On October 26, 2017, the American Academy hosted a conversation at the University of California, Berkeley, on Priorities for Progress: Advancing Higher Education in America. The program, which served as the Academy’s 2061st Stated Meeting, highlighted two Academy projects – The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education and the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. The following is an edited transcript of the presentations.
Monica Lozano is President and CEO of College Futures Foundation and a member of the University of California Board of Regents. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2016 and serves on the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.
I was asked to provide a brief overview of the California public higher education landscape as it relates to college access and college success, thinking about it in the context of the work that we have done at the Academy for the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. Among the many issues concerning student success that we identified, we found that for too many students there is sometimes no clear path to completion. There are the obvious interruptions and challenges any student may encounter along the way, but when they are compounded by academic preparation (the high school you went to), enrollment status (full or part time, working or not), demographic and socioeconomic status, race, gender, and ethnicity – all of these contribute to the uneven outcomes among students in terms of completion. In the Academy’s forthcoming report on The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America, we elevate promising practices, including one here at the California State University (CSU) and Long Beach Community College. But the overarching conclusion is that we need integrated strategies with a clear and transparent map to completion. Let me address this in the context of California.
Under the 1960 Master Plan, California organized its three-segment system of public higher education to fulfill the promise that all qualified students who wished to enroll would be provided with access to the state’s public colleges and universities. To support access for students from all backgrounds, generous financial aid is available that covers the full cost of tuition at a UC school or at CSU for low-income students.
California’s bachelor-degree-attainment rate is consistent with the national average (around 23 percent). California residents have consistently valued, been proud of, and (arguably) invested in public higher education. If we look closely at today’s students and how the system works for them, however, a more nuanced story emerges – one that poses plenty of challenges.
Who are today’s students? Low-income and first-generation college students – most of whom come from racial or ethnic groups that have historically been underrepresented in higher education – are the face of California’s future. Today, almost two-thirds of California’s public school students are from low-income families or underrepresented student groups, and they are the majority of California’s high school graduates.
How is our system of higher education working for them? As you might imagine, outcomes differ dramatically based on race, ethnicity, and income. Although low-income and first-generation college students are the majority of our high school graduates, their bachelor’s degree completion rates are only one-third of that of white and Asian students. Underrepresented students represent about one-half of high school graduates but only 28 percent of the total bachelor’s degree graduates. Students from low-income families (in the bottom income quartile) earn bachelor’s degrees at about a quarter of the rate of those from high-income families (in the top quartile).1 California has the dubious distinction of having the highest college completion gap between whites and Latinos, at 34 percent. In short, here in California chances of finishing a college degree are dramatically lower if you are born into a low-income family, if you are born African American or Latino, or if you grow up in a certain region of the state.
We all know that the benefits of a college education, and particularly of a four-year degree, are many. College completion contributes to the economic vitality of our communities, state, and nation by preparing an educated and skilled workforce for the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century. A college education provides social mobility and increased earning power for individuals and their families. And it contributes to a more robust democracy by equipping individuals with the skills not just to observe society but to participate in it.
College graduates are more likely to earn more, vote more, volunteer more, hold onto their jobs, be wealthier, and use public assistance less than people without a college degree. A four-year college might not be for everyone, and many Americans live meaningful lives without a college degree, but the reality is that a college degree offers greater freedom: freedom to choose a career and to choose one’s path in life.
When fewer than half of students who begin college earn a two- or four-year degree within six years, a focus on access and enrollment is important but not enough.
Given the importance of degree completion, how does our higher education system provide opportunity for all students who would benefit from earning a degree? How well does the system function, with all segments working in tandem toward the shared goal of student success?
Unfortunately, each segment, from K-12 through higher education, has its own goals, its own incentives and disincentives, its own policies, its own funding streams, its own data, and its own governance. For students – particularly low-income and underrepresented students – completing a degree requires navigating a complicated and sometimes unwelcoming maze. What should be an open pipeline with strong joints is not always so, and the structural misalignment is where we see many of the most obvious gaps in college completion.
