On November 28, 2017, at the Century Association in New York City, Vartan Gregorian (President of Carnegie Corporation of New York), Gail O. Mellow (President of LaGuardia Community College), Michael S. McPherson (President Emeritus of the Spencer Foundation), and Nicholas Lemann (Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism) participated in a discussion about new opportunities for U.S. undergraduate education. Much of the conversation focused on the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education and its recently published report The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America. The program, which served as the Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture and the 2063rd Stated Meeting of the Academy, featured welcoming remarks from Jonathan F. Fanton (President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). The following is an edited transcript of the presentations.
Higher education is the primary vehicle for social progress in the United States. But it cannot perform in this role without a functional K–12 education system to feed it. That doesn’t come easy. Our nation’s struggles in K–12 were largely the subject of the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, and I remember a great line from its opening: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” That was how lousy things were. Since 1983, we’ve worked hard to improve K–12 education. But unfortunately, we have not fully succeeded yet, and the reasons are many.
Higher education has served as a mechanism for individual progress since at least the founding of the public university system in the United States. In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, providing federal lands for the establishment of public universities in the United States. Imagine if somebody proposed that now: “It’s too expensive;” “we cannot do this.” But Lincoln knew that after the great tragedy that befell the nation, it would need hope, to rebuild, and a major new instrument to meet the scientific and labor demands of the Industrial Revolution. And he succeeded. Imagine, the very next year, Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences to serve as an independent adviser to the government on questions of science and technology.
The second major revolution in postsecondary education took place during World War II. Vannevar Bush proposed to President Roosevelt the National Defense Research Committee. Roosevelt recognized the technological challenges of defense mobilization, as well as the broader need to prepare America for a new age of science, and approved Bush’s agenda, later expanding it to the Office of Scientific Research and Development. As a result, in addition to winning the war, we got the National Science Foundation, which Truman signed into existence, and the bond of trust between government and university researcher took the form of nuclear accelerators, which the government entrusted to universities to run.
At the same time, the GI Bill prevented many of the twelve million service members seeking to reenter the civilian workforce from becoming unemployed. It enabled them to attend America’s universities, and in turn dramatically improved our nation’s collective education and, according to Andrew Carnegie’s belief that democracy needs an educated citizenry, our representative government.
But since these revolutions, we have been wavering. Unsure of where to go, what to do, and how to do it as a nation, we have lacked the kind of vision our system of higher education needs. So we sponsored the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education with the hope that our nation’s leaders will understand the need for reformation in our education system; we need a new public commitment to providing education and opportunity to all Americans. The nation cannot prosper, nor even survive, if increasing numbers of students exit the U.S. education system unskilled, unemployed, uneducated, and often overwhelmed by debt. These young people need opportunity, but there is no opportunity without science, technology, and education; and there is no education and research enterprise without national purpose, inspiration, leadership, and vision.
My hope is that this distinguished Commission, led by Mike McPherson and Roger Ferguson, will put before the nation the tools that will serve our public well – not in the South, not in the North, not only for the upper or middle classes, because we’re still one nation, one country, and one community. That is my hope. And that was one concern of ours with this Commission: How much attention do we give to different demographic groups? What about community colleges versus traditional four-year schools? Public versus private universities? Women’s colleges versus vocational schools? What about the Big Ten? The Ivy League? Postsecondary institutions have been compartmentalized by competition, pitting them against each other, often fighting for the same inadequate funding. Navigating these competing interests in the service of all students was a fundamental challenge of the Commission. But this is also part of what makes the U.S. system of higher education wonderful and worth fighting for: it is diverse yet complementary. As my friend Professor Henry Rosovsky warned me, “Don’t mess it up.” And so this Commission does not mess it up, it doesn’t tear it down, but points to how to rebuild it. I hope our nation will benefit from it and express its gratitude to this Commission, as I do.
Thank you, Vartan, for your steadfast leadership, and for your continuing reminders that the fate of the nation is in our hands.
This is a very important week in the lives of the members of this Commission. After two years of work, we are releasing our report, The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America, and we will be spending the next three days beginning the task of introducing its ideas and recommendations to the nation. And we hope we can count on you for help as we engage with new audiences and spread our message. In an important sense, the work of the Commission begins now.
