The past six months have changed the political world on both sides of the Atlantic, with a number of long-held government policies set to be re-examined.
In that vein, it’s time to really stand up for higher education. We must make the case for its expansion and its opening up to a far bigger portion of the populace affected by globalisation, technological change, stagnant wages and rising costs.
I have been a secondary school teacher, a community college president, a California state higher education official, a university professor, and President Barack Obama’s under secretary of education. I’ve seen the hard-pressed parents committed to finding ways to pay for their children’s escalating college costs – and sometimes their own college costs too – even as they work several jobs. I’ve seen students struggling to afford fees, textbooks and, sadly, even food.
Today, I serve as executive director of the College Promise Campaign, building support across the US for going beyond the traditional guarantee of a free high school education to one that meets 21st-century needs, ensuring that a college education is available and affordable to anyone willing to make the effort.
I’d argue that the true measure of a society’s prosperity isn’t the buildings it constructs, the technological advances it achieves or the number of awards its elite members earn – it’s how well it provides opportunity, equity and advancement for all. My research and experience suggest that providing better access to higher education should be viewed as far more than a first step on a ladder towards economic, social and civic success. It is a pathway towards the kind of local and regional revitalisation, hope and confidence that ultimately bind nations – a road towards what I am calling “wealth creation”.
One of our greatest achievements in the Obama administration was to increase the number of low-income students entering college by more than 50 per cent in just four years. But we have a lot more work ahead of us before equality of opportunity is real for what I call “the top 100 per cent of students”. In the US, there continue to be material fears that rising college fees and cost-of-living expenses, combined with reduced support for government aid programmes, are putting higher education out of reach for too many poor and middle-class families. Among students from the highest income quartile, 82 per cent attain college degrees, but only 8 per cent of students from the lowest quartile do. Similar statistics are found in the UK.
I’m fearful that we are headed in exactly the wrong direction. We must address concerns that college is becoming increasingly unaffordable, just as increasing globalisation and technological advancement are making higher education ever more essential to achieving success, both individually and nationally. I’m also worried that the lack of higher education opportunity increases the disaffection of the hard-working middle class, whose voices and votes were the prominent majority in both the Brexit referendum and the US election results. The recent State of the Nation report by the UK’s Social Mobility Commission pointed out the role of higher education “cold spots” in impeding social mobility in some of the deprived areas of the country that voted most strongly for Brexit.
We need to apply a “wealth creation” framework to higher education. We must expand our definition of success in life beyond just how much money individuals earn, and discover ways to identify and distribute educational opportunities that produce outcomes that improve lives. When we think about “wealth” in the context of higher education, we know that a high school education is no longer sufficient. We know that two-thirds of jobs will soon require a post-secondary education, and that a degree increases net earnings over a lifetime. But we often fail to fully value the contributions higher education makes through its graduates to creating new jobs, reducing the costs of government programmes, revitalising our communities and contributing to our social, civic and economic prosperity.
Highly educated people earn, invest and save more than everyone else. They are healthier, happier and generally more productive throughout their lives. They are employed at higher rates, use far fewer taxpayer-funded services and are less likely to enter the criminal justice system. We must compile and publicise this information to make the robust case that investing in higher education incentives and interventions will boost opportunities for more students to access and complete a college education.
Finally, we need to shine a spotlight on the ethnic, gender, income, race and class compositions of students moving through the entire education pipeline. We must put our attention into ensuring that every student secures a quality education equivalent to what the privileged already receive. The justice and utility of that goal is obvious, but we must never contemplate the conclusion that realising it is too hard to accomplish.
Martha J. Kanter is executive director of the College Promise Campaign. She is a senior fellow at New York University’s Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy, and was President Barack Obama’s under secretary of education between 2009 and 2013. She gave the Higher Education Policy Institute’s 2016 annual lecture on 8 December.