College leaders need to undertake a program of radical change in order to dramatically increase the number of people who graduate from college, Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, told an audience here on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education.
Mr. Crow exhorted fellow college leaders to stop congratulating themselves for incremental progress. He suggested that higher education's attachment to outmoded traditions prevents it from realizing the needs of the present, such as President Obama's goal to increase the number of people with a postsecondary credential.
"We've been picking what I call the low-hanging fruit, and doing very well with the low-hanging fruit," Mr. Crow said during a plenary session at the conference, which is being attended by more than 1,200 presidents, chancellors, and other leaders from institutions in all sectors.
Mr. Crow cited data to show that American colleges are not meeting their meritocratic ideals. Low-income students are much less likely to graduate from public colleges than they are from high schools or elementary schools, he said. And college graduation rates, he said, are heavily correlated with wealth and SAT scores.
"We actually have colleges and universities … which admit based on family income as the dominant predictive variable. Not all, and many have ways that they work really hard to get around this," Mr. Crow said. But the data, he said, "tell you in plain Arizona English: We ain't doing very well."
Mr. Crow acknowledged that colleges are under attack from a skeptical public and are reeling from severe state budget cuts. He produced a chart that showed when, if state appropriations continue shrinking at the current rate, many states would stop directly supporting higher education altogether. (Arizona, he joked, was due "next week.")
But explaining away colleges' poor performance isn't good enough, he said. "My own view is that we spend far too much time complaining about everybody else, and far to little time looking in the mirror," he said.
Fundamental change is possible, Mr. Crow said, citing past reformers of higher education, including Charles W. Eliot at Harvard, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, and Robert Gordon Sproul at the University of California. He also cited his efforts during the past decade at Arizona State, where he has abolished departments, rapidly increased the number of graduates, and diversified the student body.
"Education and democracy mean the same thing," Mr. Crow said. "They are rooted with each other, and our overall success for our country is depending on our success for the institutions that we manage."