The Commission resolved to take into account all of higher education, as Vartan suggested; not this piece or that piece, but the whole of it. And even those of us who have spent our careers studying higher education, we have been continually reminded of the infinite variety of institutions, student backgrounds, student aims, student capacities, and student preparation that makes for an amazing tabloid of American life. There is always more to learn.
From the outset, we determined that our focus was on students: on how well they were prepared by existing systems, on the paths they found through education, and on what contributions they were going to make to our future society. Of course, it became clear that our system of education works far better for some groups of students than for others.
We also knew from the outset that we weren’t going to focus only on credentials and jobs, which is in many ways what the popular conversation about education has been reduced to. We cared about the experience of college. You’ll notice that the title of this evening’s program is “From Enrollment to Excellence” – we care about student success by the measure of obtaining a degree or certificate, but we also care about the quality of teaching and learning and the value of what is learned.
Two of the major themes in our report are college completion and college affordability. In our first encounters with these subjects, we perceived them as two distinct topics. But we came to understand that they are actually very closely linked. Let me explain to you what I mean by that.
This is not a new story, but college completion performance in our country is unsatisfactory. Low completion rates matter more than ever because college success has become more vital not only to the success of our professional lives, but also to our personal and civic lives. In the United States, we are actually doing quite well on initial access to higher education. More than 90 percent of Americans who graduate from high school have some college experience by the time they are thirty years old. That is unprecedented in our history. But the fact is that among students who attend four-year colleges, about 40 percent drop out before they get a degree, and in community colleges, more people drop out than attain any kind of credential, whether a degree or a certificate. More disturbingly, this problem is concentrated among students from low-income families, students who are the first in their family to attend college, and students who belong to minority groups.
So there is a powerful equity agenda, but it’s not only a matter of equity: we need the brainpower and the capacities of the people who are not now finding success in college. The Commission examined what options exist for improving completion performance and found that better advising about both where to go to college and how to make your way through college is critical. Additionally, better tracking of students once they are enrolled in college can help keep students on course, as well as empower advisors and student services professionals to intervene rapidly and effectively when students are showing signs of struggle. We have seen this at work at Georgia State and through CUNY’s ASAP program at the community college level, and it has proven to be a powerful strategy. It is analogous in many ways to process reengineering in the industrial world.
We also need to recognize that investing in the institutions that serve these young people, and older people as well, pays off. We engaged Moody’s Analytics, a top investment and analysis firm, to study the idea of investing a substantial amount of money over a twenty-year period in improving college completion rates. Moody’s showed that over a period of thirty or forty years, the increase in productivity in the U.S. economy would be sufficient to more than pay for the investments. This is very much like investment in physical infrastructure, except people tend to outlive road improvements.
Now how is this related to affordability? Concern about undergraduate affordability tends to center around the issue of borrowing money to attend college. And we’ve seen how spiraling college debt follows many students, including employed graduates, for years. Students can easily leave college worse off than when they entered. The decision to borrow can wreck lives. This is not what college is for.
What connects these subjects – college completion and borrowing – is that college debt is less of a problem for students who complete their bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, or certificate program. Graduates receive all kinds of benefits from their studies, including material benefits that are, in most cases, sufficient to pay off their loans. College dropouts are much more likely to struggle with debt. Nine percent of students who get degrees and borrow ultimately default on their loans, while 24 percent of students who did not complete their programs will default. And it is not the people who borrow the most who are the most vulnerable; it’s students who borrow even a small amount but get nothing in return for their brief time in college. They take on debt with nothing to show for it, and end up worse off.
There’s more we can do than simply raise completion rates. Our Commission emphasized that we need to concentrate on putting money where it will do the most good: at the institutional level, at the state level, and at the federal level. It is also very important that we make our federal programs more accessible and understandable than they are now. There are six different programs through which you can borrow money from the federal government to go to college. They have different interest rates attached, different repayment expectations attached, and different loan forgiveness options. It is shockingly and needlessly complicated.
Radically streamlining the federal student loan system and further simplifying the Pell Grant system are important steps toward making college more accessible. The federal government needs to run its shop a whole lot better than it does now. But states also need to renew their investments in higher education. And our education institutions need to play their part and concentrate resources on what serves students best, and step away from programs and commitments that aren’t effective.