Of course, there are many other challenges, such as lack of readiness; limited access to resources, supports, and guidance; access to financial aid; clear guided pathways; impacted campuses; remediation; and time to degree, among others.
Here in California, the entry point for low-income and underrepresented students is the California Community Colleges (CCC). Getting the transitions right and clearing the pathway to a degree is especially critical for these students. The California Community Colleges are the nation’s largest higher education system. California’s high school graduates are more likely to attend community colleges than high school graduates in other states. California ranks fifth nationwide in the share of recent high school graduates who enroll in community colleges compared to forty-seventh in the share who start at four-year schools. Of California students who enroll in a public higher education institution, nearly 70 percent enroll in a CCC.2
For its part, the CSU is the largest university system in the country and educates the most ethnically, economically, and academically diverse student body in the nation. The CSU six-year graduation rates of 57 percent, although steadily increasing, are not what they could or indeed need to be, and outcomes differ substantially depending on a student’s race, gender, or campus location. For example, systemwide graduation rates are 64 percent for white students, 52 percent for Hispanic students, and 42 percent for Black students. Hispanic students graduate at rates 5 percentage points lower than the overall average and 12 percentage points lower than white students. Black students graduate at rates 15 percentage points lower than the overall average and a full 22 percentage points lower than white students.
Depending on the campus, the graduation rate changes drastically. The highest six-year graduation rate is 76 percent at CSU San Luis Obispo, while the lowest rate is 35 percent at CSU Dominguez Hills – more than 40 percentage points lower.
In 2016, CSU Chancellor Tim White announced Graduation Initiative 2025: an ambitious plan that aims to increase graduation rates for all CSU students while eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps for underserved students. The initiative focuses on encouraging innovation, removing barriers that impede student success, and being more strategic in how they serve students.
The UC schools educate hundreds of thousands of students, provide a significant impact on the state economy, have a laudable overall six-year graduation rate of 84 percent, and graduate low-income and transfer students at rates comparable to their peers. By comparison, the systemwide Pell-eligible student graduation rate is 83 percent.
Freshman graduation rates have increased for all racial and ethnic groups, although graduation gaps remain between underrepresented student groups (African American, American Indian, and Hispanic/Latino) and white and Asian undergraduates. Six-year graduation rates are 74 percent for African American students, 78 percent for Latino students, and 86 percent for white students. Depending on the makeup of the student body and the academic and support conditions available to students, there are vast differences in college completion.
The data that I have shared are just a snapshot of where we are as a state, but there is a bigger context for all of this and a set of challenges that require visionary and pragmatic leadership.
Some may refer to this as Tidal Wave III. Our cohort of prospective students is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. The K-12 system is making progress in terms of the academic preparation of our children so that more students are graduating from high school having met the requirements to go into two-year or four-year colleges. But we are not prepared on the higher education side to provide room and opportunities for these students, although we as a state have essentially promised them that opportunity.
Meanwhile, California faces a shortfall of over one million baccalaureate degrees by 2025 because of changes in the economy and the retirement of baby boomers now in the workforce. And we have a system of financing our public universities – how we plan and pay for student access and success at the CSU and UC schools – that is not functional, and not serving students, the institutions, or the state well.
The Master Plan has been the touchstone for higher education policy in California for more than half a century. The promise of the Master Plan is at risk, however, as opportunities for access and degree completion are eroding in the face of continued fiscal crises, resulting in rising prices and fewer opportunities for California’s resident students. The public university systems that worked so well for previous generations of Californians need a fiscal re-boot to meet the needs of current and future generations.
So what will we do to ensure opportunity, close the gaps, and plan for our state’s future? We must meet the growing demand for college: California students are now better prepared for college. However, there is no room for them. Thanks to the administration’s successful policies and increases in funding for the K-12 system, the state’s high school graduation rates have been steadily increasing over the past eight years. The proportion of high school graduates meeting A-G requirements grew from 34 percent in 2003 – 2004 to 45 percent in 2015 – 2016. However, these successes in the K-12 system have created a capacity problem, such that qualified California students are being turned away from the state’s public four-year colleges: Between 2005 and 2015, nearly one million California residents who applied for freshman or transfer admission to the California State University or to the University of California were turned away.
