Despite the evolving interpretation offered by state and federal courts, American higher education as a community remains committed in its support to increase diversity among students.
At the same time, however, our colleges and universities largely fail to link diversity initiatives to specific workforce needs. This tendency often applies philosophically to all students enrolled, fueled in part by a belief that the responsibility for higher education institutions writ large is to educate broadly.
There are wonderful programs and support groups to promote and support diversity, of course, measured by gender, race, sexual preference, and socioeconomic income. The report of the Ford Foundation-funded Century Foundation released this week speaks compellingly to the role and problems facing American community colleges in these areas. It cites outstanding programs from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Edvance Foundation, where I serve as CEO and a director, to illustrate efforts underway that demonstrate fresh thinking.
On May 23, the Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal released an important new study describing how best to strengthen community colleges to achieve socioeconomic mobility for more Americans. Led by co-chairs Anthony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library and former president of Amherst College, and Eduardo Padrone, the president of Miami Dade College, the task force found growing racial and economic stratification between two- and four-year colleges and universities.
Supported by the Ford Foundation, this study offered tactics to reduce stratification and create new outcomes-based funding, suggesting a greater concentration and targeting of public support based on student needs.
There is much to credit here. The Century Foundation task force identifies the extraordinary demographic shifts in the remarkable evolution of two-year community colleges that now enroll nearly half of the college-going population in America. Further, they identify stratification among two-year institutions, and the failure of state and federal government funders to deal with it, as especially troubling. Notably, the task force also calls attention to growing inequality between two-year and four-year applicants.
In the recent blizzard of press over the cost of higher education, the impact of technology, and the continued relevancy of the curriculum, much of the ongoing effort by higher education institutions to improve their environment has been lost as other more polarizing stories pushed to the front of the queue.
For much of their history, most colleges and universities stood as well-defended “cities upon a hill,” isolated by perceived images of wide green lawns, brick walls and massive gates sending an unwelcome and exclusionary message to outsiders. By concentrating on the academic enterprise, colleges and universities failed to develop an organic, systemic relationship with their environment. As urban environments changed – and many older urban centers declined — local pressure to increase tax revenue set higher education institutions against their communities.
Gallup, Inc. and the Chronicle of Higher Education released two surveys this month on what college presidents think. The results are fascinating. They speak volumes about the strength and weakness of American higher education leadership.
Gallup conducted a web survey focusing on US college and university presidents to track their views on topics and issues facing higher education. One finding dominated the research. Gallup found that 62% of them indicated that they are excited about the future of their institution but that only 20% are enthused about the future of higher education. They discovered that presidents are not strong supporters of MOOC’s when seeking to improve learning, resolve financial crises faced by colleges, or reduce the cost of education for students. These presidents are worried about the affordability of higher education and see student preparation as the biggest barrier to success when pursuing a college degree.
Conversation is the coin of the realm in American higher education.
Shared governance rests upon reasonable, open and transparent communication. Internal and external constituencies – including parents, alumni, donors, political leaders, and the media – embrace the motivations and actions that shape education, often more so depending upon who delivers the message.
Curiously, conversation can also be a waste of energy and time; indeed, it can become more of an exercise in process than a good faith effort to communicate intent or solicit opinion. It’s the problem with talk for the sake of talking.
The concept of higher education as the “great equalizer” may be the best outcome of the evolution of American colleges and universities in the 20th century. As education advanced and the needs of the workforce changed, Americans recognized with clearheaded pragmatism that education offered the most certain avenue “out and up.” They took advantage of the G.I. Bill to retrain to meet the demands of the mature industrial economy. For middle-class America, the expectation became even stronger as parents prepared their children for a college degree and sacrificed what was necessary to achieve it.
We should celebrate and appreciate what got done.
At the same time, however, policies that opened access and supported choice also created an enormous higher education infrastructure with protocols that evolved from older higher education models.