effective ways to change the cost structure of colleges and universities, especially as we examine tuition discounting and merit aid as well as the loss of funding for research, and do even more to advocate the public benefits of higher education. We also must find new sources of revenue beyond that which students can bring without diminishing institutional commitments to mission and purpose.

Finally, a major force for change is found in the technological breakthroughs that can support teaching and learning and back office processing functions, as well as prompt changes in policies for course credit transfer, new forms of credentialing, and much more.

Online learning can be used for distance education or to support “blended” courses that combine online with in-class instruction, and “flipped” classes in which students use online and other resources prior to class time, which is the equivalent of the lecture, and then use in-class time for discussion and group projects. We already see how communications technologies can facilitate student and faculty interactions both on and off-campus. When the faculty member is at a conference, or students are off-campus at a debate competition or an athletic event, homework assignments and research papers can still be exchanged.

I am confident that we will see further developments in the availability and uses of technologies, especially for ensuring the identity and integrity of students enrolled via technology and the timeliness of feedback to students, as well as in terms of professional development for faculty and academic policies for course credit acceptance from high school students and community college transfers.

The correlation between college attainment, unemployment rates, and national economic growth is strong. However, to reach President Obama’s goal for a college-educated public, we will need to increase the number of people with at least some college by 50%, and include adult student enrollment in campus planning to a much greater degree than we do now. It will not be possible to achieve his goal with high school students alone unless there are major policy changes in immigration policies.

If we know the forces for change, and know something about the history of American higher education, especially the visions and visionaries who started it, what is on the horizon?  What do I hope for?

If we look again at the variables of population, politics, and public investment that seem to have shaped the earliest years of university growth in the United States, what might these variables suggest about the future?

We certainly face issues of population, but in this case not about the movement of populations to frontier territories. Today, it is about how to provide education for advancement to populations of low-income, minority and immigrant young people and adults, many of whom live in inner cities but others of whom live in pockets of rural poverty, “education deserts,” with little access to postsecondary opportunities. Given their educational backgrounds, lack of academic readiness and, in many cases, lack of motivation for advanced education, it is unlikely in the near term that online learning approaches will either appeal to them or benefit them. Face-to-face learning is usually the better choice.

In order for the United State to increase the rate of post-high school attainment, five principal actors must work in concert. First, our society must ensure that all young people can enter a neighborhood school ready to learn, following a good night’s sleep after studying in a quiet place and having a proper breakfast.

Second, the nation’s schools, from kindergarten through high school, must ensure that all students learn to study and acquire the knowledge, skills, abilities and values necessary to be active citizens as well as college and career ready. This takes more than testing.

Third, state governments must adequately fund K-12 schools and public colleges and universities as well as need-based financial aid programs so that access and affordability represent promises fulfilled, not just slogans for a campaign.

Fourth, the federal government must fund the Pell Grant program so that it covers the basic costs of a public university and make income-based loan repayment programs universal. This, too, takes tax policy.

Fifth, colleges and universities should certainly be more rigorous in examining the campus cost structure, but also should ensure that institutional financial aid, even that which is provided through tuition discounting, is focused on providing access to the financially neediest students. (Heller.)

As part of their responsibilities, colleges should also distinguish between advanced education and vocational training.  To me, education is about questions, “What if,” and not about, “How to,” which is the province of training. Students are no longer bound by the answers imposed by their culture, but in James Baldwin’s phrase, learn to “see the questions hidden by the answers”. We must learn to see the “teachable” moments in campus debates, to be passionate without being shrill. (Mitchell.)  This is an education for a life of questions, a life with purpose, an ethical education in pursuit of advancements in society as well as in oneself.

An education such as this also requires advancements in critical reading, comprehensive listening, cogent writing, persuasive speaking, and proficiency in calculating results. This kind of education needs to include general and expert knowledge, abilities such as reasoning and a second language, and values such as respect for other opinions and the balance of community and individual interests.

In addition, students need development in these areas: disciplined work habits, time management, teamwork, leadership, community involvement through voluntarism, and how to live in and benefit from a multi-cultural society.

I think of this focus on questions and the development of these abilities and values as a “liberating education.” I believe that our mission as educators is to liberate students from their provincial backgrounds, no matter their age, national origin, or economic station as they prepare to become active as citizens as well as professionals in communities and places of employment where neighbors, colleagues, and customers are likely to be of a different background.

There is considerable evidence that many employers want graduates with particular skills such as accounting, but even these employers want employees with a broad set of abilities, with an emphasis on effective oral and written communication, critical thinking and reasoning in multiple settings, the ability to be imaginative across cultural borders, and the capacity to think reflectively.

One way to think about this question of what colleges should teach and what students should study is to reflect on contemporary crises in finance, industry, and politics, and ask what lessons we have learned. A quick survey of the past decade shows that too many people in even sophisticated roles lacked knowledge of history or historical analysis, did not have the personal or professional memory in which to place contemporary issues, and seem to have been educated to give higher priority to profits and competition than to communication, peaceful relations, and cooperation.

