Only in America

The story behind Lawrence Bacow's selection as president of Harvard University exemplifies the transformative power of higher education, writes Ted Mitchell.

February 15, 2018

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss the selection of Lawrence S. Bacow as the 29th president of Harvard University as a safe, traditional choice. After all, he is a pedigreed academic with three degrees from Harvard itself and another from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a former chancellor of MIT and former president of Tufts University.

But dig just a little deeper, and it quickly becomes apparent that Larry Bacow’s story exemplifies the unparalleled power of higher education to transform lives, institutions and communities.

He is the son of immigrants. Bacow’s father was a Jewish refugee whose family escaped the pogroms in Minsk prior to World War II. Once in America, his dad worked full-time while attending college at night in Detroit. His mother came to the United States after surviving Auschwitz.

The reality is that Bacow comes from just the type of heartland, working-class family that today is said to be increasingly estranged from the American dream and that is skeptical, if not outright cynical, about the value of a college education.

And Bacow now will lead just one of the many U.S. institutions of higher education that every year extend access to the same opportunities he had to thousands of bright and talented young people coming from low-income or middle-class backgrounds. Harvard last year spent $414 million universitywide in financial aid to students across the undergraduate and graduate populations. Twenty percent of Harvard parents have total incomes of less than $65,000 and are not expected to contribute. In other words: free.

We’ve all seen assessments like the May 2017 analysis of postelection survey data by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic, which included this finding: 54 percent of white working-class Americans over all viewed investing in a college education as a “risky gamble,” while 61 percent of white working-class men felt that way. Or the September 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN poll that found 51 percent of working-class white people said their life would be no different if they had a four-year college degree.

These types of findings will be on the table for a discussion today during an Inside Higher Ed forum, in conjunction with Gallup, titled “Higher Ed in an Era of Heightened Skepticism.” I’m on a panel that poses the question “Has Higher Ed Lost the Public?”

My answer: no, but we have work to do to improve our standing. As I approach the six-month mark at the helm of the American Council on Education, it is clear to me that confronting head-on the higher education value proposition must be a primary focus of our efforts here at ACE as we work to convene and mobilize the higher education community. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ Guardians Initiative and other projects by our partner organizations are a good start, but we must do more.

Focus groups that we conducted last year at ACE confirmed heightened skepticism among many people and anxiety over the cost of college among most. But most of our focus group participants wanted their children to gain a postsecondary education and believed doing so is a prerequisite to a successful future.

And the reality is that, far from making a “risky gamble,” people with a college degree are better off that those without one by virtually every measure that demographers can devise.

College graduates get higher-paying jobs, work more and accumulate greater lifetime earnings, reports the College Board’s Education Pays 2016. For instance, the median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients with no advanced degree working full-time were 67 percent ($24,600) greater than those of high school graduates. The unemployment rate for those with just a high school diploma is double the rate for those with a bachelor’s (5.4 percent versus 2.6 percent). And by age 34, college graduates match their high school compatriots in lifetime cumulative earnings and rapidly outpace them after that.

The Education Pays study also suggests that those who have completed even some college or an associate degree are less likely to smoke or be obese and are more likely to exercise. Education Pays and other data also indicate that college graduates are more likely to volunteer in their communities and vote in elections, and they have lower incarceration rates. They are happier -- and they even live longer.

In addition to such individual outcomes, higher education cultivates a flourishing civil society and a diverse democracy.

Does all this mean that those of us in American higher education can sit back and just continue operating status quo? Absolutely not. We have plenty of work to do to increase access to a quality education and ensure that more students from diverse walks of life have an equitable opportunity to complete meaningful degrees and credentials. That includes 18-year-olds who will be the first in their families to attend a university, single parents who need to return to school to get ahead in their careers, middle-aged displaced factory workers who need new skills, veterans who want to turn their years of service into civilian careers and countless others.

But we need to be careful that the conversation about higher education value does not take us backward and do more harm than good.

Take the debate over the tax bill that the U.S. Congress passed in December. The bill that initially passed the House of Representatives repealed an array of education benefits that help millions of students pay for their degrees. Lawmakers wisely rethought that, but the final bill still contained a number of provisions that harm students and their families. A prime example is the remarkably flawed tax on college and university endowments that will simply serve as a vehicle to transfer funds that institutions use to finance student aid, research and faculty salaries to the federal Treasury in order to pay for corporate tax cuts.

And much like the original House tax bill, the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill recently passed out of a House committee along a party-line vote would cut nearly $15 billion in student aid over the next decade. This is a bad bill for students and their families that I hope will look very different as the reauthorization process continues to play out in the House and Senate in the coming months.

To return to Larry Bacow’s story, it is worth noting that it is not just about immigrants and the children of immigrants achieving the American dream. It’s about the many contributions that immigrants have made to our country, particularly by pursuing higher education -- an important reminder given the current debate about immigration and its place in American society generally and Dreamers in particular.

It’s very possible that a Dreamer, or the son or daughter of a Dreamer, could turn out to be the next Larry Bacow or Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. secretary of state, whose family fled Czechoslovakia -- or countless other immigrants or children of immigrants who have made enormous contributions to our country and the entire world.

So let’s not dismiss Larry Bacow’s appointment as conventional. Let’s celebrate it as embodying all that American higher education makes possible.


Ted Mitchell is the president of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, representing nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and related associations.


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