From the earliest history of our nation, there has been a recognition—albeit slowly and imperfectly acted upon—that higher education must be an "engine" of both our economy and our democracy. Thomas Jefferson advocated public higher education to foster an informed citizenry and also as an investment in the nation's economic future. These two very practical public purposes inspired the Land Grant Acts of the 19th century and the G.I. Bill adopted after World War II, which spectacularly expanded the reach of American higher education. And now, I believe, the same public purposes must move us to action once again, for America today needs more from its colleges and universities than it ever has before.
The story of the G.I. Bill is particularly relevant today. It was proposed largely out of fear of high post-war unemployment, and it passed despite the reservations of leaders of many of America's most prestigious universities. Under the G.I. Bill, the federal government promised to pay for college for any returning veteran who enrolled, and that dramatic increase in college opportunity was quickly matched by the veterans' response to it. G.I.'s enrolled in massive numbers, and colleges and universities found that the returning veterans' high aspirations and determination more than compensated for their years away from the classroom. An article in the New York Times in 1947 registered the general surprise. "Here is the most astonishing fact in the history of American higher education," the Times reported. "The G.I.'s are hogging the honor rolls and deans lists; they are walking away with the highest marks in all of their courses."
To their credit, America's colleges and universities ended up embracing these new students, but it's good to remember their initial misgivings. Prior to World War II, only a small proportion of Americans attended college—in 1937, it was only 15% of 18- to 20-year—olds-and most of them came directly out of high school and directly from our wealthier classes. But the G.I. Bill permanently changed our conception of who could benefit from higher education. In the years that followed its enactment, enrollments increased enormously as the veterans and then their children, the baby boomers, went to college in unprecedented numbers. The half century after the G.I. Bill saw the expansion of community colleges; the development of the modern American research university and of comprehensive state colleges; and the beginning of national, state, and institutional investments in financial aid for students in private as well as public institutions. The era was defined by increased college opportunities for men and women of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities. Enrollment surged from 1.5 million in 1940 to almost 2.7 million in 1950 to more than 17 million students today.
To be sure, not all Americans have benefited equally from this expansion of opportunity. Particularly students from low-income or minority ethnic groups have been, and still are, poorly served at all levels of education. Nevertheless, by any real-world standard, our nation led the world in higher education and its leadership was acknowledged even by its critics. There is no question that American higher education is one of the greatest success stories of the 20th century—a success that expanded the economy and built the American middle class. Our predecessors accomplished the improbable: They redefined higher education to include the previously underserved, those who were traditionally written off because they did not fit the conventional idea of a college student.
This is the rich legacy we must build upon today, as we try once again to further democracy and support our economy in circumstances that are once again greatly changing.
The challenge today, of course, is the emergence of a global and highly competitive new knowledge-based economy, which requires enormous numbers of workers with education and training beyond high school—and which, without a backward glance, locates its growth industries in whatever places provide such a labor pool. The challenge is compounded, moreover, because this new demand for educated workers is arising just as America's baby-boom generation, the largest and best-educated in our nation's history, is on the verge of retirement. Our economic prosperity depends, in other words, on the education level attained by the young workers who will replace the baby boomers in the American labor force. Yet demographers tell us that these new workers will come increasingly from those minority and low-income groups that our present education system is most likely to leave behind.
In the new knowledge-based economy, which relentlessly punishes the undereducated—the undereducated individual, the undereducated community, the undereducated state and nation—it is not just the country's economic position that we must consider. The implications for the future of our democratic values and institutions are also enormous. And I suggest to you that what our democracy and our economy both need is a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who have access to and who complete a high-quality, postsecondary education—an increase parallel to the one we saw in this country in the years after the G.I. Bill.
So if this is the direction in which the nation and the states must move, how are we doing? Are we making progress?
My answer draws primarily from Measuring Up 2004, the most recent in the series of national and state report cards on higher education from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. In Measuring Up 2004, the National Center reports on the progress that the states and the nation have made since the early 1990s, and I'd like to share with you some of those findings.
First, what progress have we made in preparing students for higher education? Are more of them graduating from high school? Are more of them taking a curriculum that prepares them to enroll in college and to accomplish their educational goals once they get to college? Compared with a decade ago, is the curriculum today more likely to be taught by qualified teachers?
