The Chancellor of the University System of Maryland cautions us that unless we address access to higher education, "our national ethos of social upward mobility will be lost and we will devolve into a two-tier society with a permanent underclass." -Angela
By William E. Kirwan
Monday, August 14, 2006; A13
A national security crisis is brewing, and if our country doesn't take immediate action, it could be devastating for the future of the United States.
Consider these facts: Worldwide, the United States ranks seventh in high-school completion rates and ninth in the percentage of high-school graduates who enroll in college. Of every 100 current eighth-graders in America, just 18 will receive a college degree during the next 10 years. Based on current participation and completion rates, the education pipeline reveals alarming holes.
The "prescription" for what ails education in this country enjoys widespread consensus: Improve the performance of our primary and secondary school students and provide access to affordable, high-quality higher education to more people. But how the country goes about filling this prescription is a matter of significant debate.
Clearly, a "fix" to the problem requires the combined and coordinated efforts of various sectors. Central to the effort, however, must be higher education. Higher education, after all, prepares the teachers for the schools and sets the standards for the degrees.
What should higher education do to help plug the holes in the education pipeline and enable our nation to address its most pressing long-term national security issue: the development of a robust and superbly educated workforce?
First, higher education must become more engaged in improving primary and secondary school performance. Colleges and universities need to encourage more students to pursue teaching careers and, in partnership with local school districts, better prepare prospective teachers with the content knowledge and pedagogy skills to succeed. Universities must work more effectively with the K-12 sector to ensure that student assessment in high school is closely aligned with college entrance requirements, and that the transition from high school to college is as seamless as advancement from 11th to 12th grade.
The best way to achieve such transformational changes is through so-called statewide K-16 councils, which bring educational leaders from all levels -- superintendents, principals, university presidents, deans -- together with business and community leaders on a regular basis to develop reform agendas. Such an approach is working in Maryland and a few other states.
As a second means of plugging the holes, state governments and higher education need to rethink the way they distribute financial aid. During the past two decades there has been a huge shift in the allocation of university-based aid, away from students with demonstrated financial need and toward high-ability students -- often from upper-middle-class families -- whom universities seek in order to improve their SAT profiles and "vanity" rankings. Too many low-income students are either discouraged from attending college or must work such long hours that their progress toward a degree is unreasonably delayed or, worse, terminated.
Fortunately, we have seen several "enlightened" universities -- including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, College Park -- introduce programs to ensure that students from families at the lower end of the economic ladder can graduate debt-free. At the University System of Maryland, we recently adopted a policy requiring that students from families with the lowest levels of income graduate with the lowest debt. Planned expenditures on institutional need-based aid by USM institutions have increased more than 30 percent in the past year.
Finally, higher education -- especially public higher education -- must learn to operate with a more cost-conscious budget model. Most other sectors have experienced significant productivity gains through rigorous attention to cost containment. Higher education can no longer afford to ignore this strategy.
Investment of state funds in higher education on a per-student basis is at a 25-year low. It has fallen from about $7,100 in 2001 to just over $5,800 in 2005. As state investment on a per-student basis has declined, the tuition burden on students and their families has increased. In more than a quarter of our states, tuition revenue is now greater than the state's investment in its public colleges and universities. In the coming decades, areas such as health care, energy, and social services for an aging population will require an ever greater proportion of available tax dollars, accelerating the decline in public investment in higher education.
With that decline and without serious attention to cost containment, colleges and universities will face two highly undesirable alternatives: Accept more students at generally affordable tuition levels and see quality erode or protect quality by driving up tuition to levels that will be prohibitive for low-income students.
With the leadership of its Board of Regents, the University System of Maryland has incorporated cost containment as a formal part of its budget development process. These efforts have reduced the "bottom line" by more than $40 million for the system's 13 institutions during the past two years.
Filling the holes in America's education pipeline must become an urgent national priority. Nowhere is strong, unified action more necessary than at our colleges and universities. In partnership with others sectors, higher education must be held accountable for embracing its role and responsibilities to help improve K-12 education, increasing its need-based financial aid substantially, and containing costs more aggressively. If this doesn't happen, U.S. leadership in the global economy will erode. Perhaps even more threatening, our national ethos of social upward mobility will be lost and we will devolve into a two-tier society with a permanent underclass.
The writer is chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
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