EXECUTIVE POSITIONS

Essay calls for sustained effort by colleges to focus on economic inequality

Income and wealth inequality in the United States, which has become even more pronounced since 1967, continues to interfere with the national need for an increasingly sophisticated and skilled workforce and citizenry. Federal financial assistance to financially needy college students is a rational response to this recognized social and economic inequality.  About 30 years ago, in ways clearly demonstrated by Tom Mortenson in ”How to Limit Opportunity for Higher Education 1980 – 2011,” federal and state policy shifts placed an increasing share of the cost of higher education on students and their families, turning higher education into a commodity provided to those who could pay. Primarily as a consequence of these policies and the associated spiraling costs of attending college, the growth in the portion of our population with a college degree has been slow, increasing from 17 to 30 percent over the past 30 years.  Strikingly, the gains were made primarily by those from the wealthiest backgrounds (18 percent increase) in contrast to a small 4 percent growth, over the same 30 years, for those in the lowest socioeconomic quartile.

Globally, as various analyses show, while many countries are making solid progress in educating their populations, the United States is losing ground, slipping from first to 12th among 36 developed countries in percent of the population with a degree. Although American students from the upper quartile of the national income distribution can continue to have high expectations of completing college, their success alone is not enough for our economy and society to thrive.

If we are to educate the nation to meet the current challenges of the global economy, our democratic society, and our planet, we need to use all means possible to educate the largest number of people possible. This will require increased financial assistance for low- and moderate-income students.  Federal and state support for education is the single most rational investment we can make in our future. Yet we continue to face threats even to the inadequate support that remains today. Some current candidates for president of the United States oppose any federal role in supporting college students.

The return on investment (tax dollars) in Pell Grants and other forms of federal assistance is currently being measured by the number of degrees produced for the number of grants given.  Since data are not systematically collected, it is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of Pell recipients graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years or an associate degree in three years.

Whatever the exact number, for some observers it is easy to conclude simplistically that the "return" is not worth the investment of tax dollars -- even at a 50 percent degree completion rate -- because those who receive Pell Grants aren’t measuring up and therefore Pell funds must be reduced. Interestingly, there is no national discussion about the effectiveness (or not) of tax credits for college tuition, which benefit those with higher incomes. And merit aid by institutions of course helps the wealthier and leaves less need-based aid.

Although finances are often among the primary reasons for student dropouts or stopouts before degree completion, higher education cannot avoid its share of the responsibility. We cannot evade blame for our own inability to innovate and respond to the students in our colleges and universities by simply pointing to their lack of financing and lack of academic preparation for higher education. We college and university administrators and faculty need to own this issue. We need to own the overall 56 percent graduation rate for all those who enroll in college -- keeping in mind that graduation rates correlate perfectly with family income level.  In 2009, the bachelor’s degree completion rates for those who enrolled in a college or university were 19.9 percent for those from the lowest income quartile, 28.2 percent for the second quartile, 51.4 percent for those from the third quartile and 97.9 percent for those from the top quartile. (Mortenson “Family Income and Educational Attainment 1970 to 2009”).

These data make clear that the crisis in higher education completion rates in the United States is really a crisis of completion for this who are not wealthy.

Copious data, like Mortenson’s cited above, indicate that a caste-like education system exists in America.  The economic group you are born into is the best predictor of your access to and completion of a college degree.  This should be unacceptable to a democracy.  It should be unacceptable to higher education.  How can we feel good about being part of an enterprise in human development that solidly succeeds only with wealthy people?

Instead of asking what’s wrong with the students who don’t complete a college education, we need to admit that something is wrong with the educational experience offered to almost half of the students who actually enroll. What is the matter with the way we are educating in the 21st century that results in these low success rates for those that we enroll?  Only if you come from the highest income quartile (over $100,000) can we feel comfortable that you will be a “good fit” and continue on the path of intellectual and social development that will lead to the awarding of a college degree.  

Is it not the responsibility of educators to address this caste-like education system and not leave the statistics for policy makers to use as justification for eliminating financial support for those who need it?  Pell Grants are currently being defined as a failure based on the graduation rates of those who receive them.  Implicit in the condemnation is a suggestion that the recipients of Pell Grants are not “college material” and so they fail to complete college.  But while Pell Grants are necessary, they are not sufficient:  Pell Grants are the means to assist in access and persistence; they are not sufficient on their own to get to the desired ends.

