WASHINGTON – America has the “very best in the world” when it comes to higher education, but rising tuition and increased selectivity in admissions threaten to undermine the nation’s historical commitment to equity and opportunity.
That was the heart of the message that computer software magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates delivered Tuesday at an event to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act that created America’s public land-grant universities.
“Fewer of those who want to attend universities are getting in, and those who do get in pay more,” Gates said during his keynote speech at the 2012 Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU) Convocation, themed, “150 Years of the Morrill Act: Advancing the Legacy.”
“This is a big challenge,” Gates said. “It can’t continue if we all have a goal of fulfilling that mission of providing broad education.”
Gates blamed rising tuition on the fiscal crisis that has led cash-strapped states to slash spending on higher education. He blamed increased selectivity in admissions on the controversial annual college rankings put out by US News & World Report, which he and other critics have said induce institutions to favor admittance to higher-performing students to bolster their status within the rankings framework.
“We have to look at how we can reverse both spirals,” Gates said of rising college costs and increased selectivity. “We have to let in as many people as can be successfully educated and they have to get that education at the lowest possible costs.”
Gates spent much of his speech extolling the virtues and benefits of America’s public land-grant universities, ushered into existence amid the turmoil of the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862. The colleges originally focused largely on agriculture and the “mechanical arts.”
“For 150 years higher education has been an incredible source of strength for our country and there are no better set of institutions that show that better than the institutions that are represented here,” Gates said. “Your institutions have shown that equality and opportunity don’t need to compromise excellence.”
If education had continued to be for a select few like before the Morrill Act, Gates said, “there’s no doubt that we’d be less competitive today.”
To illustrate how public land-grant institutions have made a difference in the lives of people, Gates held up a hermetic grain storage bag developed at Purdue University that has been credited with saving West and Central African farmers hundreds of millions of dollars by protecting their grain from weevils.
Gates said he was optimistic that public-land grant universities would help lead the nation to a better future like they did when they were created under President Lincoln.
“I have great optimism that you will once again summon your ability to innovate, that you will see clearly where higher education needs to go and lead us all there,” Gates said.
Gates challenged the public land-grant universities to embrace greater and more innovative use of technology, including experimentation with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), shift to a greater focus on need-based aid instead of merit-based aid, welcome greater transparency and be open to the idea of tying some financial aid to completion.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also called on the public land-grant institutions to embrace transparency, namely, by adopting the department’s new Financial Aid Shopping Sheet.
“Having easy-to-understand information will help students and families make smarter decisions about higher education,” Duncan said. “We don’t want students and families taking on more debt than they need.
“Worst of all, we don’t want them deciding they cannot afford college.”
Duncan also hailed the Morrill act for how it “democratized” higher education. He lamented the fact that – despite high unemployment rates in the United States – there are approximately 3 million jobs in the country that are going unfilled because of lack of skills among American workers.
“Billions are being spent by taxpayers each year, but millions of young people don’t have enough to show for it,” Duncan said.
“Do we have a crisis of job skills?” Duncan said. “There seems to be a fundamental disconnect in the education marketplace today. Students are choosing the wrong schools or wrong areas of study.”
“Too many employers can’t find employees they are looking for with the right skills,” Duncan said. “This needs to change and change fast.”
At a panel discussion titled “Engineering and the Physical Sciences,” Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, and Sylvester James Gates, director of the Center for String & Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, opined on how to inspire more students to pursue majors in the STEM fields.
Reacting to University of Maryland Professor Gates’ quotes of JFK’s remarks on sending a man to the moon, Vest expressed dismay with harkening back to the past in attempt to inspire present-day students.
“Let’s stop waiting for Sputnik,” Vest said. “This generation has its own challenges. Let’s focus on today’s challenges, those things we see out in the future. We have to do a better job of explaining and inspiring kids” to pursue a STEM education.
Professor Gates, who is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), responded: “We don’t need a Sputnik moment. We need a Lady Gaga moment.”
“What we really need is to be able to tell the young generation, ‘You can be like Lady Gaga and help the world,’” Gates said in reference to the singer’s charitable works.
Professor Gates said if university leaders can figure out how to stop STEM attrition at various levels, “we can meet the goal of adding one new workers in STEM. That is key to reigniting the American dream.”
Vest echoed those thoughts, saying many students say they leave STEM fields for fields they feel are more socially relevant without realizing they can be socially relevant within STEM.