In the CSU system, seventeen of the twenty-three campuses are unable to enroll all qualified applicants in the majors to which they apply because of capacity limitations.
In the 2015 – 2016 academic year, CSU campuses rejected more than seventeen thousand qualified freshman applicants. Between fall 2010 and fall 2014, more than fifty-one thousand qualified freshman UC applicants were redirected from their preferred campuses to UC Merced (fewer than a thousand of those students enrolled).
Additionally, as this administration’s reforms take hold in the California Community Colleges system, leaders expect as much as a 35 percent increase in students seeking transfer to a four-year school.3
Education is a public good. Our colleges and universities are incredible assets; so too are our young people. Higher education should continue to be the pathway to opportunity and a stronger, healthier, inclusive, and functional society – not the driver of inequity. The key to increasing degree attainment among Californians will lie in educational practices that reduce and ultimately eliminate racial and ethnic gaps in degree attainment. If California policy-makers and higher education leaders are not able to increase access and degree attainment among low-income and first-generation groups, the state will face a future of growing economic stratification and inequality, with the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots increasingly dictated by educational achievement.
Let me end with a closing note to our audience and my fellow panelists. California has often led the nation when it comes to important issues of the day. Just consider where we are today in terms of climate change and emissions standards. This is a time for us to articulate a Bold Goal for California College Success.
For California to be the global leader in providing not just broad but equitable access to quality public higher education, we must recommit and reinvest in a system that expands access, ensures a sustainable financial model that is also affordable for families, and, most importantly, ensures student success to and throughout college.
Can we challenge ourselves and others to take a systems-wide approach to thinking about this as a pre-through-16 continuum with shared responsibility for student success among all educational institutions?
It is time for us to set overarching, long-term goals for our education ecosystem, working together with the state’s K-12 system, and paying special attention to transition points between high school and postsecondary education, and between two-year and four-year institutions.
1. Helping Students Cross the Finish Line (San Francisco, Calif.: College Futures Foundation, 2017) and underlying sources.
2. U.S. Department of Education and Public Policy Institute of California.
3. Securing the Public Trust (San Francisco, Calif.: College Futures Foundation, 2017), Public Policy Institute of California, and underlying sources.
Robert J. Birgeneau
Robert J. Birgeneau is Chancellor Emeritus and the Arnold and Barbara Silverman Distinguished Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1987 and served as Cochair of the Academy’s Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education.
I would like to review briefly some of the data that led up to the Academy’s Lincoln Project and then focus on more recent data from a project led by Charlie Eaton and Henry Brady that is looking at the specific challenges of need-based financial aid at a national level.
So, just a little background about The Lincoln Project. In the early 1980s, the state of California provided the University of California with about 52 percent of its budget. In 2011, that number dropped to 10 percent.
When I was recruited to be the Chancellor of Berkeley, Bob Dynes, the President of the UC system at that time, had made a compact with Governor Schwarzenegger that funding from the state would increase at a rate of about 4.5 percent per year. I was told that there was every expectation that this would hold true. Fortunately, I was not that naïve. But even given my wariness, I could not have anticipated that state funding would fall so dramatically. At Berkeley, if the compact with Governor Schwarzenegger had held true, in 2008 we would have had $590 million in state funding. Instead, we received $240 million: we were short $350 million in our operating budget. Everybody in this audience knows the sorts of challenges that we faced in this time period as a result of this budget shortfall.
One of the most dramatic aspects of this massive state disinvestment was that we had a complete inversion in the sources of our funding. In 2003, the year before I came to Berkeley, student tuition was a relatively small part of our total budget while state support had by far the largest share. In 2003, Berkeley was truly a state-funded institution. However, as a result of the disinvestment by the state, our budget simply inverted itself so that we found ourselves in the situation in which state support now constituted only a minor share (10 percent) of our total budget. This meant that faculty and staff salaries were basically paid for by student tuition. We were no longer employees of the state. In essence, we became employees of the students. Approximately two-thirds of faculty and administrative staff salaries are now paid by the students.