The answer is that the nation has made some real gains in college preparation, even though they have been uneven. More students who graduate from high school today are taking the courses that are recommended and correlated with college success—for example, algebra in the 8th grade and upper-level high school math and sciences courses. In fact, 44 states improved on more than half of the indicators the National Center looked at in this area. More 7th to 12th graders are being taught by teachers with a major in their subject—and the higher education system can legitimately claim some credit for that. More high school students are taking Advanced Placement exams. Despite all the problems and issues that public schools face, we have made important, positive, and encouraging improvements in college preparation. And these improvements are the direct results of the reform efforts of states and of public school leaders.
However, the country still has a long way to go. Most young people still do not take a curriculum that prepares them for college. Many do not even graduate from high school. That is why reform of the American high school was the theme of the education summit of the nation's governors that was convened in Washington, D.C., last year. It remains a task uncompleted.
Second, are we making progress in providing access to college-that is, in providing young people and working adults the opportunity to enroll?
The answer here may come as a shock to many of you, as it has to many governors, business leaders, state legislators, and educators across the country. While a small number of states improved on access measures, the nation as a whole has made no progress since the early 1990s. Smaller proportions of young people and working-age adults are enrolling in education and training beyond high school today than a decade ago.
Moreover, the gaps in college attendance between whites, African Americans, and Latinos persist, while the gap between poor and affluent students has actually widened. The gaps exist even among high school graduates who are qualified for college, a fact which suggests that improving preparation for college—as important as it is—will not by itself bring us equity.
Third, are we making gains in graduating college students? Do more of those who enroll in postsecondary programs persist in them and complete their associate degrees, certificates, and baccalaureate degrees?
Except at our most highly selective institutions, retention and completion have long been the Achilles heel of American higher education. In the past, far too many students who enrolled in college failed to graduate, and this remains true today, although some modest gains in completion rates, mostly in technical certification programs, were made in the last decade.
The general lack of progress on this score points once again to the need to continue working to bolster college preparation. But given the real improvements in preparation over the last decade and the fact that they did not bring improvements in completion rates, it seems that we must look also to the college experience itself—particularly to the quality of teaching and counseling. The entire responsibility for poor college completion rates can no longer be attributed to high schools. Indeed, a recent report from the Education Trust shows that colleges that serve similar students and are similar in selectivity and size can have significantly different graduation rates, a sure sign that colleges and universities themselves can do a great deal to improve student retention.
Talent that could be developed to the benefit of individual students and society is lost because of the "college dropout problem," as it was called at the recent governors' educational summit. Clearly, more effort must go into resolving this problem.
Fourth, how affordable is college nowadays? Is it any easier today than it was a decade ago for students and families to pay for college?
Measuring Up 2004 leaves no question about our failure in this arena. Over the last decade, we have made it considerably more difficult for many families in this country to pay for college.
This is not just a matter of state budget cuts, as deplorable as those might be. Tuition at two-year and four-year institutions has increased faster than inflation and faster than family income, and it has done so even in the years when budgets have not been cut. Furthermore, financial aid has not been deployed to meet the growing need. The total amount spent on financial aid has increased over the decade, but the share "targeted" at low-income students has gotten smaller.
One consequence of escalating tuitions and untargeted aid is that for low-income families, the cost of a year's attendance at a four-year public college or university now equates, on average, to 40% of family income.
Another consequence is that student borrowing and the indebtedness of college graduates have increased every year of this decade. Student loans may have become a legitimate and necessary part of financing college, but isn't it time we asked how much debt young people should incur? At what level is debt likely to prevent a graduate from becoming a public school teacher, for instance, or from entering another public service career? Is that the effect we want our education policies to have?
Fifth, what gains have we made in our attempts to evaluate higher education's most important outcome-that is, what students learn?
Since the first Measuring Up report card was published in 2000, the National Center has asked whether college-learning outcomes could be evaluated and compared across states. The answer until now was "No." The information that would make such comparisons possible was not available. Past report cards, as a result, gave each of the 50 states a grade of "Incomplete" in Learning. The purpose was to stimulate a more robust debate nationally and in the states about how meaningful state-by-state comparisons might be made.
