Wanted: Obama's Help

WASHINGTON – The leader of a major public university system called on President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to do more to accomplish the White House’s goal of seeing the United States lead the world in postsecondary educational attainment by 2020.

November 17, 2009

WASHINGTON – The leader of a major public university system called on President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to do more to accomplish the White House’s goal of seeing the United States lead the world in postsecondary educational attainment by 2020.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said that colleges and universities need help in expanding the populations they serve and improving their graduation rates, and that the help must come from the highest levels of power. “I’m very pleased that the president announced this goal because I do think it provides sort of a galvanizing force for us to do this.” But, he urged, “the president and the secretary have got to use their bully pulpits and their purse strings.”

Kirwan's remarks came in a panel discussion,“Expanding Higher Education -- Public Universities and the President’s Goal,” held on the final afternoon of the annual conference of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, ahead of Duncan's Tuesday morning closing speech to the group, in which he's expected to touch on graduation rates, expanding accountability and financial aid reforms.

Obama first announced his vision of a college attainment rate of about 60 percent during his address to a joint session of Congress in late February, and while the administration’s 2010 draft budget ups funding for community colleges and boosts Pell Grants, it has yet to launch an initiative targeted at reaching the president’s goal.

Four-year institutions, community colleges, K-12 schools, private donors, state governments and the federal government must all come together to effectively expand and improve higher education, said Peter McPherson, the association’s president. “There’s only one party in this country that has the capacity to … mobilize the whole, and that’s the president.”

Colleges and universities and the associations that represent them, he said, must work together to formulate intermediate steps toward reaching the 2020 goal. “We need to, as a community, go to the administration and say something like this needs to be done,” he said, adding that he and fellow panelist Muriel A. Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), have been working with the leaders of the other four presidential associations to develop a plan.

Obama’s push is not without its critics -- those who think too much federal money is pouring into higher education and too many students going to college. But, understandably, no one voicing those opinions -- contrary to the APLU’s official stance -- was on the panel.

Dewayne Matthews, vice president of policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation, said his group believes “there is very clear evidence that the proportion of the population that completes postsecondary education is in fact itself an important measure of the economic vitality of the nation.”

The American work force, Matthews said, is divided into jobs that lead to the middle class and jobs that situate workers squarely in the working class. Decades ago, it was relatively easy for a high school graduate to get into the first group in, perhaps, a manufacturing job, but those opportunities have largely disappeared. Now, he said, “the dividing line between those two categories of jobs has become postsecondary education … and the current recession has simply greatly accelerated that whole process.”

Matthews hopes to see more Americans go to high quality programs and graduate from them, in line with Lumina’s “Big Goal,” to push the country to 60 percent degree or credential attainment by 2025 (five years later than President Obama’s goal date). To reach that goal, colleges and universities would need to award 23 million more degrees annually than they did in 2009. Each year for the next 16 years, national graduation totals would have to be 150,000 students larger than they were the previous year.

One key part of reaching Obama's goal, of course, is community colleges. Their missions are directly aimed at reaching out to students who would otherwise not pursue higher education, Kirwan acknowledged. "States have to invest less money there, students pay less there," allowing them to complete two years of postsecondary education at a far lower cost than they would face at four-year institutions. But, he said, public universities must play a key role too, Kirwan said, pointing to the need for clear articulation agreements that can help students who earn associate degrees transfer seamlessly into public universities in order to earn bachelor's degrees.

Higher education has become more essential to Americans’ economic well-being and, relatedly, national security, said Howard, of AASCU. College enrollments grew by 82 percent in the 15 years following the end of World War II and 174 percent in the next 15 years, between 1962 and 1977, as the federal government launched programs aimed at staying ahead of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since then, though, capacity has grown at a much slower rate, even as the U.S. population has grown and other industrialized nations have stepped up their efforts to expand college enrollments.

“I think higher education right now is probably at the next big stage … since Sputnik in the sense that we have this major goal and need in front of us,” she said. “We need to be competitive economically but I also think we’re moving closer to an issue of national security.”

McPherson added that the goal is “not just about where the country’s going, it’s about individual opportunity.”

Kirwan, too, voiced hope for the American dream. “For me -- and, I suspect, for many of you -- this isn’t about any particular president’s goal. This is about what kind of country we want our children and grandchildren to live in.”


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