This situation, which turned out to be a national phenomenon, led to the establishment of the American Academy’s Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education, which documented the role in American society of public research universities, analyzed economic trends affecting their operations, and recommended new strategies to sustain and strengthen these critical institutions. The project produced five publications, and in our fifth and final publication, we proposed various strategies for moving forward. These strategies implicitly assumed a different outcome in the November 2016 election, and so unfortunately our efforts to implement the recommendations of the Lincoln Project have been curtailed for now. However, I am an eternal optimist so I believe that we will be able to return to those strategies once we have leadership at the federal level that is more committed to higher education and a business community that understands fully the necessity of having a robust system of public higher education in the United States.
Our strategy called for “a new compact” for the support of public higher education. One of our conclusions, which I initially was very reluctant to accept, is that the state disinvestment in higher education is irreversible. This disinvestment did not just happen in California. It happened in Tennessee; it happened in Michigan; it happened in Virginia. It happened because the forces that operate on state governments from a variety of directions will not reverse themselves. This means that the challenges currently facing public higher education will not be reversed simply by having students protest at our state capitols or having the business community lobby state legislators on behalf of higher education.
So what are the major components of the discretionary part of state budgets? The largest amount is spent on K-12 education. Next, there is Medicaid, then higher education, and finally corrections. One of the most dramatic changes in state-government funding concerns corrections. Over the last three decades, funding for higher education with all the ups and downs has remained relatively constant (not including the recent draconian cuts), but spending on corrections has increased by 141 percent. In many states we spend more money on incarcerating people than we do on giving them a higher education and unfortunately this trend does not appear to be reversible. In California, over the last several years, the prison population has decreased by 30 percent, but the costs have barely moved. It turns out that the marginal costs are such that even decreasing significantly the prison population by letting people with low-level drug offenses out does not solve the problem.
An inevitable consequence of the fact that state funding of public higher education is not going to return to the halcyon days of yore is that our country must have a new compact to support public higher education. That compact must involve the federal government, state and local governments, the business community, foundations, philanthropists, the colleges and universities, students and their parents. There is no silver bullet. This is discussed in detail in the final publication of The Lincoln Project.
After completing The Lincoln Project, we realized that we needed more information on need-based financial aid at the national level. Such aid is critical to both accessibility and to college completion rates. Accordingly, Henry Brady, Mary Sue Coleman (who directed The Lincoln Project with me), Mike Hout, and I decided that we needed to initiate a project on need-based financial aid across all public universities – not just research universities, which is what The Lincoln Project focused on. We did not include community colleges that have their own unique challenges, and so the data that I will share with you include all four-year public institutions, but not community colleges.
Several people were involved in collecting and analyzing the data: Charlie Eaton, who is an assistant professor at UC Merced; Sheisha Kulkarni, a graduate student in economics at Berkeley; Henry Brady; John Stiles; Mike Hout; and myself. Our first report appeared on the website of the Center for Studies in Higher Education this past February.
It turns out that obtaining reliable and consistent data on low-income students and their financial support over all four-year public colleges and universities is extremely difficult. Every state has its own conventions for collecting and reporting the relevant data. Thus, comparing apples to apples is quite challenging. As a surrogate for the numbers of low-income students we use the number of federal Pell Grant recipients at an institution. The first question that we asked is what colleges and universities do low-income students typically attend. The data show that they are mostly not at research intensive public universities. Across the country, approximately 20 percent of the students at high research universities are on federal Pell grants. This contrasts with universities that have little or no research or only a small amount, where typically 50 percent of their students come from low-income families. Thus, the reality is that low-income students state-by-state are underrepresented at the flagships and are much more likely to be attending four-year colleges that do not have Ph.D. graduate programs.
What about need-based financial aid across the country? In my opinion, it is a national disgrace that the absolute majority of states have little or no need-based financial aid. This is the reason for the very low graduation rates and the high dropout of low-income students from universities in these states. By contrast, three states stand out – California, Wyoming, and New Jersey – in providing funding for low-income students that matches that from federal Pell grants.
