Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to talk with you right here in Seattle. In my time at the foundation, I have greatly enjoyed seeing many different parts of this great country, but I always appreciate the opportunity to stay close to home.
I also want to express my appreciation for all you do on behalf of our enterprise. As I will talk about more in a moment, this is an interesting – and challenging – time to be in the business of fundraising and friend-raising at our colleges and universities. I applaud you for your commitment and your creativity.
But I also want to challenge you – challenge all of us in higher education – to think critically and carefully about what it means to advance and support our enterprise in the world that is unfolding. I’m an historian by training, which means that I am blessed – or perhaps cursed – with a knack for seeing how separate but related forces come together to change the course of events. And I believe that there is just such a convergence of forces that is pushing us to redefine higher education’s value and values in order to maintain and enhance our standing with the publics we serve.
One is economic. Demand for people who have some education after high school is rising and will continue to rise. A generation ago – as many of us were entering the workforce – just over a quarter of jobs required some form of postsecondary education. Now two-thirds do, including virtually all new post-recession jobs.
This places unprecedented demands on our educational systems. Gone are the days when you can graduate high school in my hometown of Rochester, New York, and get a good, secure, middle class job at Kodak. Gone are the days when colleges and universities can just accept high dropout rates as a fact of life. Our economy and our society expect – no, demand – more from our education systems. They should.
But the sad reality is that our higher education system is still largely designed to weed people out rather than help them up. Our graduation rates are improving, but they are still at the bottom among industrialized nations. If you’re a community college student that ends up needing a remedial course, you’ve got about a one in 10 chance of having a degree in three years. One in 10.
This matters because unless we take action to help more of our students achieve education and training after high school, our economy will suffer. We estimate that at current enrollment and graduation rates, our economy will face a shortfall in 2025 of up to 11 million people with post-high school credentials. That’s a five percent compound annual growth rate in degree productivity. How many of you are at or know a college on track to increase degree productivity five percent a year annually for the next decade? That’s the problem. And not addressing it will have a devastating impact on our communities, our states, and our nation.
A second force is demographic. In the first decade of this century, the share of non-white high school graduates in this state went from 20 percent to almost 30 percent. And by 2025, it is projected to be just under 40 percent. Nationally, the share of non-white students at our colleges and universities has doubled in just 15 years.
Beyond race and ethnicity, today’s – and tomorrow’s – college students bear little resemblance to the time-honored stereotype of the 18-year old coed going off to study for four years on residential campuses with grassy quads. Two-thirds of today’s students work at least part-time. About 40 percent are 25 or older. About a third of them are the first in their family to attempt college. And just over a quarter are parents.
This matters because the students we need to succeed to meet that 11 million benchmark – low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults – are the very students who are most underserved by our education systems. Today, a high-income student is five times more likely to have a degree by 24 than a low-income student. Whites are twice as likely as Latinos to have bachelor’s degrees, a gap that hasn’t narrowed in a generation. This is unacceptable and untenable, both economically and morally.
A third force is fiscal. I don’t have to tell you that these are challenging times for state and local governments, which in turn brings challenges for K-12 and higher education. Per student appropriations for higher education in this region are slowly recovering from the steep declines of the Great Recession, and rising enrollment poses ongoing capacity challenges. Nationally, per student funding is well below pre-recession levels. And with aging infrastructure and rising health care and pension costs, the squeeze will only continue, even in a strong economy.
We’re already seeing some warning signs. State funding for colleges and universities grew one and a half percent for the most recent fiscal year, its weakest performance in the past five years. Cumulative student debt is creeping toward 1.5 trillion dollars. And the agencies that rate institutional debt are now changing their fiscal outlooks from stable to negative.
All of this matters because our colleges and universities can’t simply cross their fingers hoping for good times to return. Instead, there must be frank and hard conversations about things like mission, focus and sustainability. This is clearly on the minds of college leaders – only about half of college presidents recently surveyed expressed confidence about their institution’s financial stability 10 years out. But as we’re seeing on campuses across the country, business models don’t change quickly or easily in this sector.
In addition to all of these, there is a fourth, and perhaps most vexing force, which is public opinion. It is important to stress at the outset that higher education’s overall stock remains high with Americans. Nine in 10 believe that education after high school is important to pursue and desire it for family members and others close to them. And a recent Pew survey pegs education as the second-highest policy priority at the present time, right behind fighting terrorism.
But beneath the sense of higher education’s necessity lies a frustration and skepticism, that, if left unchecked, will have a corrosive effect on our mutual efforts to advance and support this enterprise. Yes, the vast majority of Americans believe that a college credential is important for economic and social mobility. But the vast majority of Americans also believes that the higher education system needs an overhaul to be more accessible and affordable. And, more troublingly, there is a widening partisan gulf on the question of higher education’s value-add to the well-being of the nation, with the majority of Republicans now viewing colleges and universities as a net negative.
In short, there is a combination of aspiration and frustration that demands our attention and engagement. The people we serve want to believe that education after high school is a bridge to opportunity, that going to college is still one of the surest ways to pursue the American Dream. But with ever-rising prices, a slowness to respond to changing student needs, and a culture that prizes exclusion over inclusion, we’re not giving them a lot to go on. We cannot expect to effectively advance and support higher education by simply continuing to explain and defend what we do, only more loudly and slowly. No, we must engage in a redefinition of higher education’s value and values that reflects the best of what we are and the best of what we can become.
When it comes to core values, one that we must embrace is innovation. I believe that it is both cliché and inaccurate to say that our enterprise is impervious to change, when we are seeing growing evidence that our colleges and universities have both the skill and will to change.
