Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., of North Carolina, who has long been an active supporter
of reforms in elementary and secondary education, both in his own state and nationally,
will serve as Founding Chair of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher
Education. This interview was conducted by Patrick M. Callan, president of the National
Gov. James B. Hunt, Jr. of North Carolina
Patrick M. Callan: After years of leading national and state efforts to improve
public schools and, most recently, early childhood education, you have taken on the
role of founding chair of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
James B. Hunt: Everything we know about the 21st century tells us that higher
education will be even more central to the future of our states and our nation than
it has ever been before. American higher education has a good track record. When
I look back over the last several decades in my state, and when I look across this
country, it is clear what has happened in the main to change this country.
One of the great engines that literally transformed America after World War II
was the GI Bill. For the first time in history, the children of average people, sons
and daughters of farmers and mechanics, could get a college degree. You just had
to be a veteran.
They also got a lot of other kinds of education, skill training. I can remember
a vocational education center in my community. I can remember the vets being out
there at night after World War II, the lights were on in the shops, they were learning
a skill. But the point is, everybody could begin to aspire to go to college, and
they did by the tens of thousands.
Not only did they get a college education, others in their families began to say,
"That can be for us." And I can remember a time when you could go to a
college graduation and most of those graduates were the first person in their family
to get a college degree. Don’t you remember that? There are some of those today,
but not nearly as many. It started with the GI Bill and it started with the commitment
that all of these people who had served this country, people so valuable to us as
a society, would have a chance to go to college.
And ever since the vets went to college, our society has provided each generation
with successively greater opportunities to get a higher education. I suggest that
nothing has meant more to America becoming the great economic powerhouse that we
are today than that. As in no other nation, the young people in America have been
able to develop their talent and their intellect through public and private two-year
and four-year institutions of higher learning.
Now frankly, no politician or party or political ideology deserves credit for
this transformation. It was the American people who wanted it done, and in large
measure it was higher education that did it and has pushed it on along in the years
What it did was provide hundreds of thousands of people with unprecedented opportunity
to learn. It created the educated population that propelled our nation into world
leadership. It made possible the great American middle class. It gave people in populations
who long had been left out a chance to strive and to climb the ladder and to aspire
to be the best they could be.
And it contributed to the tenacious growth of democratic values and institutions
that eventually won the Cold War and put this nation in the position it is in today–clearly
the leading nation in the world, but one whose potential is still unfulfilled.
The nation, the states and the colleges have done a marvelous job. But there is
so much more to be done. We must work on accessibility and affordability and quality
and ways to do better. We need public policy to focus on this more.
In recent years it has focused primarily on K through 12 and early childhood.
But we need to focus more on higher education. I want the National Center to help
lead the country to do that, working with higher education, government, business
and civic leaders. The future of the country depends in no small part on opening
those doors of opportunity and learning much wider. It depends on getting more people
into education and training after high school and helping them learn.
This applies to young people and older adults all over this country, wherever
they come from, whoever they are, whatever their race or their religion or their
family’s background. Higher education is something they should have available to
PC: In your recent address to the American Association, you expressed concern
about national opportunity and learning "deficits." That’s pretty strong
language. What are these deficits as you see them?
JH: I chose those terms because I think they might help us focus on what our
problems and our possibilities are. The word "deficit," of course, is a
word that has been fraught with meaning for years in America.
We worried through the 1980s and the ’90s, right up until recently, about huge
budget deficits and huge trade deficits. In fact, we worried so much that we did
something about it. The point is that we became concerned about it. We recognized
it for the threat that it was. Even more importantly, we realized what we could do
if we got over it and used resources in other ways, and we have done something about
it, though there is more to be done.
Today in America we still face a deficit of opportunity and a deficit of learning.
First of all, the benefits of this great system of colleges and universities are
still unevenly–and I believe unfairly–distributed.
We’ve talked a lot today about how good things have gotten and how much better
they have gotten. But the real truth is not all who could benefit from it have the
opportunity to learn. And I want us to stay focused on those people out there who
don’t have the chance.
Far too many students not only don’t have that first chance in higher education,
far too many leave higher education with their personal aspirations unrealized and
with society’s needs for them to learn and contribute unmet.
We have done far better at developing the talents of students who come to us from
the middle class and from privileged backgrounds than we have with those from less
advantaged circumstances. And today our nation stands on the verge of the largest
cohort of young Americans to come of college age since the baby boomers. Those of
us who are dealing with public education and how those numbers are increasing are
seeing it every day.