What about student debt? We often hear numbers that have no basis in reality. If we look at only public research universities, only about half of the undergraduate students have debt when they graduate, and if they do, it is typically less than $30,000. For example, here at Berkeley, the average debt on graduation for the 50 percent of students who have debt is about $19,000. The apocryphal stories of countless students with debts of $100,000 to $200,000 are just not true. They may make good press, but they are gross misrepresentations.
If we ask how much debt do students have, we find out that the amount of debt varies inversely with how much financial aid they get. The more financial aid they get, the lower the debt at graduation. This is not surprising.
Now if we look at students defaulting on their student loans, at non-research universities we find that 35 percent of students default on their student loans. Many of these defaulters are students who failed to graduate so they do not benefit from the increased income that comes from graduation. At research universities like Berkeley with very high graduation rates and high incomes of its graduates, the default rate is 10 percent.
Thus, based on these data our conclusions are as follows: 1) We have a dire need for increased state-funded, need-based financial aid because that controls both graduation rates and student debt. 2) Student debt is, in fact, low, generally speaking – much lower than what you read in the newspapers. 3) Low-income students are twice as likely to attend public universities that have little or no research. 4) Loan default rates are 10 percent at top public research universities and 35 percent at non-research universities.
This is where we stand right now with this project on low-income students at public universities and need-based financial aid. We are currently refining these data to obtain as complete and reliable information as possible. We will not solve the problem of income inequality in the United States if we do not simultaneously reduce the education gap between the privileged and the underprivileged; need-based financial aid is a critical component of this reduction.
Bob Jacobsen is Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the College of Letters & Science and Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley.
My role here is to comment as a practitioner and to give you an on-the-job view from Berkeley. Let me stress that these are my own thoughts, and I suspect the higher up you go in the hierarchy, the more the perspective might differ.
I think we all agree on the need for more support for public education and for our flagship institutions. I think we all agree on the mission to grow at each generation the leaders, achievers, and creators that society needs, and to provide access and opportunity across all of society. The points that were raised about how today’s student population represents a wider range of students, and that over the last thirty years, Berkeley has come to embrace more first-generation students and more students from low-income families with low social capital are all very important because this is changing the experience of Berkeley from the 1960s.
To continue to engage those thousands of students, we have to figure out a way to actually resource that activity. We all know that the last ten years have been incredibly hard, but we have managed to succeed with a high-tuition, high-aid approach to what we do.
Now our tuition, at just over roughly $13,000 when you roll in some fees, is not high on the scale of Princeton or MIT. But it is high for a lot of the families that are sending their children to our schools. So although this model has succeeded in allowing us to bring in tens of thousands of students who have no financial resources at all and are able to study at a great place like Berkeley, this is not the time to be at all complacent about the model because it is already starting to show significant cracks. I believe it is time for us to find another approach because what we have is not going to work in another five or ten years.
Don’t get me wrong; we will always provide financial aid to our students. Let me share a story to help you see why. Last weekend was Parents Weekend, which is an opportunity for alumni parents to come back to campus and complain about how the old days are gone. They have earned that right. I am perfectly okay with it because I have a strategy for dealing with it. When someone comes up to me and says, “I was in the class of 1975, and we only paid $240,” I smile and reply, “Yes, that is true. But how did you pay for your rent?” You get into some very interesting conversations about this question. Five of the people who I had this conversation with last Saturday said, “I lived at home, or the money came from home, or Dad got me a job that paid lots of money and I didn’t have to show up.” Do you see a pattern here?
If you are a first-generation student from Compton, none of those options are available to you. We are trying to reach out to students who don’t have dads that can get them you-don’t-have-to-show-up jobs and who are unlikely to have parents who can send them money.
We have deliberately set out to do this. Financial aid will always be necessary to help those students who need assistance paying for their living expenses in a place like Berkeley, where you need $20,000 a year or more just to survive as a student.