If Pell Grants are to succeed, then institutions must recognize their responsibility to craft learning environments for the 21st century --- collaborative learning environments that engage the whole student as well as the whole campus in learning. If we are serious about changing graduation outcomes, all current systems and processes, that constitute the way we do business, need to be reexamined putting at the center a student who may not have been on a path to college since birth and who must integrate financial and perhaps familial responsibilities into their life as a student. Rather than having this reality be the cause of attrition, how can higher education be reshaped to be inclusive of these full lives?  How do recruitment, student life, financial aid, the president’s office, advising, the athletic program, learning inside and outside of the classroom reshape themselves to better meet students where they are rather than where they might be if they came from more privileged backgrounds? Those in higher education are often called upon to apply their wisdom and creativity to finding solutions and improving outcomes that benefit all of us.  Educational inequality, particularly as it resides right within the academy, is such a challenge.

The question of financing students and financing the institutions who serve them should be addressed collectively as well: How can costs be reduced by more institutional collaboration and less duplication of services?  The demographics of those who earn their living in the academy and are responsible for the values and processes of higher education differ from those who we most need to increase their success in the academy. Yet it is exactly those who are now underrepresented in higher education -- those from low-income backgrounds, who are likely to be the first in their families to attend college, and who are likely to be from communities of color and from rural America; those who may well be the recipients of state and federal assistance -- who are the 21st-century Americans who must take their rightful places in higher education, in our economy and our civil society.

Without them, America will continue to lag behind on the global economic, political and cultural stage. All of these areas are dependent on an educated population that can create far less inequality than we seem willing to accept today. Without them, we are giving up on the power of our country to further evolve the reality of democracy as an inclusive model of how people can progress.  Instead, we are accepting increasing inequality and division among people on all measures that matter.

What is the purpose of the 3000+ institutions of higher education in our country if not to meet these students where they are and engage with them in the process of their intellectual growth?  And yes, I’ve been in the classroom and know how hard it is.  It is extra hard if you can’t take learning outside of the classroom; if you can’t shed the mantle of your own Ph.D. and admit there is much you can learn from your students and from other educators on campus; if you can’t penetrate the elitist boundary between “student life” and “academics”; if the future of your job depends on enrolling “full pay” students and achieving high rankings in U.S. News & World Report; if you see other colleges as competitors for those students and those rankings; if you are forced to function narrowly within the hierarchy of your university and the hierarchy of higher education.

Educators have the capacity as well as the responsibility to discuss, imagine and ask for the changes that are necessary for education in the 21st century. Instead of measuring the “return on Pell,” we should be measuring the success of individual colleges and universities in adding value to our society by producing graduates from among those who have been and remain underrepresented.  It’s a challenge that has been addressed by conferences, studies, books, and reports. But where are the regional and national standards to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping the country meet a critical need --  more college- educated citizens from all income backgrounds?

Those of us who have made both education and increasing social justice our life's work have a responsibility to do the work that needs to be done. It starts with being willing to change in order to help transform.
 

Gloria Nemerowicz, formerly the president of Pine Manor College, is founder and president of the Yes We Must Coalition.

U. Tennessee System backtracks on 'de-tenure' language

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U. of Tennessee walks back -- at least in terminology -- from a proposal to "de-tenure" faculty members as part of new business plan. But the policy idea may well remain alive.

UW-Madison chancellor comes under fire for comments about how she matches outside faculty offers

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UW-Madison chancellor comes under fire for recently admitting she matches outside faculty offers with course load reductions. Is there anything wrong with the practice?

Study finds gains in college administrators' salaries

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Senior officials see salary gains, with those at public institutions having slightly larger raises.

Essay says life of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh should inspire college presidents to speak out

I grew up in the era of remarkable college presidents, individuals who were seen as public intellectuals. These leaders -- Derek Bok, Kingman Brewster Jr., A. Bart Giamatti, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh -- spoke out on issues that extended far beyond their campuses. As they saw it, contributing to the larger public conversation on critical issues of their time was part and parcel of their role both as college/university presidents and in the years thereafter. Voices like this are disappearing, a point made all the more relevant and poignant with the passing of Father Hesburgh last week at age 97. Today’s educational leaders are vacating the bully lectern -- even on issues related to their own campuses.

With the increased craziness in current events, the void in presidential voice has become increasingly obvious. But the need for it could not be greater. Think: terrorism, young people turning to lives of violence here and abroad, Ebola, cheating in a professional sport, gridlock in government, lack of trust in police, and the beheadings of journalists and relief workers, to name but a few of the issues before us. Where are the voices of presidents of institutions of higher learning who can provide some moral grounding or an intellectual compass?

