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An Interview: James B. Hunt, Jr.

  James B. Hunt, Jr.


Gov. James B. Hunt, Jr. of North Carolina

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 Center.

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. Why?

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 since.

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 them.

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?

: 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 disadvantaged.

PC: And the "learning deficit"?

: 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 address?

: 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 is opportunity.

PC: Are these questions primarily for educational "insiders"–that is educators and policy makers? Do you sense any broad public concern?

: 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?

: 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.

Photo by Laura Noel for CrossTalk

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