Let me come back to this idea that money from home doesn’t work anymore. You have to know a little bit about how the financial aid system works. And as an aside, actually understanding financial aid should be an academic discipline. It is that complicated. I have helped multiple foster children navigate the system. I have studied the system. I have worked in the system, and I still do not understand it well enough to help a student fill out the forms. Let me also mention that Professor Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University wrote an excellent paper for the Academy that provides a rough overview of financial aid in only 14 pages with 42 explanatory footnotes.
The basic calculation that you need to understand goes like this. A student starts by filling out a form called the FAFSA. Some of the questions, such as their name, are relatively simple; others are very esoteric. There is literally a question that says, and I quote, “Be sure that the AGI calculation has included calculations of past insurance carryovers.” I finally figured out what that means, but none of my foster children could understand it. There are also other forms that parents have to fill out, which can be difficult to do in complicated, modern families. Then there is a federal government calculation that determines the maximum that the family can be reasonably expected to contribute, which in most cases becomes what the family must contribute.
Each school determines how much students need to come up with on their own via work-study, or a summer job, or loans. At Berkeley, this amount has risen recently to almost $9,000. And realistically, if you take a few thousand dollars’ worth of loans, you will have less than $30,000 in debt after four years. A summer job can help to generate a few thousand dollars so the system can work.
The difference is the need that is met by various kinds of financial aid. So, roughly speaking, if you add on living expenses to $13,000 worth of tuition, you have to figure out where to get that $35,000 or $36,000. For low-income students that source will be Pell Grants and state grants, and it works. For middle-income students, it is also something like that. But now we begin to see why the money-from-home option doesn’t work for middle-class families. We have already assessed everything that these families can give and we have taken it from them. The federal government’s calculation is not in the slightest bit generous, and it extracts quite a bit. A family earning less than $230,000 is expected to pay for everything that they can for the student. And it is only when you reach the income that gives you something left over after this calculation that you could possibly send money to the student. Another way to say it is that without state support, we have to extract every dollar we can from middle-class parents.
Since the campus needs to raise more funds, the stress gets more intense. We end up with our students feeling like they are living on a knife edge, which is very far from the 1970s experience of show up, learn something cool, maybe get a job, ask Mom and Dad for enough money to pay for the rent, and it is going to be okay. The knife-edge example is used a lot by our students because – although they wouldn’t say it this way – they feel that they can fall off, get cut, and be hurt because they are balancing this very large bill and this very large financial aid in ways that they don’t fully understand.
Yesterday, I spent some time with a student who has not received her financial aid check for this semester because she was selected for an audit by the IRS two years ago. The paperwork got lost somewhere, and that has now delayed her financial aid for this semester. We will fix this problem, but it is an extremely stressful thing to get her temporary money to tide her over.
Thousands of our students are having this problem on any given day. Out of the 18,000 students that I am responsible for, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 are having a problem with their financial aid.
This is not a criticism of our financial aid office. They are skilled people who work extremely hard. They are very committed to making this work, but they have to administer an extraordinary number of different forms of aid and scholarship. They are trying to get every dollar in the students’ hands and they succeed, but that operation alone costs millions of dollars. And if we continue to move in a direction of more and more funky scholarships, more and more little programs that do this and the other, we have a scaling issue that we just don’t know how to deal with.
I absolutely agree with the number that 80 percent of our students do quite well with respect to loans. It is actually a little bit better than that at Berkeley. But 4 percent of our students graduate with over $50,000 worth of loans. Now, no system can work perfectly and I understand that, but that 4 percent represents quite a few people. And they tend to come from places that fall through the cracks in the system. An acrimonious divorce, for example, can lead to paperwork not being submitted for financial aid. It happens a lot.
Legal troubles are another issue. We have a student who received an award for being the best student in her department and she had to drop out for a semester because she had used all of her financial aid to pay the legal fees to keep herself from being deported. And now she is in trouble because those legal fees were not part of her budget. It is a very hard thing to think about how Berkeley works as a social agency to deal with the problems of its students. We have to think about that and consider how far our commitment goes. This particular student went on to excel in her studies, and we are going to be very proud of her at some point. We just have to figure out how to make this work.