Finally, we have to come to grips with the fact that the substantial majority of undergraduate teaching is not delivered by professors, but by faculty in various kinds of adjunct or non – tenure track contingent roles, in which they are very poorly supported, very poorly paid, and do not have working and living conditions conducive to doing good work. If we are to improve teaching and learning in higher education, which will improve completion rates and lower the risks of borrowing, it is essential for colleges and universities individually and for the nation collectively to focus on addressing this problem.
Before we could do much else, the Commission had to understand who is going to college. Because it is no longer the elite of the elite, the top 1 or 2 percent whose parents have the resources to make it happen; nor is it only students who are so extraordinarily brilliant, like the panelists here beside me, that any school would give them a full scholarship. Rather, a college education has become the entrance to life in America. You have to have something beyond a high-school diploma if you’re going to survive in this world. And that shows in student demographics. My students in Queens come from 160 different countries and speak 110 different languages. They actually just represent the Queens community.
Increasingly, student populations are not white and upper class, but are black and brown and poor. And you might be surprised to learn that most undergraduate students do not live on a college campus. About 30 percent are over the age of twenty-five, and they are knitting together their family lives, work lives, and student lives at college. Many work while they attend school and, especially among low-income students, some work full time. These students, including those who are homeless or food-insecure, are less concerned with writing the perfect essay than figuring out how they can manage to afford a MetroCard and lunch. It’s a very different kind of student population. And we knew that for the Commission to be effective, its analyses and recommendations had to be grounded in the realities of the lives of these students. If we are going to restructure our higher education system, it has to meet the needs of the people who actually enter it.
I tend to be a crazy community college person. But rather than resorting to fisticuffs, like Vartan suggested, to ensure representation of my world, I was impressed by the wonderful conversations the Commission had about the transformative power of the community college system. We understood that when community college students are well educated – not well trained but well educated – it is absolutely possible for them to take the next step and go to a Williams College, to a Columbia College. Raj Chetty, an economist at Stanford, has examined social mobility and found that places like the City University of New York and Cal State propel more people into the top fifth of the income strata than all the Ivies put together. We talk about transfer in the Commission’s report, the process of going from a community college to a four-year college, or switching from a four-year program to a two-year degree; there’s a lot of swirling going around. We can’t repair the American higher education system without really understanding it, and these are key pieces.
The second thing I wanted to talk about is technology. We are all besotted with technology, right? It’s so wonderful, it’s so exciting, it’s so intimidating, and it will fix everything. We imagine we’re in Star Trek: We’ll ask, “Can I have a cup of Earl Gray tea?” And it will beam into existence in front of us, and life will be perfect. Well there is great power in using the facilities of technology to teach. But not everyone is going to learn that way. In fact, what we’ve found is that the students who I teach at LaGuardia and other low-income students and students of color across the nation tend not to respond well to technology-based lessons as the only college teaching strategy. Technology approaches may be asking too much of students: for a certain amount of quiet in your home, for you not to be hungry after school, for you to be able to get online easily. These are challenges for many students. So technology is clearly part of what we should be thinking about, but it’s not a magic pill.
The report makes this point very powerfully, and argues that we have to rethink how we educate college teachers to teach better. Before the Internet, before you could look up everything on your phone, faculty knew things that you didn’t. They read the books that you haven’t, and if you wanted that knowledge, you would have to go to the library and invest a lot of your time. Now you just Google: when did Alexander the Great stop in Egypt, and why was he there? It’s so easy, right? But it isn’t easy, because that’s a story, not a real education. Education is deeper, it is synthesis, it is critical thinking, it is analysis, it is putting things together and drawing connections. So how do teachers teach those skills while embracing, not being undermined by, technology?
So as we face dwindling resources, particularly for public higher education – which educates 80 percent of all undergraduates in the United States! – we need to understand how we can train college teachers to use new technologies in ways that contribute to a deeper education, while doing more with less financial support. The Commission report gets this exactly right: technology is part of the, but not the entire, answer, and that includes professors understanding data about student outcomes to learn what works well for them personally. This is just one example of the new vision for higher education that the Commission proposes.