Those students are making their way through elementary and secondary schools right
now. Almost half the states, including my own, will experience increases of twenty-five
percent or more in the numbers of high school graduates in the next decade. My state
of North Carolina will have the fourth largest increase in public school enrollments
of any state in America.
The nation and the states and the colleges, I am afraid, are behind the curve
in planning to meet the educational needs of this tidal wave that is coming at us.
The cost and price of higher education are also matters of great importance to
the future of educational opportunity. They are legitimate and real concerns for
many working class and middle class American families, and especially for the economically
PC: And the "learning deficit"?
JH: There is also a learning deficit in America. There are many ways of describing
it, but one powerful example is the record of student success. We have steadily increased
the percentage of high school graduates going on to college. But since the mid-1970s
the proportion of 25 to 29 year olds completing four years of college has not increased
much, it has stalled in the 23 to 25 percent range.
Let me explain. Of the students who entered college aspiring to baccalaureate
degrees in 1989, 46 percent had a bachelor’s degree five years later, five percent
had an associates degree and three percent a certification. Eighteen percent were
still enrolled, 28 percent had not earned a degree and were no longer enrolled. And
if half of those 18 percent who were still enrolled eventually got a degree, of all
the degree-seeking students who entered in 1989, only a little over one-half would
have achieved their dream for themselves and for us.
A recent Educational Testing Service report put it this way: "Higher education
digs deeply into the pool of high school graduates with a sieve."
As you know I have spent most of my public life working in K through 12. In elementary
and secondary schools, we call those people dropouts. In higher education you generally
hear the term "retention problems." I’d like for us to think hard about
that and find solutions to it–not to reduce our commitment to quality, but to increase
it, and to find ways to keep those students enrolled and studying and learning and
moving ahead. We can do better than we’re doing.
PC: In that context, what are some of the key questions the National center will
JH: The National Center begins with asking five questions–important questions
that I believe the country, the higher education community, our governors and legislators,
civic and political leaders should ask as well.
First, how can we assure opportunities for education and training beyond high
school for the next generation of Americans? Second, how can we improve education’s
success as well as access? That is, how can we assure that students are effective
learners once they come to our colleges? Third, how can we assure that higher education
is a countervailing force to, and not a support structure for, what many now see
as an increasing bipolar distribution of wealth, income and opportunity in America?
Fourth, how can we do all this while keeping higher education affordable for America’s
families? And fifth, how can we assure high school students that hard work by them
and their families will be rewarded by college opportunity?
How do we give that assurance to the people in this country? How do we make real
the commitment that supporting and offering and mastering a rigorous curriculum will
lead to college opportunity regardless of your family’s financial resources?
Now, the underlying theme, as you would quickly see here, of all of these question
PC: Are these questions primarily for educational "insiders"–that is
educators and policy makers? Do you sense any broad public concern?
JH: There is great public support for higher education opportunity. The National
Center recently commissioned a national survey of public opinion on this. The survey
was conducted by the very influential and credible Public Agenda organization.
They found that more than half of Americans believe that getting a college education
in the next decade will be more difficult than it is today. At the same time our
people know how important higher education is. The survey showed that Americans believe,
in overwhelming numbers, that high school graduates should go on to college even
if they have a good job offer when they graduate. That’s important.
The public believes that their states need more college graduates in order to
be successful economically. They believe that no student who is qualified and motivated
to attend college should be prevented from enrolling because of price. There is great
public resistance to limitations on college access for those who can benefit, and
strong support for approaches that help more people enroll and do well.
And right now, the American people believe that students and families are doing
about all they can to pay for college, and they think that additional price increases
are a bad idea.
PC: How do you assess the prospects of American higher education?
JH: I am optimistic. I have seen higher education in my state and in this nation
become the primary force responsible for pulling us up, for helping us know where
we could go, inspiring us. I have seen the expansion of opportunity through public
and private, two- and four-year colleges and universities. I’ve seen Tobacco Road
become the Research Triangle.
But we can do better and we can go further. Some may think that opening more doors,
keeping the price affordable and bringing millions more Americans into higher education
are walls too high to climb. But I am convinced that we can do it. We have got to
work together; we’ve got to help each other up. We’ve got to find the right public
policies and commitments to make it happen.