Dr. James Applegate
Dr. James Applegate

Dr. James Applegate has championed equitable access to higher education his entire career. He came to Illinois State University in 2017 as a visiting professor for the Center for the Study of Education Policy (CSEP).

Upon Dr. Jim Palmer’s retirement last year, Applegate was named the editor of Grapevine, the nationally prominent annual report of each state’s contributions to higher education. Since 2010, Grapevine has been a combined effort of CSEP and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Applegate is only the fourth editor to lead the Grapevine in its 60 years of existence.

“Since the 1970s, ISU and its nationally recognized faculty—M.M. Chambers, Ed Hines, and Jim Palmer— have provided a tremendous service to U. S. higher education and policymakers,” Applegate said. “Grapevine’s annually updated analysis of the state of higher education funding has perhaps never been more important than it will be during and after the pandemic as states and colleges deal with historic fiscal challenges.”

Applegate earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown College (Kentucky) in American studies (with honors) and communication and his M.A. and Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Applegate is the former executive director of the Illinois State Board of Higher Education and served as senior vice president of the Lumina Foundation, the largest foundation in the U.S. dedicated to expanding access to higher education. He was chief academic officer for the University of Kentucky, where he was also professor and chair of the communication department. He served as president of the National Communication Association, the world’s largest association of communication scholars. His research has been published widely, and he is a much sought-after consultant by corporate, academic, and government clients.

In the following Q&A, Applegate discusses the future of higher education and its greatest challenges. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You are the new editor of Grapevine. What is Grapevine, and why is it important?

Grapevine is the longest-lived database that tracks funding trends in higher education. Its history from 1961 provides a rich opportunity to understand not only how higher education was funded but what factors influence funding. Illinois State has supported this work since the 1970s. Having had a chance to work with the previous editor at ISU, Dr. Jim Palmer, I came to understand the potential of Grapevine to spark smart thinking and policies around higher education to support its mission to provide opportunity, social mobility, and a foundation for civil society.

Is this time of a pandemic a particularly crucial moment for Grapevine?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an especially important time to tap Grapevine’s potential. Dr. Palmer is, I know, working on a history of the contributions Grapevine has made. I hope to build on that by creating a nationally recognized advisory board that can provide insights not only into higher education finances but other important issues (impacted by funding, of course) such as equity in college opportunity for low-income, students of color, and adult learners; the impact of unequal funding across higher education sectors with those colleges serving most of our underserved students getting poorer while elite more segregated colleges become richer; and the impact of the pandemic on state finances, which minus federal aid, is expected to exacerbate inequities at every level.

I also hope to find support to make the vast database in Grapevine more easily accessible to scholars and doctoral students here at ISU to promote deeper and more expansive analyses of historic and current funding patterns. I hope we also can better understand the impact of these funding trends on higher education’s ability to fulfill its mission as a supporter of social mobility in a time of record income inequality.

“I think the need for a more broadly educated populace has never been clearer. That opportunity should never be determined by the color of your skin or the wealth of the family into which you were born.”

Dr. James Applegate

You have also written that this is an important time for higher education. Why?

American higher education is a paradox today. In our early days, we were a haven for the elite. In the 20th century we opened our doors to millions more, and by some economists’ account, education was the driving force behind making the 20th century the American century. Many parts of higher education today remain the closest thing we have to a “silver bullet” when it comes to fostering social mobility that catapults individuals and families from lower to higher social and economic status. At the same time, since the 1980s upper tier research and elite universities have become more segregated as they have become richer in comparison to national, comprehensive, and community colleges. The (former) have become a part of the income inequality problem. The pandemic and the depression in state finances it brings threaten the very types of colleges that serve the vast majority of underserved students. The richer colleges, while stressed, will be OK.

What do you see as Grapevine’s role in helping solve these problems of inequity?

Grapevine is positioned to track the funding policies across states to speak to declines in funding and increasing inequities in funding as well as their impact on higher education and its students. I also am hopeful that Grapevine and the new advisory board can provide insight into how colleges use what they are learning during the pandemic to provide less expensive, technology-infused, high-quality degrees to those who need them.

We need to learn how to better partner with nonprofits, government agencies, and philanthropy to address the issues of homelessness, food insecurity, technology divides, poor high school preparation, and lack of health care that undercut many of our students’ chances for success. Those problems were there before the pandemic, but like so many other things, the virus laid them bare. I want Grapevine with its rich database to inform the conversation that makes the case for adequate funding and effective strategies promoting college success for the students who need it most.

Due to the pandemic, there has been an almost immediate reinvention of teaching and learning at the university level. What are your thoughts on how that transition has gone?

Many of the changes caused by the pandemic are happening under extreme duress, and not all are good. There is no doubt that much of the emergency “online” instruction slapped together in the spring was less than optimal, but not all face-to-face learning is optimal. If we can navigate toward a blended approach, using technology to provide high-quality, lower-cost credentials to those who need them while maintaining more traditional instruction for those who can afford it, that is positive. If in all this we can focus more like a laser beam on student learning as the goal regardless of the teaching/delivery model, we will be the better for it.

Much of your work focuses on student inequity. How important is that to the mission of higher education?

College credentials have never been more economically valuable than they are today despite the crazy rhetoric of largely well-to-do people who would never consider not ensuring a college degree for their children. More holistic admissions strategies with less reliance on tests (ACT, SAT) can help us broaden opportunity for students who have the grit but have been denied the preparation needed to succeed in our colleges. The talent demands of the economy will continue to escalate. Jobs that require less education will be increasingly low wage or disappear. A high school degree or less is becoming almost a sure path to poverty. That path today is disproportionately filled with people of color and the already poor.

In addition, our democracy has never been more threatened by the loss of a hold on facts, the demonization of science and expertise, and the inability to civilly debate important issues with sound knowledge. I think the need for a more broadly educated populace has never been clearer. That opportunity should never be determined by the color of your skin or the wealth of the family into which you were born.