By Lorenzo L. Esters, Vice President, Philanthropy, USA Funds
As our nation prepares to welcome a new president to the White House, we face one of the most important times in the history of higher education.
Educational attainment levels have risen for all Americans in the past 20 years. But whites attain bachelor’s degrees at nearly twice the rate of African-Americans — and at almost 3 times the rate of Latinos. Only about 43 percent of all young people between the ages of 25-34 hold a postsecondary degree.
Additionally, despite our nation’s increases in degree attainment in recent years, only 20 percent of U.S. college graduates have the skills in computation, critical thinking, problem solving and logical reasoning that today’s jobs require. Even more disturbing is the education-to-employment pipeline. The graphic below tells the story:
We continue to face inequity in our higher education system. While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just one in 10 from low-income families does. And one in five students from families with a median income of $250,000 receives merit aid, compared with one in 10 students from families with a median income of $30,000.
With these realities facing our nation, in the days leading up to the Nov. 8 election, I asked some of my colleagues: What would they suggest to the next president of the United States about innovation in higher education?
Following are their suggestions:
“Reducing the cost of college, accelerating pathways to a degree, eliminating the skills gap between a degree and the dynamic requirements of the workforce, and eliminating reliance on debt to pay are all possible with a renewed focus on higher education. Innovation, investment and accountability should all be required of both the nation and its institution of postsecondary education.”
— Charles Ambrose, President, University of Central Missouri
“Momentum matters. Consider advancing policies that ensure a strong start toward timely completion. As part of clear, guided pathways, institutions must design systems that teach students to make purposeful and informed major choices through access to career and labor market data, personal skills assessment, and support from advisers.”
— Dhanfu Elston, Vice President for Alliance State Relations, Complete College America
“Equality of opportunity is a guiding value of our country, but ‘equality’ is determined by external circumstances beyond the control of many. True progress depends on our ability to examine and understand how the paradox of equality hinders our ability to address and eliminate inequities in our society.”
— Tia McNair, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Student Success, Association of American Colleges & Universities
“While much progress has been made to broaden access to higher education, the ultimate measure of our success is not just the number of students we help attend college, but the number we help graduate. Federal policy must support public universities as they work to ensure students stay on track and finish their degree in a timely fashion with little or no debt.”
— Peter McPherson, President, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities
“Our success as an economy, as a society and as a democracy depends on how successful we are in increasing significantly the number of low-income, first-generation and students of color who earn a college degree. I’d ask that the new president do three things: Fund financial incentives for colleges that produce greater numbers of these students; sponsor a national award program for campuses educating this set of students, with an annual recognition at the White House; and create a National Center for Student Success, where ideas, policies, programs and practices could be collected, studied and disseminated.”
— George Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Affairs, American Association of State Colleges and Universities
“A college degree or credential is key to financial security and success, yet too many students who start college don’t finish. Policies and practices advocating for proactive student supports, such as college coaching and first-year programming, can help ensure students are prepared to successfully complete college and earn a degree.”
— Emily Sellers, Director of Outreach and Engagement, Indiana Commission for Higher Education
“Higher education institutions are facing complex issues and challenges that call for an enhanced focus and core knowledge to support student success outcomes and college value. Among the important policy considerations for the new president are: expansion of efforts to help higher education promote curricular and program reform to better align the skills and knowledge gap that exists between what students are taught and the competencies businesses need; creation of new opportunities for universities to partner with business and industry, especially through the creation of internships; and support for programs to increase the identification of talented and diverse leadership for higher education institutions.”
— Mary Evans Sias, Director, Millennium Leadership Initiative, American Association of State Colleges and Universities
“College affordability and accessibility are constrained by the antiquated ideas of who, how and, most importantly, when today’s students are seeking and participating in postsecondary education. We need to move toward a just-in-time process of making financial aid, courses and support services available on a student’s timeline, rather than an institutional or governmental calendar.”
— Brian Sponsler, Vice President, Policy, and Director, Postsecondary and Workforce Development Institute, Education Commission of the States