So, history is an essential subject, especially if we are to understand the different ways people “know” the truth and how they challenge assumptions and validate assertions.

In the study of history as I define it, we learn about the world we meet (nature or science); the world we make (culture); and the systems by which we mediate between them (law, morality and ethics). We learn about the past and present, poetry and prose, science and technology, and the causes of conflict and war as well as the pathways to peace and conflict resolution. Students also need to learn in context – whether through fieldwork, profession-based placements, or internships – each of which can help challenge and refine theory through practice.

The second area to develop is that of imagination. It seems clear in retrospect that even high-profile people confronted new problems without the ability to see connections between and among different variables, could not visualize or forecast directions, could not approach issues with creativity, did not understand the value of diverse points of view. They had not developed the capacity to wonder, to inquire, to experience discovery; to look, see and ask. These are the benefits of an education that liberates students from prejudices masquerading as principles. They, and we, grow up in mostly isolated, two-generation, mono-cultural communities, and have little experience with those some think of as the “other.” They need to develop a global perspective, the ability to put oneself in another’s position.

Finally, college and university presidents should do more to tell the important story of higher education’s evolution and its benefits to society as well as to the individuals who live and vote in it. More of us should confront the often poorly informed criticisms of higher education, including those by the pundits who claim that this or that new development will make universities obsolete, and the corporate chiefs who claim that this generation of graduates is not educated for the work to be done while they gut company training programs so helpful to previous generations.

These investments in higher education that I advocate are for the security of a democratic society, not expenses to be added and cut as the political winds dictate. If we do not prepare our children to be ready for school; if our families and institutions are not prepared, to the fullest extent possible, to ensure that all students are ready to learn; if our public schools, colleges and universities are not adequately funded to fulfil their missions; if the federal government does not fund student aid appropriately; if our academic leaders do not embrace a “liberating education” for all students; if our campus leaders do not support the central missions of our institutions and advocate for the support of student learning for life, not just for earning a living,  we will further blunt these central instruments of democracy and witness the further decline in our nation.

V.   Conclusion

These are my observations from the field, my insider’s story, about higher education.  I have admiration in abundance for the policies supporting access, affordability, and accountability; I feel anguish for what I see as violations of the basic public trust bestowed upon institutions when integrity is put to the side; and I have hope for changes that bear great potential for improvements in student access and learning, and therefore society as a whole.

I believe that we can reclaim a culture of conscience and civic responsibility, of education for a purposeful life, for a university education that is as much about character and citizenship as it is about careers and commerce.

End Notes

Boyer, Ernest. Scholarship Reconsidered. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for Teaching, 1990.

Cabranes, Jose A. “Myth and Reality of University Trusteeship in the Post-Enron Era.” Fordham Law Review, Volume 76, Issue 2, Article 15, 2007.

Dew, John. “Global, Mobile, Vertical, and Social: The College Campus of Tomorrow.” The Futurist, March-April 2010, page 46ff.

Heller, Donald E. “Why the U.S. isn’t likely to meet Obama’s goal on college graduation rates.” Hechinger Report, October 2, 2014.

NCES “Fast Facts,” 326.10.

Mitchell, Brian C. “Can America’s Colleges Teach Civility Outside the Classroom?” Edvance Foundation, 2-22-16.

“Perspectives in Higher Education.” PWC.

Scott, Robert A. “The Modern American University: Observations from the Field.” Oxford Magazine, No. 365, Michaelmass Term, 2015.

Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey A. “What Makes Great Boards Great.” Harvard Business Review, September 2002.

The Institute for College Access & Success. 20.14 Quick Facts about Student Debt.

The Modern American University: An Insider’s View

By Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus and University Professor, Adelphi University, and Frederick Lewis Allen Room Scholar, the New York Public Library

Introduction to an invited lecture March 1, 2016

 Who is this observer?

It is a fair question to ask about the observer if you are to be subjected to his observations. I think my story helps illustrate some features that I think are best about American higher education: opportunity for access; financial aid to help make college more affordable; and public accountability to help ensure its quality.

I was the first in my immediate family to go to college. I was awarded scholarships and worked two jobs at my alma mater, Bucknell University, one in the library and another as a student research assistant for the dean and also when he became provost. When I graduated with a major in English my only (financial) debt was $400, which I owed to an aunt.

My higher education history also includes Cornell University, where I earned my PhD, taught and became a dean; the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, where I was in charge of state-wide planning; Ramapo College of New Jersey, where I was president for fifteen years, including time as head of the newly formed New Jersey Commission on Higher Education; and Adelphi University in New York, where I also served as president for fifteen years. I am the only person to serve in the top three jobs in American higher education: head of a private university, a public institution, and a state coordinating board


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