Let me say first, more openly, what has been somewhat implicit up until now. There is an expectation that a Commission of this kind, with this topic, would end up making the argument, roughly speaking, that higher education in the United States is fabulous, but needs two things: more funding and less regulation. And I want to stress that this is not what our report does. We worked hard, Mike McPherson and Roger Ferguson especially, to produce something that doesn’t use the apocalyptic language of the Nation at Risk report that Vartan quoted from, but is nonetheless quite critical of undergraduate education in America. The report paints a picture of a higher education system that, as others have noted, has become a mass system – which is good – but it arguably does not work for many or even most of its students. When you read the report, you realize quickly how critical it is of our existing system, and how much of a call to arms it is. But it doesn’t just call on outside actors to treat us better, it is self-reflective and self-critical, calling on higher education itself to do a better job. And as Gail mentioned, the report avoids the popular bromides of the moment, such as the $1.2 trillion that MOOCs are supposedly going to save us, and is instead based on solid, rigorous research and thought.
As a journalist, I am used to the idea that you have to write your own materials. Well the great thing about being on a Commission is that you don’t. So I want to take this moment to thank our lead drafts person, Francesca Purcell, who managed the Commission from the Academy and did a fantastic job transforming a bunch of meetings and conversations into a wonderful publication.
I’m going to focus my time on another of the most prominent bromides about higher education today: that it must be skills-oriented, almost exclusively, or else it’s a rip-off of students. The report pushes back against that assumption, and treats what you might call a “liberal education” or an education for citizenship as an essential part of the higher education system. Vartan mentioned the historic Morrill Act, which is great in every way except maybe one: embedded in it is something of an assumption that the then-new public universities would be mostly skills-oriented, while the elite universities, it went without saying, were in those days completely un-skills-oriented.
So while this has long been true of public universities, it has been a big change in recent years for the elites to have become so much more skills-oriented. An incredibly depressing graphic ran last week in The Harvard Crimson about trends in degree/majors distribution at Harvard, though the trend really spans all the Ivies. Harvard today has the lowest percentage of humanities majors since the university’s founding. Harvard has only four undergraduate African American studies majors, for example. The Commission takes a broader view of the promise of higher education, arguing forcefully for liberal education for all, including students at elite universities like Harvard and community colleges like LaGuardia.
But it’s an incredibly seductive argument – that if you’re going to put so much time and effort and money, which may be borrowed, into getting an education, at least let it be useful. Just about every week, in my part of the academy, we get a new screed about the problem with journalism education: it is not skills-oriented enough, and the skills that are covered aren’t cutting-edge enough. I’ve had a ringside seat for how wrong that argument is, and the data support this too. I’ve seen what were considered essential skills for journalists become completely irrelevant and useless, leaving many of my friends unemployed. Especially as the economy changes and people have to reinvent themselves professionally over and over, learning a very specific set of job skills is not going to serve you well in the long term. It is much more important to learn how to think, how to put things in context, how to analyze, how to learn to deal with people who are different from yourself and have different assumptions from yourself, how to locate reliable information. These make up the core of an education, and they make you a more empowered and responsible and active citizen; and the data show that they empower you economically as well. So we are fighting against an unstated class system in education, insisting that the mission is not only college completion, not only high-quality teaching, but true education for all. It cannot be skills education for most, and true education for the few.
I’ll close with this. I am from Louisiana. Several years ago, the dean of the humanities and social sciences at LSU told me that the legislature was cutting the university’s budget again, so they were putting on a conference on the use of the humanities. And could I come speak in their defense? I said sure. Well, it was really depressing. “If you study the humanities, you will learn to be a better business communicator. You will learn to write effective business letters. You will learn to make impressive PowerPoint presentations. You might even get a job in the oil industry.” That is the kind of defensive language that advocates of the humanities have been forced to adopt in this current atmosphere of utility and professionalization. I would urge all of us to resist it, and do what the report does: pitch the argument at a higher level. Because that is what education for all – which is one of the great distinctive features of American society, on its better days – is all about.
© 2018 by Vartan Gregorian, Michael S. McPherson, Gail O. Mellow, and Nicholas Lemann, respectively