Tony Frank: On facts

The truth doesn’t need to be believed to be true. Facts exist even when we miss them or hide them. And arguing to win an argument is not the same as discussing to more fully understand a complicated issue.

I’ve been thinking about such things a bit more over the years, especially as various narratives that co-exist in our society have tended to evolve toward increasingly more strident and dogmatic views that are incompatible with the competing counter-narratives. Science, itself under no small amount of attack of late, rests on a philosophy where we collect all existing facts, search for a unifying explanation that accounts for all the known facts and which no existing facts contradict, and when we find that, we tentatively adopt it as the working theory for our explanation of things, always alert that new information could and should cause us to change our thinking so that all facts are accounted for. This is not “making a case,” where selected facts are used to buttress an argument, trying to carry the day of public opinion. And let’s be clear: Making a case matters in many circumstances. Courts of law are perhaps our best example. The open exchange and debate of ideas within a free press or within the public square of opinion (or on a college campus) are vital to the on-going public dialogue that characterizes a healthy democracy. But I think our cases are always strongest when they are based on a foundation of facts – especially foundations that are inclusive rather than carefully curated to make a point. Indeed, this is perhaps the most important thing we can give to college graduates: that sense of openness to seeing all the facts and asking whether they fit within a world view. Sometimes this expresses itself as skepticism, others as critical evaluation of what we’re hearing and reading. But its foundation is an openness to assessment in a search for truth, even if we may not think of it that way in the mundane moments of our day-to-day lives.

August marks the start of a new academic cycle. Move-In Days and Convocations on the campuses of the Colorado State University System move to the forefront. More than 50,000 people currently enroll with our three campuses, seeking to earn a degree or credential that will improve the trajectory of their lives, carve out a better path for their families, and – in doing so – add to the rich fabric of our pluralistic society. In Fort Collins, about 5,500 (primarily) young people will start that journey this year. If this isn’t the largest entering class in University history, it’ll be awfully close. Interim President Miranda has rented a motel near campus (many of you likely have stayed there for various Homecoming events over the years) because our dorms won’t hold this class, especially as more returning students hope to stay on campus to avoid the housing shortage that affects so many of our communities. In Pueblo, President Mottet’s team and the faculty at CSU Pueblo have been working tirelessly to implement the Board’s investments in Vision 2028, re-orienting classes and programs toward new areas of student/customer demand and building a campus culture that people want to be a part of, to live in, in which to thrive. The headwinds that are buffering regional state colleges across America are strong, and Tim’s team should be rightfully proud to be holding their position within that storm as they look to start an estimated 650 new students, essentially the same enrollment position as last fall. And at CSU Global, where the pandemic saw working adult students lose jobs and education benefits even as they themselves became teachers for their own children, enrollment has re-steadied itself at around 16,000 students. Indeed, enrollment across the CSU System appears to have essentially recovered from the pandemic, even as the virus continues to impact our world.

Those enrollment numbers are observations, measurements if you prefer. In the pre-fact-free world, we would have called them facts. And they are stubborn things, these facts. They need to be, since a counter-narrative is alive and well that attacks the value proposition of American public higher education. In this counter narrative, the case begins, often with graphs, talking about large tuition increases over time (without showing the hundreds of millions of dollars of financial aid invested over that same time period, obscuring the fact that low-income students generally don’t pay tuition or fees at most universities). The second step, often with a chart, points to declining national enrollment (again using aggregated data that ignore issues such as demographic changes, college readiness of high school graduates, in-and-out migration by state or region, and non-resident enrollment). These charts and graphs take different forms in different publications – line graphs, bar charts, even their more complicated cousins. But they all tell the same story. And that story is then often backed up by anecdotes posing as data; the story of a CEO or wunderkind who didn’t go to college and succeeded nonetheless is certainly compelling, but it’s not good data for decisionmaking. Sometimes, these arguments are followed by pointing out wage growth among non-college graduates (driven by the shortages in the labor market – not in any way a new phenomenon, indeed one that has influenced college enrollments for well over a century). If there’s an attempt at a return on investment calculation, it usually fails to consider a return on taxpayer investment (when we know that, on average, taxes on higher college-related salaries repay the state’s investment in a student in just a few years). This counter narrative walks one from point A to point B, painting a picture of a failing system that can be summarized as follows: Unwilling or unable to adapt, American public higher education is out of touch with what people want. It is overpriced and of declining value (ignoring numerous measurements that are at odds with this statement). The tree is rotted at its core, and a good, stiff wind is all that’s needed to topple it, making way for any number of new educational models that all share one curious commonality: They believe in the death of one approach creating space for a revolutionary change in education, eschewing a world that is observationally filled with countless examples of evolutionary change in response to changes in environment.

Yet this counter narrative contains observations we must include in our fact set if we are to be intellectually honest in searching for an explanation that accounts for all facts as we know them today. Can American public higher education do better in terms of outcomes? Yes. Ninety-five percent of the students who enroll in a college or university should graduate – and sooner rather than later – with skill sets that match employer needs. And your background or the color of your skin shouldn’t affect this success rate.

Should American public higher education offer new pathways toward a successful career and a meaningful life? Again, yes. Pressures on the labor market and shifts in workers’ expectations may complicate the picture, but higher education is adapting. Indeed, as students are recruited into the workforce out of some programs prior to graduation, new learn-while-you-work models are being deployed; shorter-term credentials with the opportunity to fill in the rest of a degree later, if and when desired, are being offered; and pathways are being cleared to open new doors for students where a residential college experience is not the right answer.

Do we in higher ed have a responsibility to work with our colleagues in K-12 and within our communities to address the unacceptable loss of human talent from our educational pipeline, where 37% of babies born in Colorado will grow up unprepared to attend college, a number that skyrockets in communities of color? Absolutely. Higher ed won’t have all these answers, but we can and must be a part of the solution. There are any number of bold, national experiments in this space; the Spur campus at the National Western Center in Denver is a big part of this commitment for the CSU System.

It’s my belief, and since it’s looking forward, it’s only that – a belief – that public higher education will continue to adapt, to evolve. Those places that offer innovative programs appealing to students/customers, creating graduates who meet the needs of employers, that provide a culture and experiences that welcome everyone and offer a chance to learn in the open marketplace of the public debate of ideas, that focus on the basics of access, affordability, and outcomes will thrive. The campuses of the Colorado State University System look to be a part of that evolution that will create the next generation of American public higher education institutions, even as we protect and steward the traditional foundation that generations of Coloradans before us have built.

My belief stands at odds with the counter narrative that American public higher education is out of touch with what people want and faces a declining value proposition. And apparently, the entering class of Fall 2022 agrees. Perhaps they were sophisticated consumers who looked at all of the things we used to call facts before making a decision. As the counter narrative to American public higher education builds, I find myself reminded of my father, a quiet farmer who never attended college, who used to say that saying something louder and more often didn’t make it more true. And, in the end, actions really do speak louder than words.

To the people who worked so hard on our campuses to recruit and enroll these students, thank you. To everyone on our campuses who helps create the culture that welcomes each and every one of them with all of their differences, thank you. To everyone on our campuses who says, “Yes, and could we also try that?” instead of “No, that’s not what we do,” thank you. To the faculty who will challenge these students, allowing them to hone their natural talents, thank you. To the parents who entrust their most precious gifts to us, thank you. To the legislators and elected officials who do their best in the face of tough choices to steward an education system built by previous generations, thank you. And to the entering students of the Fall 2022 class, welcome!

– tony

Tony Frank, Chancellor
CSU System

This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s August newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.

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