This past fall’s elections marked a significant change for our nation, both in terms of leadership and direction. As a historian, I am always interested in the how and why of such phenomena, and as an educator, I am interested in what they mean for higher education. So I’ve spent a good deal of time in recent weeks talking with a wide range of people from coast to coast and reading a host of analyses in an effort to grasp the world that is unfolding and how our colleges and universities fit into it.
I’ve come away from that experience with two basic observations. The first is that our nation is more divided than I realized, and the division is more about opportunity than ideology. A recurring theme in my conversations and reading was one of anxiety and anger among many Americans about being left behind. Many people feel that globalization and innovation have not left them better off, and that the institutions that are supposed to help them are not there for them. This sense of an opportunity gap is palpable and powerful, and it will have a real and lasting impact on our politics.
The second observation is that this opportunity gap has a good deal to do with higher education. While inequities in economic opportunity lie at the heart of many Americans’ discontent, educational opportunity is a natural extension of that frustration. In recent years, we have seen survey after survey document the sentiment that education after high school is necessary but increasingly unaffordable. Meanwhile, according to recent data from Public Agenda, public belief that college is essential has slipped. It is too early to tell if that is a blip or a trend, but it is powerfully illustrated by a comment made to me by a gas station attendant in Iowa: “Why would I spend money I don’t have to go to a community college where no one graduates?”
As we begin 2017, I believe that we in higher education need to engage in a serious dialogue about our role in exacerbating the opportunity gap and our obligation going forward to close it. For me, that means grappling with three basic questions.
What Is Higher Education, and Who Is It For?
In our public conversation and policy making, we simply must take a broader view of education after high school and who pursues it. Even today, we labor under outdated images of newly minted high school graduates making their way to lectures and leafy quads, even as 40 percent of our students are over 25 and fully one-quarter are parents. It is time to move conversations about matters like digital learning and redesigning remedial education from the margins to the mainstream and embrace new delivery models that aren’t grounded in seat time and agrarian calendars but rather meet the needs of today’s students.
Institutions like Rio Salado College in Arizona grasp these realities and are responding to them by embracing a combination of online and in-class learning and by having an academic calendar that begins a new term virtually every Monday, rather than just two or four times a year. States are also waking up to the realities of today’s college students, launching initiatives like Tennessee Reconnect to bring adults with some college experience but no credential back into the pipeline for a degree or certificate.
How Important Is Higher Education?
Even as Americans increasingly question the value of higher education, the evidence is clear: our economy favors those with education and training after high school and punishes those who lack it. Virtually all the jobs created since the Great Recession required some form of postsecondary education, from short-term certifications to postdoctoral studies. And that trend will only continue, as the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Economy estimates that, at current enrollment and completion rates, our economy faces a shortfall of 11 million credentialed workers. We need more access and success in higher education, and we especially need it for the people who have consistently been left behind: low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults.
And yet, higher education’s incentive and recognition systems continue to celebrate and reward exclusion. The institutions that top the U.S. News & World Report rankings are the ones that reject the most applicants. The colleges and universities that receive the greatest per-student public funding are the least diverse ones. And as my colleague Anthony P. Carnevale, direct of the center at Georgetown, noted recently, our elite institutions are unable to meaningfully tackle the growing opportunity gap in this country. We must rewrite that narrative if we are going to leave fewer Americans behind.
Institutions like Arizona State University, Georgia State University and the other members of the University Innovation Alliance deserve credit and, more important, support for their efforts to redefine excellence not in terms of whom they exclude but whom they include -- and how well those students succeed. So do open-access institutions that redefine their students’ experiences to emphasize credential completion and employment, like Miami Dade College and Sinclair Community College. They and a growing cadre of other innovators are determined to achieve excellence through inclusion.
What Is Higher Education’s Role in the Public Arena?
Throughout the nation’s history, colleges and universities and their leaders have been engaged in the great debates of war and peace, civil rights, and poverty and inequality. But as America increasingly cleaves along the lines of the haves and have-nots, where is higher education on issues affecting the disaffected, like immigration and health care reform? Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, rightly argued recently in this publication that as an enterprise, higher education has become too insular, too self-referential and too risk averse. Many college and university leaders, fearful of the wrath of politicians and donors, have moved from the center to the sidelines in the public arena. Their voices are urgently needed to substantively address the opportunity gap.
I am heartened to see campus leaders address questions related to immigration and use their convening power to address and hopefully lower racial tensions affecting many communities. But I am also left to wonder how much standing we in higher education have already ceded in the public arena, absorbed with the pursuit of prestige and the race for revenue as those left behind have fallen even farther back.
At the end of the day, I am an optimist. I believe that the educational opportunity gap can be bridged. In fact, it must be bridged if we are going to have an economy and society that is about raising people up rather than leaving them behind. For us in higher education, that process begins by recognizing where our rhetoric may be at odds with reality -- and then doing something about it.
Dan Greenstein is director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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