Public Policy Takes Center Stage at Race and Ethnicity Conference

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – University of Maryland System Chancellor William Kirwan opened the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE) characterizing stagnant educational performance as the “gravest crisis” facing our nation.

“We can only keep (our competitive) edge if we continue to produce new generations of highly educated and highly motivated young people,” Kirwan said during the NCORE opening session Wednesday afternoon.

Like numerous education advocates and officials over the past year, Kirwan invoked President Barack Obama’s 2020 goal of the U.S. becoming the world’s leading nation in college degree completion. Praising the president’s vision, Kirwan said the initiative is as much about social equity as it is international competitiveness.

He said that according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development the U.S. currently ranks 10th in overall educational attainment among young adults for industrialized nations and 23rd in high school graduation rates.

“We simply cannot be the America we have been and hope to be in the future if we allow (educational decline) to occur,” Kirwan said. “I’m sure you agree with me this is not the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren.”

Success, Kirwan said, rests on three factors. First, he said, leaders need to reconfigure education as a continuum from preschool to a bachelor’s degree and eliminate the separation between K-12, two-year, and four-year schooling in policy-making and program development.

Secondly, the strategies for producing high quality education need also be cost-effective as state support for higher education declines. Kirwan said nearly 200,000 students are being turned away by the Golden State’s community colleges due to budget constraints. Seamless transfer articulation, online education, and standardized K-12 curricula that focuses on college readiness are all techniques institutions must replicate and scale up to meet the decade-long goal, he urged.

Thirdly, with U.S. Census estimates predicting explosive growth in minority populations and a weak economy wreaking havoc on vulnerable families, the imperative for rethinking affordability and access has intensified, Kirwan noted.

Kirwan’s message on competitiveness proved a welcome one for NCORE participants and organizers whose conferences have traditionally focused on the state of race relations in higher education and the U.S. This year, NCORE’s national advisory council used their proximity to Washington, D.C. to invite the heads of leading education advocacy organizations and to introduce policy issues to NCORE attendees.

Despite celebrating its 23rd year, NCORE is experiencing one of its lowest attendance rates which organizers have blamed on academic conference and travel cutbacks. More than 1,400 registered for the 2010 conference, which is half of what NCORE typically attracts, organizers explained. Nonetheless, the urgency behind conference presentations hasn’t tempered, said NCORE organizer Pari Nabavi.

Dr. Belinda Biscoe, assistant vice president for public and community services for university outreach at the University of Oklahoma, remarked that the dramatic enactment of Arizona’s heavily criticized immigration law is fresh on all conference attendee minds.

“Regardless of how you feel about immigration I hope we agree racial profiling is a violation of a groups civil rights,” Biscoe said. “I encourage everyone to begin the conversations about this issue at NCORE 2010.”

An event highlighting the recently enacted Arizona legislation is tentatively set to occur Friday afternoon. Though originally scheduled for Tuesday as a last-minute addition to the conference program, the rescheduled discussion will be led by scholars Hugh Vasquez and Tim Wise.

Dr. Guadalupe Corona, of Alliant International University in California, said many educators lack the tools to confront the issue if similar laws passed in their states.

“People don’t realize that the demographics are changing now not just in the future,” Corona said. “We need to understand the policy implications of such laws.”