Perspectives: Challenges in Higher Education for the Next President

Unlike the Middle East or the housing industry, the next president will not face an immediate crisis in addressing the issue of higher education in the United States.

          But make no mistake, the next president, whether John McCain or Barak Obama, must address key issues in American higher education that will enable our country to continue to prosper at home and to provide leadership abroad.

          As Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel Corporation has said bluntly, “The economy of the future depends on the quality of our schools and the ability of our students to compete.”

          Insisting on high academic standards is vital, but the new administration’s agenda for higher education must encompass three much broader areas: 1) making a college education accessible to all; 2) closing the achievement gap for minority students; and 3) managing diversity.

          These challenges are by no means the sole province of government in our highly decentralized, public and private educational system. But meaningful progress will nonetheless require strong and sustained national leadership.

Costs are critical in making college accessible, and in recent years these costs have been increasing at twice the rate of inflation. As a result, the average graduate now leaves college with more than $19,000 in debt. As many as two million otherwise qualified students may not be able to afford college in this decade.

Income should no longer prevent any qualified student from gaining a college education or professional training. We need strong bipartisan support for expanding education tax credits, streamlining the financial aid process, reducing student-loan costs, and increasing Pell Grants for low-income students.

But accessibility is more than a matter of funding levels. We must build a culture of active, lifelong learning – in many ways contrarian to the pervasive pop culture of our time – that is essential for the preparation of the next generation of Americans to succeed in the 21st century.

Second, closing the achievement gap for minority students is a challenge for the entire American educational system, from kindergarten to graduate school. What once was the norm can be no longer: we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. We must motivate and educate all our students to, in the words of educator N. Joyce Payne, “transform the deeply rooted disparities in the nation’s public schools that polarize America by race, ethnicity, and class.” 

The story of American education has long been one of inclusiveness. In the 19th century, we strove to educate both the children of immigrants and children of the frontier. In the last half of the 20th century, we ended segregation and recorded gains not just for African Americans and Hispanics, but for women, the disabled, and other ethnic minorities.

Our task today is to continue that record through programs that will allow all students of every background to aspire and succeed at the highest possible levels. As Bill Gates, whose foundation champions important educational reforms, said, “Every student in America should graduate from high school ready for college, career and life. Every child. No exceptions.”

Third, within the next several decades, according to Census projections, the United States will be a “minority majority” nation in which more than 50 percent of the population will be minorities – a fact that is no secret to those who now teach our children, and see our future in their faces.

Our greatest challenge may be largely conceptual – to recognize America’s diverse population is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be embraced.

The growing number of foreigners and immigrants receiving advanced science and engineering degrees, for example, should indeed spur more American students to pursue careers in the sciences. But this technological diversity is also a tribute to values of open inquiry and competitive rigor that make America’s system of higher learning unparalleled in the world.

Whether the next president proposes specific solutions may be less important than providing the resources and leadership that will empower our college communities to set their own agendas for making higher education more accessible, closing the achievement gap for student minorities, and embracing our nation’s growing diversity.

Advances on these three educational fronts will help ensure the continued dynamism and innovation not just of our colleges and universities, but of the nation as a whole.

In the end, it’s their education, our future.

Dwayne Ashley is president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which provides leadership development, scholarships and programmatic and institutional support to the nation’s 47 public Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

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