Last month’s elections here in the U.S. represent a significant shift in both leadership and policy direction. As a historian, I’m always interested in understanding the how and the why of such consequential events. In my role as head of the Gates Foundation’s postsecondary program, I’m also interested in what they mean for higher education. So over the past several weeks, I have been engaged in a lot of conversations and a lot of reading that have taken me from gas stations in Iowa to executive offices in New York to campuses on the east and west coasts and between. It has been a fascinating, sobering, and ultimately inspiring experience.
The common thread running through all that I’ve learned? We live in a nation increasingly anxious and angry over real and widening gaps. Gaps between the more educated and less educated. The well-off and the economically vulnerable. Urbanites and rural residents. White and non-white. And the list goes on. Beneath all of it is a sense that a significant part of our nation has been left behind, that the state of our union is more fractured than we realized.
These gaps extend to higher education as well. One of the most profound gaps is between the rhetoric and reality of our enterprise, the aspirations of our system versus its current results. Even as we weave hopeful narratives about the role of higher education in the world that is unfolding, we must acknowledge and more importantly attempt to bridge the gulf between where we are and where we would like to be. This is important because I believe that higher education played a role in bringing us to this place, and higher education must play a role in moving us forward.
Higher education must confront four essential questions that speak to the gap between rhetoric and reality:
What qualifies as “higher education” and who needs it? Even today, we labor under outdated stereotypes about the definition of college (four-year, residential, campus-based) and of the prototypical college student (18 years old, directly out of high school) that fail to embrace the true diversity of education after high school and of those seeking a degree or certificate. Nearly all of the jobs created since the Great Recession required some form of education after high school, everything from competency-based credentials to post-doctoral study. But our view of “what counts” as higher education is far too limited and parochial, our existing delivery systems are too leaden and inflexible, and new ways of packaging and delivering knowledge face many cultural and regulatory hurdles. This must change if higher education is to remain relevant and keep pace in today’s economy.
Is higher education really that important? We at the foundation like to, as co-chair Melinda Gates likes to say, “follow the data,” and the data tell us that higher education is a bridge to opportunity like no other. So why doesn’t everyone embrace that notion? The problem is that today the bridge is too narrow, too difficult to navigate, with too high a toll for crossing. And sadly, those challenges are widening the gap in access to college, and causing too many who do enroll to fall through the gaps and never finish. These gaps are true across race and socioeconomic groups, but without question, it’s just harder for first generation students and students of color to make it to and through college in this country. It just is. A high income student is five times as likely to have a degree by age 24 than a low-income student. Over the past 20 years, the gap between whites and blacks with at least an associate’s degree has widened, and the gap between whites and Hispanics with an associate’s degree or higher has not changed in 20 years. That’s not acceptable.
We should not be surprised at this state of affairs if we stop to acknowledge the fact that higher education’s recognition and incentive systems still celebrate and reward exclusion. Who consistently tops the U.S. News rankings? Highly selective institutions; in other words, those that REJECT the most applicants. Which institutions receive the most per-student public funding? The least diverse ones. It is becoming increasingly untenable for us to speak glowingly about the opportunity higher education represents while perpetuating policies and practices that run counter to extending that opportunity to those who might arguably most benefit from it.
What is the role of higher education in the public arena? In years past, colleges and universities and their leaders participated actively in the great debates of the day, speaking out on issues of war and peace, civil rights, poverty and injustice. But where is higher education in today’s public discourse, on the issues affecting the disaffected? My colleague Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University rightly argues that as an enterprise, higher education has become increasingly self-referential and risk averse, absorbed in its own affairs and afraid to speak out at the risk of offending politicians or donors. And while a growing number of campus leaders are speaking out on behalf of undocumented students in their midst, I am left to wonder if higher education’s relevance and credibility in the public square is diminished by its quest to preserve rather than re-imagine and fundamentally transform outmoded and unsustainable practices. Is this about to change?
Finally, what is higher education’s value proposition? Unquestionably, our colleges and universities are more accountable to students and policymakers than they were a generation ago. This should be expected, given cost and price increases that have been unaccompanied by any clear articulation of value. But even now, I am surprised – and frankly dismayed – by the covert and even overt resistance to measuring things like the true and variable costs and outcomes of different kinds of educational programs; to clearly articulating their relative value and identifying for each distinctive standards of excellence. Higher education is a half-trillion-dollar enterprise, and in a time of declining public trust in institutions of all stripes – including colleges and universities – it is simply unrealistic to repeat the same bromides to an increasingly skeptical public and expect a different result. We need to stop trying to explain to our policymakers and our students what we do and why it matters, and instead tell them – and demonstrate with our deeds – how they benefit, in very real and concrete terms.
These gaps can be bridged. We know they can, because we have seen it in places like Georgia State University, Delaware State University, the University of Central Florida, Miami Dade College, Rio Salado College, and Sinclair Community College, institutions as diverse as the students they serve, and yet united in a common goal – to leave behind no one – to respond nimbly to our society’s rapidly changing educational needs, to measure their excellence in terms of who they include and how well they succeed. Some see that as counterintuitive, even wishful. We see it as possible, and essential.