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The Challenges Facing Higher Education in America

I wanted to talk about the past successes of public policy regarding higher education, particularly as I take on this new role as chair of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, because I think we can successfully respond to the challenges we now face. In my opinion, some of these challenges involve a closing of the doors of opportunity in America - trends that will limit how far we go and what we become. I believe that this threat to opportunity does exist today. In relation to higher education I describe this threat in terms of two kinds of deficits. I choose that term because I think it might help us focus on our problems and our possibilities.

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 1990s - until very recently - about huge budget deficits and huge trade deficits. In fact, we worried so much that we did something about it. I remember going to a National Governors Association conference in Washington, D.C., back in the early 80s, when the deficit was $250 billion a year. And it was increasing yearly. The point is that we became concerned about the budget deficit. We recognized it for the threat that it was. And we have done something about it, though there is more to be done yet.

I believe that today in America we face a deficit of opportunity and a deficit of learning in higher education. Let me explain what I mean by those terms.

A Deficit of Opportunity

The benefits of our great system of colleges and universities are still uneven and, I believe, unfairly distributed - and this is what I mean by an opportunity deficit. I’ve spoken today about how much things have improved in our county. But the truth is that not all who could benefit from higher education have had the opportunity to learn. One of the most powerful ways to think about this opportunity deficit is to consider the following:

  • A person from a family with an income above $75,000 per year has an 86% chance of reaching college by age 18 to 24
  • A person whose family income is less than $10,000 per year has a 38% chance of reaching college by the same age.

I want us to stay focused on those people who do not have an equal chance.

I don’t know how everyone else stays in touch with what’s happening in the real world, but I have two ways. One, I go home to my farm every weekend and I farm, I raise cattle, I put out big bales of hay, which I did at 6:00 a.m. yesterday morning. I go to the local country store and I listen to people. Second, every week I leave the governor’s office and go to a nearby school, a predominantly African-American middle school that is located next to a public housing community. I work with a young man in the sixth grade. I am his mentor. And I have done that for years and years. It is a way for me to stay in touch. People in education, in higher education, need to have ways to do that - all of us do.

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 are seeing the numbers increase every year. More students are making their way through elementary and secondary schools right now. In the next decade, almost half the states - including my own - will experience increases of 25 percent or more in the numbers of high school graduates. In fact, I heard the president of our university system speak to a business group last week and project that our state will have the fourth largest increase in public school enrollments of any state in America. The nation, 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. It is something that you and I need to be thinking about and planning for.

The cost and price of higher education are also matters of great importance. They are legitimate and real concerns for many working class and middle class American families, especially for those that are most disadvantaged economically. Cost bears a direct relation to opportunity.

Frankly, in some quarters colleges and universities are being criticized as sluggish in their responses to the changing needs of students and the changing economic and demographic conditions of American society. While this is not true in every situation, it is something we ought to be very aware of, because we ought to be looking ahead, we ought to be anticipating. American higher education ought to be getting ready. And everything we know about the 21st century tells us, as you well know, that higher education will be even more central to the future of our states and our nation than it has ever been before.

A Deficit of Learning

The opportunity deficit refers primarily to who gets into our colleges and universities. That is, how can we ensure that opportunities to attend college are better distributed? But there is also a deficit of learning in America - and by that I mean what happens to students once they get to college. In general, we have done far better - and I think you know this - far better at developing the talents of students who come to us from middle class and from privileged backgrounds than we have with those from less advantaged circumstances. But far too many students from all backgrounds leave higher education with their personal aspirations unrealized and with society’s needs for them to learn and contribute unmet.

Let me make the point this way. In recent decades 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; in fact it has stalled in the 23 to 25 percent range. Let me say it another way. Of the students who entered college in 1989 aspiring to four-year degrees, 46 percent had received a bachelor’s degree five years later. That’s less than half. Five percent had received an associate degree five years later, 3 percent had received a certificate, and 18 percent were still enrolled. And 28 percent - almost one third - had not earned a degree and were no longer enrolled. Almost a third.

The Educational Testing Service recently said it this way: “Higher education digs deeply into the pool of high school graduates with a sieve.”

I have spent most of my life working with K - 12 education. In K - 12, we use the term “drop-outs” for those who leave school early. In higher education these people tend to be called “retention problems.” I’d like for us to think hard about this idea of a learning deficit. And I’d like to work on finding solutions to it - not by reducing our commitment to quality, but by increasing it, and finding ways to keep those students enrolled, studying, learning, and moving ahead. We can do better than we’re doing. The National Center and I want to work with you to do it.



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