Measuring Up 2004 reports on the first attempt to measure, for comparative purposes, what college-educated people know and can do. This first effort was undertaken by the National Forum on College-Level Learning, an organization established in 2001, headed by Margaret Miller and Peter Ewell, and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The National Forum worked with five states—Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—which volunteered to assess their student learning. The project used national assessments of adult literacy; an assortment of tests that students already take when they leave college, such as graduate record and licensure examinations; and specially administered tests of problem-solving and communications skills. The educational leaders in these five states deserve great credit for their pioneering and courageous leadership. Because of them, the question is no longer whether states and colleges can develop statewide profiles of their strengths and weakness in learning, but whether they are willing to collect this information and use it as part of their strategy for improvement.
If we cannot yet draw conclusions about college learning across the country, we now certainly can urge other states to follow these first states' example.
Looking at all the Measuring Up indicators, we can also suggest some answers to the question I originally asked: How are we doing? You will no doubt draw your own conclusions, but let me offer mine for your consideration.
I conclude that American higher education is even more central to the success of our economy and our democracy in the 21st century than it was in the 20th century, and we dare not rest on our laurels. Our past educational accomplishments are now being emulated and even surpassed all around the world. This is not something to bemoan. As Americans, we should welcome a global society and economy in which nations and states and communities compete to develop human talent, primarily by educating more people and educating them better.
On the other hand, if that's the competition, we must join it and win it. So far, not only higher education, but the country at large, lacks a sense of urgency about these issues. But all of us are in a position to change that. While it is true that higher education cannot unilaterally solve the problems of educational opportunity and attainment, unilateral action is not the only possibility. Colleges and universities—administrators, faculty, and trustees—can do something much more practical to bring about economic and social change; they can lead.
I am pleased, therefore, that many higher education as well as leaders in business and government are increasingly turning their attention to equity, college access for low-income Americans, student learning, and the "college drop out problem." And I want to convey that the country and the states need explicit, informed, and sustained leadership from within and outside the academy on each of these issues. Particularly, we need to hear more voices and more advocacy for those Americans who presently are not served or are poorly served by higher education.
I said that colleges and universities alone cannot solve our educational problems, but it is important to recognize that neither can the federal or state governments or the public schools or the foundations. Responsibility for and authority in American higher education are broadly dispersed-as are the resources for solving major problems—and this has always been a strength of our system. But dispersion can also lead to paralysis or to a situation in which everyone waits for someone else to step forward. The educational requirements of our times, in my view, will only be addressed when we come to a new sense of shared responsibility—in which no one holds back because someone else, in their judgment, hasn't yet done enough. For example:
- More public investment in education is needed, but we must also have better accountability for results and more attention to cost effectiveness and to constraining increases in college costs and prices.
- Colleges must work with schools to improve preparation, but they must also accept more responsibility themselves for the "college dropout problem."
- The federal government and the states should invest their financial aid dollars where they will make the most difference in improving college opportunity, but so should the colleges and universities, regardless of the competition among them for the students who are most likely to enroll in college.
Shared responsibility is the way we get things done in America. I can testify as a former governor that the process is seldom tidy or elegant. But I remind you that we often accomplish great things this way.
The fundamental educational challenge of our times is to get more people better educated and get most of them through postsecondary education. I do not underestimate the magnitude of this task, but I am confident that America can do it. Why?
First, because we have done it before, as our history in the last half of the 20th century demonstrates so clearly.
Second, because the task is consistent with both the requirements of our economy and our democratic values.
Third, because public opinion research consistently shows that American faith and confidence in higher education remains strong. Of course, the public believes we could do some things better-like holding down tuition-and its support does not always translate into dollar appropriations. But Americans believe in their colleges and universities; it is a strength we can lean upon.
Fourth, I am confident because the faculties and staffs of our colleges and universities have the intellectual firepower and the talent to address the issues I have described. It is just a matter of engaging that capacity.
And finally, I am confident because we have built a vast infrastructure of colleges and universities, classrooms, and laboratories with our past investments in higher education. We will need to use these facilities more efficiently in the future—nights, weekends, and summers—and we may need some new construction, but most of the infrastructure to meet the higher education needs of the 21st century is in place. In addition, we have the powerful capabilities of electronic technology, which can contribute to accessibility and quality.
My message is that all this will be difficult, but we can do it. Imagination and courage and hard work will be required, but I am convinced that those qualities are readily available throughout the United States and that our colleges and universities, our states, and our country will respond to the educational imperatives of this new century.