Take remedial education. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of students enrolling in a two-year college require some remedial education but only one in 10 will have a degree in three years. One in 10!
A group of our partners took on the challenge of reimagining remediation, using different and more accurate measures to place students and placing students in credit-bearing courses with supplemental help as needed. These efforts are getting results, in some cases doubling student success rates in early college courses.
There are other examples: the guided pathways movement is taking off in two-year colleges, including in California, where the governor has put significant funding behind the effort. In effect, this movement demands that degree programs are highly structured and designed around students’ effective progression – that college advising and academics, and other resources are focused on helping students get on, stay on, and complete their pathway with intensive focus. This is very different than the traditional approach, where students are expected to navigate themselves through course catalogs with literally thousands of offerings.
We are seeing huge gains being made with technology across all higher ed sectors – digital learning that tailors content and instruction to students’ strengths and needs while curbing costs, and advising tools that use predictive analytics to help students navigate the path to a credential.
A second key value for the higher education system of the future is collaboration. Once again, we must face down old narratives that paint institutions as constitutionally incapable of working together, pitting campus against campus on everything from rankings to athletics.
Given the forces I outlined earlier, colleges and universities are increasingly coming to the realization that there is neither the time nor the resources to reinvent the wheel one institution at a time when it comes to improving student success. And while we should remain rightfully dubious of “one size fits all” approaches in areas such as online learning and student advising, we can and must embrace efforts to adopt and adapt what works, and show a willingness to learn faster – and yes, even fail faster.
Just about a year ago, we announced the launch of the Frontier Set, 29 colleges and universities and two state systems committed to changing their business models to increase student access and success, and to sharing their learning with others. We’re looking forward to charting their progress, and documenting and amplifying the lessons they are learning.
A third value that must become a hallmark of our enterprise moving forward is inclusion. Yes, there is a lot of talk about equity in higher education. But I have to tell you, it is hard to square that talk with a reality in which the most exclusive institutions are the most celebrated, and in which persistent gaps in access and attainment continue to be tolerated.
Fortunately, we are seeing action in the field that gives me cause for hope. Initiatives like Completion By Design and the University Innovation Alliance have made aggressive and public commitments to reduce and even eliminate completion gaps by race and socioeconomic status, and their progress is impressive. Researchers such as Raj Chetty and his team at the Equality of Opportunity Project are putting social and economic mobility on the map as a marker of quality for institutions. And publications such as Washington Monthly are redefining college rankings in a way that finally puts student success ahead of institutional prestige.
And to build and sustain momentum around these values, we are also seeing coalescence around a handful of enablers of innovation, collaboration, and inclusion. Here I’m talking about things like data that help pinpoint which students need our help and at what point on their journeys. Every high-performing institution, system, and state, is high performing in part because it uses student and financial data in their decision making. That’s why we’re working with partners to build consensus on common performance measures that can be shared across all institutions through robust and secure data infrastructures and systems.
Enablers also include good education public policy at both state and federal levels – policies that determine how money flows to whom with what incentives to encourage student success; that determine what data are available and how they can be utilized to strengthen education systems; that govern how students are able to move between high school and college and between colleges, accumulating credits toward their degree rather than having to stop and start repeatedly.
So these are all signs of hope and reasons for optimism. But there is also an incredible amount of urgency and a need for widespread change. We simply can’t pilot our way to the outcomes we need for our students and for our economy. We haven’t the time or resources to keep reinventing the wheel. Scale is not an option – it is a necessity.
And that is where you as ambassadors for your institutions come in. You have tools at your disposal that you can use to promote and accelerate change.
One is funding. And here I want to focus less on how much we have to spend and more on how we spend it. At the institutional level, are we spending it in ways that directly promote students’ access and success, and that specifically target overcoming inequities? At the state and district levels, are we tying funding to performance – using so-called outcome-based funding policies, which we believe show real promise.
A second is accountability. As institutional leaders and advocates, what data are you getting, what information are you asking for to boost your case for impact?
Do the data give you information about outcomes for all students, breaking down outcomes data for different student groups?
Do they speak adequately to cost? Are you aware of how much it costs to enroll and retain a student? Of how long a student needs to persist in order to return investment in their acquisition? Do you know what it costs to graduate a student, and how and why those costs differ by college or degree program?
Do you understand the return you are getting from your investment in major programmatic areas, and how those investments contribute to student success and eliminate attainment gaps?
Do you know what the key obstacles are that impede students moving seamlessly from school to college and between colleges?
Are you benchmarking your institutions against others in ways that testify to impact in mission-critical area – service to low-income students and students of color? The Equality of Opportunity Project that has put together report cards for thousands of institutions across the country showing how well they contribute to their students’ social mobility. I encourage you to look at the report cards for institutions in your area.
If your answer is “no” to any of these questions, I urge you to use your voice and ask for those data! And if they are not forthcoming, ask why they are not forthcoming and be persistent.
Third, and most critically relevant to you, the bully pulpit. In our work, we have seen the impact that results when influencers raise up best-of-breed examples from their sectors and ask probing questions about why the institutions they serve are not emulating, or better yet, out in front of them. Get smart about what is happening at high-performing, mission-driven institutions in your sector (or districts or states); visit them, identify the secrets to their success, and ask probing questions at home.
I’m an historian by training and an optimist by nature. As an historian, I believe that higher education is fast approaching an inflection point, a moment of choice. We will either make the hard decisions necessary to maintain and expand opportunity, or we will duck those decisions and become a reproducer of privilege and more unfortunately, segregation.
As an optimist, I believe that we have the people and the know-how to redefine our value and our values. So I ask you to join me in getting to work.
Thank you for everything you do.