The King’s Speech

Newly confirmed Education Secretary John B. King Jr. will chastise higher education for inequality and urge colleges and universities to do more for low-income students.

March 24, 2016

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. on Thursday will criticize the prevalence of inequality in American higher education and call on colleges, especially elite institutions, to do a better job of enrolling and graduating low-income students.

In his first major speech on higher education since being confirmed by the U.S. Senate earlier this month, King will denounce "a caste system of colleges and universities" in which student success is correlated with income and race.

"We are dangerously close to college obstructing, rather than driving, social mobility in this country," King will say, according to his prepared remarks.

King's speech, to be delivered to an audience of college presidents, trustees and other campus leaders at the Education Department's Washington headquarters, is a continuation of the Obama administration’s pledge to focus more heavily on degree completion in its waning months in office.

Then Secretary Arne Duncan last summer, in a sweeping address on higher education, called for a renewed focus on degree completion and educational quality that goes farther than discussions about rising levels of student loan debt. That appeared to be a direct response to the frenzy on the Democratic presidential campaign trail about “debt-free” college platforms.

King, too, will refer to the campaign trail, though he will discuss the "increasingly polarizing presidential election, with deeply conflicting notions of what it means to be an American."

Borrowing rhetoric that Hillary Clinton has been using on the campaign trial to counter Donald Trump, King will suggest the need in both the country and in higher education to "break down barriers to inclusion" rather than "build walls of separation."

Where Duncan’s speech called out accrediting agencies and said government agencies need to do a better job of holding colleges more accountable for outcomes, King’s speech Thursday is to focus largely on what should be done at the institutional level.

King calls it an "embarrassment" that students from low-income families make up such a small share -- 3 percent -- of the student bodies at elite colleges compared to their counterparts from wealthy families, who represent "a whopping" 72 percent.

"It is a death sentence for our historic promise of social mobility," King is to say. “We need more from our top colleges, and better uses of their multibillion-dollar endowments.”

Republicans have also recently stepped up their scrutiny of wealthy university endowments, reviving proposals to use the tax code to prod colleges to spend more of their endowment funds. It wasn’t clear from excerpts of his prepared remarks the department provided whether King will call for something similar.

King’s speech comes as the Obama administration is also trying to highlight colleges it believes are doing a good job of enrolling sizable shares of low-income students and making sure those students graduate.

The Education Department released a report Thursday that singles out several dozen colleges and universities that have significantly increased their enrollment of low-income students as well as those that have no or very small gaps between the graduation rates of Pell Grant students and their non-Pell counterparts.

Some of those institutions will be represented at the daylong Education Department event on Thursday that will focus, officials said, on discussing best practices for helping low-income students graduate and finding ways to scale initiatives that have been successful at individual institutions.

While the report recognizes institutions that the administration says is doing a good job, the administration said it will also release the full data that show how Pell recipients at each institution fare compared to those who do not receive Pell Grants.


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