Higher education leaders and advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to discuss the role higher education plays in the U.S. and what can be done to increase access, success, and innovation.
The three-panel event was hosted by Opportunity America and Arizona State University. During the opening keynote address, Ford Foundation Vice President for Education, Creativity, and Free Expression Hilary Pennington said the “real challenge” of higher education is “how do we as a system get better at getting better.”
Pennington’s remarks offered something of a jumping off point for the panel discussions that ranged from how to address economic mobility through higher education to the role institutions must play as their own innovators.
While there are some challenges to the idea that higher education guarantees economic mobility, the data shows that a college degree still leads to better earnings and that the lowest-income individuals benefit economically even more, Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institute’s Center on Children and Families and Budget for National Priorities, said during one of the panels.
However, higher education is faced with a growing problem of offering low-income people “a big payoff but a low probability” of completion or success, said Andrew Kelly, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Center on Higher Education Reform. Part of the problem, he said, is the poor preparation done in high school, as well as the financial issues many low-income students face like not understanding what financial aid is available to them or what the best options are.
In a better situation, the higher education system would reward colleges for the value they provide students and how they help change their economic trajectories, Kelly said.
Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that higher education has become a “critical institution” in the American Dream, but has operated as a risk adverse industry, likening the way schools have shied away from enrolling low-income students to “building hospitals for healthy people.”
Another panel featured Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, who discussed the role of public institutions and the need for schools to lead the innovation charge.
While discussing the whether the American Dream is still possible, Crow said that it is not just possible, it is “essential” and that higher education needs to “innovate, change, and adapt to be truly accessible” to students, especially those from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. Specifically, he said, institutions need to shift from being faculty-centric to student-centric, focusing on individualized approaches to learning. In addition, state governments need to step back from their involvement in the operation of public institutions so as to allow them to innovate more, and the federal government needs to do more to hold institutions accountable for their overall success rather than focusing largely on individual student success, Crow said.
Daniels, a former governor of Indiana, said that there are several problems contributing to the issue of access and success in higher education, including structural changes to the economy and “the sadly deficient social capital students bring these days.” The solution, he said, is to establish more varied post-secondary training and education programs to help address all students, including those for whom a four-year degree path is not appropriate.
“We can’t lay all this at the feet of higher education institutions, but that’s clearly where the answer has to come from,” Daniels said.
Publication Date: 1/16/2015