What accounts for the silence? It is obviously not one reason. One powerful argument is that speaking out on national and international issues is not the role of college and university leaders in the 21st century. The job, instead, is to run a campus as an effective business, keeping our myriad of constituencies (like shareholders) happy.  

Speaking out can alienate faculty or students or parents or trustees or community members. It can impair revenue generation. We need to mediate these differing perspectives, regularly smoothing feathers and finding balance among irreconcilable positions. For public institutions, we need to please politicians if we want institutional funding, if we want a workable board, if we want state grants for students. 

Adding to all this is the impact of social media; it has transformed the consequences of our speaking out; our words get truncated into short sound bites; our positions take on a life of their own, with little opportunity to clarify or rectify or inform. And even when needed corrections are made, they are hardly noticed.

I get it. It is easier and safer to be silent. The job of a college/university president is hard enough without speaking up and out. We know that even when we speak out on issues related to our institutions, which some presidents are doing, we risk being subjected to considerable criticism (often nasty and mean-spirited) and even termination. And the heat is rising: legislation was just introduced in Kansas that seeks to bar professors (and one assumes presidents) from using the titles they hold at public institutions in any op-eds they write -- quite the silencing device.

Yet, as educational leaders turn inward, we are simultaneously teaching our students the value of multiple perspectives, the importance of rigorous but civil debate, the interrelationship of the disciplines that cannot and should not be cabined into silos in real life. We are encouraging them to deal with new people and new ideas, and encouraging experimentation and innovation and risk taking. We want our students to engage actively in the local community, literally feeling and understanding the value of serving others. We want them to see their obligations to the larger world -- voting, sorting through vast quantities of data in search for truth, among other things. With a degree, we preach, comes responsibility. We argue that problem solving and critical thinking are what we teach across the disciplines, educating the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow. We pay homage to Jefferson’s notion that our democracy depends on an educated populace.

But it’s ironic. As presidents and in our lives thereafter, we are being disingenuous. We are doing one thing and teaching another. We are not acting as role models for our students -- from the top down. What we ask of our students should be the minimum of that which we ask of ourselves. We challenge our students to become their best selves. This means that as presidents and leaders, we have to speak up and out on the critical issues of our day. We may not have some unique lock on wisdom, but we certainly do not have less insight than others who voice their views. 

That’s why, when I was a sitting president, I spoke out on Ray Rice’s behavior and how it was handled by the National Football League. I spoke out on the government shutdown. I spoke out on women's leadership issues after the book Lean In was published.

When I was a college president, I had a piece of art by Rachel Kerwin outside my door. Amid a swirl of black and gray and white, the word “SPEAK” appears dead center in capital letters. I always said this was to remind students, faculty and staff to share openly what was on their minds when they came into my office, something that is rarely easy. It also served another purpose: reminding me to speak out, no matter how hard or risky that is. It still does.

Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College.

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Rachel Kerwin
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Student success company Hobsons acquires Starfish Retention Solutions

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Hobsons, seeking to offer college and career planning tools that follow students through their entire educational careers, acquires Starfish Retention Solutions.

Essay on the historic context behind President Obama's proposal for free community college

“The time has come to make education through the 14th grade available in the same way that high school education is now available. This means tuition-free education should be available in public institutions to all youth for the traditional freshman and sophomore years or for the traditional two-year junior college course.”

Although it may sound similar, this statement was not uttered by President Obama. It was, in fact, a declaration made by the United States’ first national commission on higher education, the Truman Commission, in 1947.

Now, more than a half century later, President Obama has given new life to the Truman Commission’s vision with his plan to make “two years of college... as free and universal in America as high school is today.” The proposal, modeled in part on programs in Tennessee and Chicago, promises to use federal and state dollars to eliminate the costs associated with tuition and fees at community colleges for students who enroll at least part-time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Though not as far-reaching at the Truman Commission’s plan, the Obama proposal aims to provide a debt-free route to a college education for all Americans willing to work for it.

The Truman Commission’s recommendations did not come to fruition for the same reason that Obama’s plan likely won’t: they faced a Republican Congress with little interest in supporting the president’s agenda or enacting large spending packages.

Still, historians agree that the commission’s bipartisan report -- and the debates it sparked -- changed the conversation about federal and state support for college access. It laid the foundation for the landmark Higher Education Act of 1965. And it prompted many state governments to move ahead with plans to expand public higher education, in particular by creating or enlarging community colleges, in the years after World War II. The same thing is happening today, as the news carries stories of free college plans being developed in Oregon, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York. 

