As President Biden and Congress debate whether, to what extent, and in what ways to improve infrastructure in the United States, it becomes apparent that we need a more expansive definition of the term. Proponents of the historical understanding of infrastructure think in terms of “hard” physical structures such as roads, bridges, and airports. Consistent with this understanding, the American Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that our nation has been doing somewhat better recently. Of course, raising the cumulative grade from D- four years ago to C- in 2021 is incremental at best.
To achieve real social progress, however, we must also address the “soft” infrastructure that improves our quality of life, beginning with healthcare and education.
As a report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences points out, “Policy-makers should broaden their understanding of infrastructure to include our intellectual infrastructure, which is no less important to the nation’s future than our roads and bridges.” Congressional gridlock notwithstanding, state and federal investment in this knowledge infrastructure has long been integral to our nation’s health, wellbeing, and prosperity.
President Biden’s request that Congress invest billions to upgrade community colleges and research laboratories at historically black colleges and universities is a crucial step toward redressing inequitable underinvestment in this intellectual infrastructure. Bolstering public two-year colleges and minority-serving institutions makes strategic sense in terms of expanding our capacity to produce the millions of additional graduates essential to the post-industrial workforce.
American higher education is the envy of policymakers around the globe. But the preeminence of our leading universities does not correlate with overall excellence. In a nation whose “crazy quilt” of colleges and universities includes “50 of the best universities in the world and 500 of the worst,” as the economist Charles Clotfelter put the matter, we must expand accessibility to discovery, creativity, and innovation at a socially meaningful scale.
The increasing selectivity of our top private research universities and liberal arts colleges no longer surprises anyone. Harvard, Stanford, and the rest compete on this basis, proudly announcing that they accept fewer than 5 percent of applicants. Their positions atop the U.S. News & World Report rankings reward a dubious strategy that constrains the intellectual diversity of our society.
But our top public research universities have become increasingly selective as well. While some go to great lengths to recruit socioeconomically disadvantaged learners, the fact remains that the scale of such efforts is inadequate. Admission is more strongly predicted by socioeconomic status — as captured by zip code — than by impartial assessments of academic potential.
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