How We Can Be Better Stewards of the American Dream

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 15, 2013

America's level of postsecondary-education attainment—once the highest in the world—is not keeping pace with our global competitors and is not sufficient to meet the work-force demands of the coming decades. The nation's future well-being hinges on our ability to respond to what has rightly been called the "college completion imperative."

This imperative can claim many champions: Government agencies, higher-education associations, and nonprofit foundations have all brought a genuine sense of national urgency to the issue of college completion. On the other hand, contrarians argue—incorrectly, I believe—that the need for more college graduates in today's (and tomorrow's) economy is grossly overstated.

These contrarians are, however, necessarily mute on the irrefutable data documenting the economic value of a degree for the degree recipient. The expected lifetime earnings of a person with a bachelor's degree exceed by more than $1-million those of a person with only a high-school diploma. Moreover, even at the depths of our most recent recession, the unemployment rate of those with a college degree, even recent college graduates, was less than half of that for those with a high-school degree only.

The enormous economic benefit of a college degree raises a deeply troubling issue. A child born into a family in the highest quartile of income has a roughly 85-percent chance of earning a college degree. A child born into a family in the lowest quartile of income has a less-than-8-percent chance of earning a degree.

How does such a child share fully in the American dream in today's world without a college degree? Since an individual's level of opportunity for economic success and well-being today largely depends upon higher education, we bear a responsibility that no generation of university leaders before us faced. We have become the gatekeepers for the upward mobility that is essential to the achievement of that dream. In my view, this makes social equity the most compelling element of the college-completion imperative.

Unfortunately, in the present fiscal environment, the many strategic investments that would enable higher education to meet its gatekeeping responsibilities are highly unlikely to occur. But we must not allow the current fiscal realities to be an excuse for paralysis on our part. Quite the contrary: The fact that making progress on the critical issue of social equity rests primarily on the shoulders of the higher-education community specifically obligates us to embrace innovative ideas that would enable us to meet this awesome responsibility.

The following four strategies could make a significant difference in meeting our obligations to the larger society. They do not require much money, but they do require a new mind-set and a willingness to adopt change.

First, the higher-education community—two-year, four-year, public, and private—must take greater responsibility for what has come to be called the college "matching" issue. Recent research by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, Michael McPherson, and others has shown that, far too often, academically capable low-income and minority students who are well prepared for college do not receive the advice and support they need to choose wisely. These students often select institutions for which they are academically overqualified and where graduation rates are very low. Studies have found that the primary culprits in mismatching are lack of information, lack of planning, and lack of encouragement.

This is not to imply that high-ability, low-income students can't prosper at open-admissions institutions. Obviously, many do. But it does mean that selective institutions need to do a much better job of meeting their obligations to serve more low-income students and serve them better. All of higher education simply must do a better job of connecting to middle and high schools in economically disadvantaged districts. If we do, we can make a real difference in helping students properly align their abilities, aspirations, and expectations with the options best for them.

Second, we must rethink our policies and practices related to financial aid. As first envisioned, most financial-aid programs were almost exclusively for students who would not otherwise be able to afford college. With the introduction of the merit-based HOPE Scholarship Program in Georgia and its counterparts in other states in the 1990s, there was a turning point. Since the early 1990s, the proportion of state funds going to merit-based aid nationally has risen significantly, largely at the expense of—not in parallel with—need-based aid. We can and must work within our states and institutions to strengthen aid programs that serve the neediest students. A broad-based commitment to substantially favor need-based aid over aid based on merit alone is a policy goal that is both achievable and desirable, and one that we should all pursue.

Third, we must build a stronger culture of completion on our campuses. Most higher-education institutions spend considerable resources on research and marketing aimed at attracting students. In too many cases, however, we do not demonstrate the same commitment to understanding why many students leave those institutions without a degree. Research done at the Education Trust has demonstrated that colleges and universities with almost identical profiles—same mission, comparable resources, similar program mix, same proportions of underrepresented minorities and low-income students—can have remarkably different retention and completion rates. The higher rates occur at institutions where presidents make a visible, vocal, and persistent commitment to retention and completion. These colleges also systematically collect—and act on—data relating to student performance and create degree-completion pathways for students while regularly auditing their progress. As the gatekeepers for social equity, how can we not follow the lead and adopt the strategies of these high-performing institutions?

Finally, in this era of constrained public support for higher education, we must vigorously pursue new teaching and learning paradigms that offer lower-cost means of delivering high-quality higher education. The capabilities made possible by new technological advances, combined with cognitive research into how today's students learn, make "disruptive innovations" possible. While still at an early stage, strategies that create hybrid classrooms, computer-enhanced learning modules with online tutorials, and massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offer incredible potential. Yes, we must proceed carefully, making sure to maintain the quality of learning produced by these innovations. But we cannot ignore the potential that these technology-driven "disruptions" to traditional classroom instruction offer.

Taken together, these four strategies could enable higher education to make substantial progress toward meeting its obligations to social equity and the economic competitiveness of our nation. The question is, do we have the will and resolve to adopt the changes that the times require?

William E. Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. This essay was adapted from the Atwell Lecture that he presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Council on Education.