I’m surprised this speech* isn’t getting more coverage. Perhaps the tension between this administration and higher ed is too drawn out a story for our ADHD-addled media. Maybe it’s being drowned out by the presidential
carnival spectacle race, or the explicit language about class and inequality is too uncomfortable. But I think anyone working or interested in education needs to read** this speech.
TL;DR version: King tears into American higher ed for turning away from access and fomenting inequality. He accuses academia of building up a caste system and of quashing the American dream.
Let’s read this in appropriate detail. For context, know that the secretary is beginning his tenure by conducting an affordability and access tour.
King begins by separating himself from his audience (university presidents, I think), describing his background in middle school, not referencing his post-secondary career. On that terrain he highlights a key theme about students, seeing them as capable of great things, should they be allowed to achieve. “It wasn’t about ability; it was about access”.
Before anyone can object that access to all might compromise educational quality, King forestalls them: “By your words and actions[ouch], what you have proven is that the notion of choosing between providing an excellent education and ensuring equitable access is a false choice.”
Then King increases the room’s temperature: “Let’s begin by acknowledging that we have a growing crisis in higher education – and it is disproportionately affecting those who need our help the most.” And it’s about access, broken up by race and class.
rising college costs are impacting all of us, they’re most challenging for the students we should be most concerned with protecting – those from low- and middle-income families.
The share of young adults who are white and hold a bachelor’s degree totals nearly twice the share of black young adults with a bachelor’s degree…
This combination of higher costs and lower completion rates is devastating for millions of Americans. As my predecessor Secretary Duncan has pointed out, the most expensive degree is the one you don’t complete.And it’s most devastating for young people who lack any sort of financial safety net to fall back on…
by the age of 24, young people from the poorest families are more than seven times less likely to have earned an undergraduate degree than young people from the richest families.
Note that King is both Puerto Rican and African-American.
In case his point wasn’t clear, King drives it home:
[I]f we don’t find ways to keep a college degree within reach for middle- and lower-class families, our institutions of higher education could end up having the opposite effect – they could become a barrier, not a bridge, to greater prosperity….
When it comes to student access, we need to acknowledge the ways in which we are becoming a caste system of colleges and universities – in which wealthier high school students get personalized college counseling, rigorous coursework like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and disproportionate admittance to the nation’s top universities, while, all too often, poorer students get shortchanged on these things. (emphases added)
A caste system! How that must have irked the crowd. But maybe it wasn’t clear enough:
It is unjustifiable that students from the richest families make up a whopping 72 percent of the student bodies at our top colleges, whereas students from the poorest make up just 3 percent of the enrollments there.
That is an embarrassment. It is a death sentence for our historic promise of social mobility.
Read that last sentence one more time: “a death sentence for our historic promise of social mobility“. That’s not a description of American society as a whole. That’s what higher education is doing to America. According to the leading federal education official.
Moving on, King lets this additional bomb drop: “the story of the present is about the growing unsustainability of higher education as we have known it”. Wow. I don’t recall Arne Duncan or president Obama making such a stark charge.
As a good speechmaker, the secretary calls the audience to action. After noting Congressional, historical, state, and executive actions, he addresses academia: “we need real and sustained action from all actors. And we need state-level, school-level, and student-level changes to the way we function in higher education.”
He calls out the richest universities in particular, drawing attention to their wealth: “We need more from our top colleges, and better uses of their multi-billion dollar endowments.”
King isn’t issuing a jeremiad. He takes care to laud campuses and systems which have taken steps to teach and support lower-income students. He also balances that praise with blame:
It’s worth noting that some schools are already doing this, and they deserve to be recognized for their efforts. Amherst, for example, decided to shift its resources away from facility upgrades, and toward financial aid, to increase the number of Pell students on its campus. The University of California system enrolls nearly eight times as many low-income students as all institutions in the Ivy League combined.Of course, that statistic cuts both ways, and speaks to how far some of our colleges and universities – particularly our most selective ones – still need to travel.
A few minutes later, King offers another balance of good news, bad news for campus leaders:
it is possible to admit – and graduate – more low-income students.
It is possible to lower costs.
And it is possible to bring about meaningful changes to a system that is in desperate need of them.
And yet, fewer than 50 public four-year institutions enroll more than 40 percent of their student body as Pell recipients and ensure that more than half of their Pell recipients complete their degrees. Just over 100 private nonprofit institutions do.
And only about 150 four-year schools with a Pell percentage above 40 percent of their student body have a gap in Pell and overall completion rates of less than 10 percentage points.
Think about that – less than 10 percent of all the colleges and universities across the country. We could fit a representative of each of those institutions just inside this one room.
“just inside this one room”: bringing it right into the audience very nicely.
To sum up: American higher education is unsustainable. It’s building a caste system. It’s starting to issue a death sentence for the American Dream. So says the United States secretary of education.
What does this mean for academia in 2016? It might signify that the Obama administration continues to press for reforming colleges and universities, despite Arne Duncan’s departure. It could also suggest continued bipartisan pressure, as Republicans and now some local Democrats are targeting endowments.
Looking ahead to the next four years, King’s language of breaking down barriers echoes statements from the Hillary Clinton campaign, as Michael Stratford noticed. Possibly he’s lobbying for a job in that administration, should Clinton win in November. This could indicate some education policy continuity between Obama and (potential) Clinton administrations.
*I’m going on the prepared remarks. I can’t find a transcript which indicates any deviations.
**I can’t find an audio or video version. Is there one? That might add some details about tone.