Much like the Obama administration, the 29 educational and civic leaders who served on the Truman Commission believed that Americans’ willingness to extend higher education opportunity to all would be the key to the nation’s economic and political future. They were part of a generation that had lived through two world wars and a devastating economic depression, and they were grappling with the frightening prospect of atomic warfare. Clearly framing higher education as a public good, the commission argued that an educated citizenry provided the best hope for preserving democratic freedom, achieving economic security and even promoting world peace.

Too many young people, the commission argued in 1947, faced barriers to higher education due to family income or geographic location, or on account of race, religion, sex or national origin. Since the 1930s, colleges, both public and private, had steadily increased tuition and fees, putting higher education out of reach for many families. Jewish students encountered admissions quotas at many private colleges, while African-Americans faced separate and unequal higher education in the segregated South. Such discrimination, the commission wrote, amounted to a “waste” of human talent. It was not only a blow to the United States’ image as a bastion of freedom and opportunity -- it was a threat to the national security.

At a time when the federal role in the nation’s education was minimal, the commission asked Washington to take the lead in assisting state and local governments to develop a nationwide network of tuition-free public colleges -- or “community colleges” -- within reach of every American. And although it recommended a range of federal aid programs, including a system of national scholarships and fellowships that could be used at any institution, public or private, the commission believed that access to higher education should be extended primarily through the public system. It was only in publicly controlled institutions, most members agreed, that fair treatment for racial and religious minorities could be assured and tuition and fees could be contained. Moreover, they hoped, the carrot of federal aid could also be used to encourage state governments in the South to end segregation in public colleges and universities.

The intense public debate over the commission’s recommendations demonstrated that the politics of federal aid to higher education were -- and still are -- complex. By the time the commission's report was released, the popularity of the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided tuition and cost-of-living assistance to returning veterans, was obvious to everyone, but the commission’s vision of expanding access to higher education to all Americans still proved a hard sell.

As with the debate over the Obama plan, critics found the devil in the details. The proposal was described as too expensive, unrealistic, and even undemocratic. With federal aid, some argued, would come unwelcome federal control. Others charged that the commission’s estimate of Americans’ intelligence was simply too high, or that the nation’s economy had room for only so many college graduates. In 1952, the report of the Commission on Financing Higher Education, a study financed by the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations and endorsed by leaders of private institutions, suggested that higher education should be for the nation’s elite students -- the top quarter of academic achievers -- and not for the masses. The Truman Commission, by comparison, asserted that nearly half the adult population could benefit from two years of postsecondary schooling and one-third from an “advanced liberal or specialized professional education” -- just about where we are as a nation today.

But perhaps the most blistering attack came from two of the commission’s own members, both of whom were leaders from Roman Catholic education. They argued that the commission’s exclusion of private colleges from the use of federal funds for current expenditures and capital outlays would lead to a “monopoly of tax funds for publicly controlled colleges and universities” -- a concern expressed in response to the Obama plan.

Many private institutions, they feared, could not compete with a free public sector. Small colleges would close, while a higher education landscape dominated by public institutions would be vulnerable to government control and propaganda, as in the “dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Japan.” Only the existence of private alternatives, free from government oversight, could assure the intellectual freedom that democracy needed to flourish. “American democracy,” they wrote, “will be best served if higher education in the future, as in the past, will continue to be regarded as a responsibility to be shared by public and private colleges and universities.”

Criticism of the Obama plan has followed similar contours. On the left, some worry that the money could be better targeted toward those who need it. On the right, others fear that a commitment to “free” public higher education is too great a fiscal burden to bear, or that a strong public sector will diminish “market” incentives. And, as was the case 60 years ago, commentators of various stripes have pointed out the obvious fact that the production of more college degrees, by itself, will not lead to better employment outcomes or alleviate social inequality.

These criticisms may have some merit, but they miss the larger point of the president’s forward-looking vision of college access. The members of the Truman Commission understood the value of making a powerful statement. During the commission’s second meeting, in December 1946, the philosopher Horace Kallen urged his colleagues to conceive of their report as a statement akin to the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

“We are starting,” he said, “as a deduction from the democratic position in the field of education, a certain conception of a standard of educational living. We can’t realize it all at once. Every step in the realization is going to be a fight, just as every step in the raising of the standard of living is going to be a fight.”

Indeed, in the spirit of the Truman Commission, the Obama plan renews the nation’s promise to provide educational opportunity to all who are willing to work for it. It serves as a reminder that education is not just a private benefit, open only to those who can afford it, but a public good worthy of investment. The promise of American higher education, after all, is about more than individual job preparation. It is about the possibility for all citizens to participate in envisioning and constructing a better society.