Less visible in the numbers is student workload, and I don’t mean from your classes. I mean from commitments outside of your classes. Thirteen percent of our students filed paperwork to say that they were working more than 15 hours a week last semester. I would rather have them working in your labs, working with you in your offices, working in your libraries.
Nevertheless, we are succeeding in some ways, and so the question is what is the new model going to be? We cannot keep going this way. My bottom line is that Berkeley will never have $35,000-a-year tuition and $35,000 worth of financial aid because we cannot make that system work. We will not be able to serve all of these people who come from the various parts of our community. But somehow we have to find a way to make this work, and I am actually pretty optimistic that there is such a way to do it.
Michael S. McPherson
Michael S. McPherson is President Emeritus of the Spencer Foundation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014 and serves as Cochair of the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.
I would like to make a few broad points that emerged from the deliberations of our Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. We are building on success in this country when we think about the future of higher education. It is easy to worry and there are plenty of reasons to worry, but we are at a place that very few countries have ever reached. The fraction of our overall population that has a college degree is, I believe, the highest in the world. Ninety percent of our high school graduates have some experience of college before they are thirty years old. That number is impressive.
We are trying to do something we have never done, which is to give everybody a shot at a higher education, and we should be proud of that. We need to recognize how vital this is to our country’s future.
One of the things our Commission considered was four scenarios of possible alternative futures.What if our future leans toward greater social division? What if employment changes radically and we move to a “gig economy” in which people are hired on a task-by-task basis and work on-demand instead of as full-time employees? What if the technologies that deliver higher education change dramatically? What if environmental disasters or other natural or human-made disasters impinge on us?
One thing that all those scenarios have in common is that in every case we need really good higher education that helps people to think better, to solve problems, to communicate across difference, and to be flexible in dealing with a changing world. Those are the things that higher education can provide.
We have huge problems. We have to get the money to where it will do the most good. Bob Birgeneau, Bob Jacobsen, and Monica Lozano have made this point very clear. But it is not an easy thing to do. It means recognizing that some priorities are higher than others, but in every state and in every college, we think putting the focus on the best use of those resources makes sense.
We have a long way to go. We think our Commission has some useful ideas as well as some important challenges and criticisms for people to consider. But I don’t want us ever to lose sight of the fact that we are building on success, and that the work we need to do is urgent for the future of this country.
The problem is overwhelming, and we all understand and accept that. But what I have not heard addressed this evening, but which I know you are all aware of and concerned about, is the role of philanthropy. What are the problems when philanthropic donations do not cover the most vulnerable students and families?
Philanthropy certainly plays an important role at the Berkeleys of this country. What the data that have emerged from the work Henry Brady and the rest of us have revealed is that the major challenges are not at the public flagship research universities, but at the non-research universities, in which philanthropy does not represent a realistic solution for them. They have very little philanthropic support and this is unlikely to change in the near-future.
Given my role as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, and recognizing this funding transformation that occurred in which we went from being heavily supported by the state to relying on tuition, we know that we cannot sustain this for much longer. The Regents are working with the chancellors across the system, and we are very focused on how to bring new philanthropic dollars into the UCs as a way of minimizing the impact on students. We need a financial model whereby the state invests appropriately in higher education, establish a tuition policy that is predictable, moderate, and by which families can plan, and then fill the gap with private dollars, primarily through philanthropy.
I agree with everything that was said about philanthropy, but I think another important dimension here is the need for better advising and guidance for students, which can, on the one hand, help people to get into places that will really work for them, and, on the other hand, can help people make financial choices that don’t get them into a deep hole. Nationally, it is really clear that those who default on their student loans are the people who didn’t finish, and they didn’t finish in many cases because they made a poor choice about where to start. If you are a first-generation family, you cannot rely on the networks that many of us have. So spending money to get solid advice can actually be money well spent.
