US universities’ failure to connect with ethnic minority students has led to a “stagnation” of education levels in the country, the head of a leading liberal arts college has warned.
Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar College, in New York State, said that many countries had overtaken the US on university participation rates, in part because its academy had done a poor job of enrolling students from the fastest-growing minority group, Hispanics.
“Twenty-five years ago, we were top in the world [for participation] – now we are not even in the top 10; we’re at number 12,” said Professor Hill, a former World Bank economist.
“We are backsliding in enrolling young people to achieve higher education degrees – our educational attainment levels are stagnating,” she added.
Speaking in Singapore at the inaugural Symposium on International Liberal Education, held to mark the inauguration of Yale-NUS College, which will eventually house about 1,000 liberal arts students at a new £148 million campus at the National University of Singapore, Professor Hill explained that 44 per cent of Americans now enrol in higher education, compared with 57 per cent in Canada and 60 per cent in South Korea.
However, there are huge differences in university participation rates depending on race, she said.
About 44 per cent of white citizens and 59 per cent of Asian-Americans will participate in higher education, whereas just 28 per cent of black secondary school students will progress to university and only 20 per cent of Hispanic students will do so, Professor Hill said.
“These are groups that will benefit most from higher education, including the fastest-growing group, which is Hispanic students,” she said.
Admission rates are hugely affected by the income of a student’s family, despite the provision of generous financial support for low-income students at many institutions, she added.
“At very selective colleges in the US, 70 per cent [of students] come from the top 20 per cent income distribution,” she explained.
“It wouldn’t be the worst solution in the world to look for ideas to reduce costs, not just rely on scaling up [student numbers],” Professor Hill added.
Using technology to deliver parts of university education might help to achieve this, she said.
“With the presidential election coming up, all kinds of ideas have been suggested, but I cannot say those ideas are really very reassuring,” she added.