Nicholas Strohl is a Ph.D. candidate in history and educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His dissertation is entitled “Higher Education and the Public Good: The Truman Commission and the Case for Universal College Access, 1918-1953.”

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Essay on why the plan to offer free community college deserves support

An experiment was conducted a few years back that offered participants the choice between a Lindt chocolate truffle and a Hershey’s Kiss. Each was available for an attractive price -- 15 cents for the truffle, a penny for the Kiss. Three out of four chose the truffle.

Then the researchers reduced the cost of each offering by a penny. The truffle was now 14 cents, the Kiss was free. Two out of three participants chose the Hershey’s Kiss. “Free” is a powerful word.

When President Obama unveiled a proposal last month to give every student in America the opportunity to attend community college free of charge, it naturally got our attention. From the kitchen table to the corridors of Congress, people were talking about it.

Essentially, the plan proposes that the federal government pay three-fourths of a student’s community college tuition if states agree to pay the remaining 25 percent. Community colleges must commit to taking steps to strengthen programs and increase graduation rates. Students must have skin in the game, too -- they must attend college at least half-time, while maintaining a minimum grade point average of 2.5.

Instantly, the plan ignited a debate over its merits. Some say the money shouldn’t be spent on tuition, but on removing obstacles that keep students from finishing community college and furthering their education. Others contend that the proposal is an important first step toward spurring college attendance and building bridges between two-year colleges and four-year institutions. And of course, countless other perspectives abound.

While the debate has yet to be resolved, it’s clear the president has already succeeded in one sense: he’s gotten the nation to pay attention to a critical and overlooked need.

The importance of a college education is hardly a new topic of conversation. The changing U.S. economy, rising competition for gainful employment and the growing complexity of a global society have made education a new national imperative. Yet the conversation has focused primarily on the importance of a four-year degree. Our money has followed this emphasis: public and private dollars are directed into four-year universities, which have become more difficult for students and parents to afford.

In this national dialogue, community colleges have been somewhat left behind. Their per-student expenditures lag well behind those at institutions offering four-year degrees and graduate education. Yet they enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in our country, providing a first step or a second chance toward a more rewarding life. Considering that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, community colleges have never been more important to our nation’s future prosperity.

A 2013 Georgetown University study, “Failure to Launch,” illustrates why. The study found that only half of Americans in their late 20s are employed full-time, the lowest level since 1972. At the same time, “the increasing need for skill development after high school has delayed young adults’ careers.” This explains why the goalposts of individual sustainability keep moving. The average age for financial independence in the U.S. is now 30.

For a large cross section of our country, community colleges represent a way forward. But their role and value transcend a person’s ability to get ahead. They’re also crucial to America’s ability to compete in the world economy.

It is widely accepted that our nation needs to graduate significant numbers of professionals in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to ensure our future economic competitiveness. The critical role that community colleges play in achieving this goal is less known. The most recently compiled statistics from the National Science Foundation showed that 44 percent of the 126,000 men and women earning 4-year degrees in engineering attended community college at some point. For most, this was their first foray into higher education -- and they continued on. A National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study showed that nearly 75 percent of the students who earned an associate degree and then moved to a four‐year college graduated with a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring.

Community college is also a particularly effective pathway for underrepresented minority STEM students. The 2006 National Survey of Recent College Graduates revealed that 64 percent of American Indians, 5 percent of African-Americans and 55 percent of Hispanic engineering B.S. and M.S. degree recipients attended community college before enrolling at a four-year college.

The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) has crafted a strategy to reinforce this pathway. The organization partners with four-year colleges and universities and provides transfer scholarships to students earning associate degrees in engineering-related fields. NACME is also part of a collaborative working to strengthen high school STEM education for underrepresented minorities. Currently, more than 30,000 students are enrolled in school-within-school Academies of Engineering to deepen their understanding of STEM areas.

All of these are reasons why President Obama’s plan deserves support. This is exactly the kind of thinking and practice our country needs to unlock the doors of opportunity for a new generation. The higher education enterprise and American society both stand to benefit in the long run. "Free" is indeed a powerful word. In considering and debating the president’s proposal, let’s free our minds of false assumption and open them to the possibility and potential of new approaches.

Gary May is dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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New presidents or provosts: Angelo Bridgewater Illinois KCTCS Middlebury Midlands Siena UNLV

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  • Jay Box, chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, has been chosen as president there.

Middlebury set to abandon plan that tied tuition to inflation to keep down prices

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College received attention and praise for trying to limit tuition increases. Now, the college says the system will no longer work.

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