This question of navigating the maze is so important. When you come from a background that isn’t familiar with the process, there are dollars available that go unused. There are resources for many hundreds of thousands of eligible families but because of the complexity of the system, they don’t apply for this aid. So how do you remove the complexity? How do you make it something in which you need to opt out, instead of opt in? How do you use technology to provide the kinds of data gathering that will automatically populate the fields? We need to move in this direction and use new tools so families can take advantage of the financial resources that are available.
As a practicing advisor, let me say that the best way you can help navigate the system is to stop having systems. Every time we fix a problem by adding a new scholarship for left-handed people from odd-numbered zip codes, we make things harder and harder for the students we are actually trying to help. And that is one of the reasons why there is financial aid for low-income students.
I have no doubt that the California legislature values our diversity efforts and would like us to be even more diverse. But how do we convince the legislature that diversity is not a question of pure admission. It is a question of support: financial aid, academic support, and so on?
We know that it is not just about having access. Completing college is absolutely critical, and I think the legislature is starting to recognize this. And it is not about offering more dollars, but spending those dollars wisely. There is clearly a focus on the best use of resources. So how do we convince the state legislature that, in fact, we are doing everything we can to provide the resources where they can have the greatest impact. There was a bill that was passed last year that now very specifically provides for more support services at UC. It identifies students by socioeconomic and racial data, and allows us to determine the interventions that they will need along the way to be successful. These predictive analytics are allowing us to identify those students that need support to get through.
Our Commission certainly believes that if we acknowledge that what matters is not simply getting people in the door but having them succeed, then investing money in more success actually pays off. Fewer people would be wasting time and their own resources in something that they are not going to complete successfully. This does not mean that we don’t want those people to try. We are willing to take risks, but we should have them try and then support their efforts to succeed.
One of the things that you have all demonstrated today is that the past is not our future, and that the future holds the need for new revenue sources. So, what are these new revenue sources? Continuing education, concurrent enrollment, more summer programs? At Berkeley my sense is that we may have the capacity and elasticity in our faculty to offer these programs with the resources that are available, but other universities may not.
Two of the non-participants in the support of the educational operations of public higher education in this country are the federal government and the business sector. We are the only country, of the countries that we compete with economically, in which the federal government does not support the operations of its great public research universities. One way or another, the federal government – in partnership with the states, philanthropists, and private enterprise – has to participate. In addition, it is my view that Corporate America is not paying its fair share of the costs of public higher education. I have had many conversations with the leaders of Silicon Valley firms who were complaining that we were not producing enough chemical engineers, enough electrical engineers, and other skilled researchers. My response was, “Well, you know, you can help solve that problem by providing direct support.” I proposed a straightforward model in which every time a Silicon Valley company hires one of our graduates, they give a scholarship to support the next student coming along. Individual corporate leaders would say that this sounds like a very promising idea but they also said that in the end they were unlikely to fund a student who could well end up working for one of their competitors. However, one way or another, major corporations need to contribute directly to the cost of the education of the students that they are hiring. This is not specific to public universities. It applies to the privates just as well.
I would like to return to the issue of the pipeline. One of the panelists said that California is turning away lots of qualified students, and I would put the word qualified in quotes. In addition to financial need and providing guidance and advice to our students, they have to be prepared when they enter higher education. So I am wondering how much pressure can come from the Regents or other institutions of higher education to ensure that the students in the pipeline are, in fact, prepared to come here. And I am thinking especially of the students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in which education has not been a high priority. How we can support the improvement in their preparation?
Let me offer a Berkeley specific example and then make a larger comment about this. For a long time, the UCs were not part of the ecology of developing teachers in California. Then roughly a dozen years ago, a governor’s initiative broke that block. We have a program at Berkeley called CalTeach and its explicit goal as stated in its tagline is “a thousand grads for a million minds.” Think about the student-to-faculty ratio implicit in that statement. But the UCs are really a drop in the bucket, unless we decide to get serious about producing the next generation of teachers. Unfortunately, this is a very hard thing to take on in a resource-constrained environment. And so my larger issue about the social impact of our programs depends on being able to create and nurture new programs.
© 2018 by Monica Lozano, Robert J. Birgeneau, Bob Jacobsen, and Michael S. McPherson, respectively