The University and the Economy

America’s colleges and universities often make a significant difference in the lives of their communities. This was apparent at the University of Northern Colorado where President Kay Norton, faculty and staff have taken bold steps to keep Greeley and the university inextricably linked through the thick and thin of the region’s economic recovery. With 6,700 postsecondary institutions across our nation, I think it’s critical for government to learn from what I call examples of excellence so we can provide the incentives that will spread positive change more broadly.

Arriving on campus for a summit on College Affordability and Completion that took place on Feb. 23, I was given a report on a University District initiative that contained a map of the region dotted with blue marks. President Norton explained that the blue dots marked the locations of the residences of thousands of Greeley students, alums and employees with deep roots in the community.

Kanter and Norton

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton and U.S. Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter in front of "Front Range Rainstorm" by Artist and Professor Emeritus Fredric L. Myers

In fact, one of every seven residents has a connection to UNC. At the meetings with business, government and academic leaders of the region, the interdependencies created between Greeley and UNC stood out. Company leaders were expanding their investments in Greeley. These business leaders clearly regard the university as their partner. As President Norton drove me around the region, she pointed out several areas ripe for redevelopment in which the university, government and business are working together to plan, design and construct a University District that exemplifies “An America Built to Last,” a central tenet of the Obama Administration’s Education Blueprint released on January 24.

President Norton told me that UNC’s partnership with the community dates back to the institution’s beginning, when residents lobbied the Legislature to establish a state school for training teachers in Greeley and then funded much of the start-up cost. Then, like now, residents recognized the role of higher education in building both economic and social value. She went on to say that UNC is one of the region’s largest employers and pointed out several other major employers, including North Colorado Medical Center, State Farm, the local school district and the City of Greeley, which are growing the local workforce as they work closely with the university to ensure that their employees have the requisite knowledge and skills when they earn degrees and certificates from UNC.

Those efforts matter. On average, college graduates are twice as likely to be employed as those with only a high school diploma. And the difference in earnings is growing.  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that high school graduates in 1979 earned about 72 cents for every dollar that bachelor’s degree holders did; today they earn just 55 cents. In fact, the disparity today between weekly earnings for bachelor’s degree holders and high school graduates is greater than both the gender and racial pay gaps in our nation.

The challenge before us is great. Estimates from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce project that, unless we do dramatically better, we’ll produce three million fewer college graduates than are needed by our economy within the next decade.

That’s a gap that could make it hard for American employers to fill high-skill positions. Worse yet, this gap will hamper innovations and advancements that could open up new industries and sources of future jobs. But we can change these predictions, if we act now as UNC is doing. According to the Center, by adding an additional 20 million postsecondary-educated workers over the next 15 years, our national level of educational attainment would be comparable to the best-educated nations, help us meet the economy’s need for innovation, and reverse the growth of income inequality.

It was difficult but necessary for me to note that in just one year (FY11-FY12), Colorado reduced its state fiscal support for higher education by 15.4%, ranking 46 of our 50 states. President Norton said that UNC is becoming an “enterprise institution of higher education” as the institution’s leaders have worked to cut costs significantly over the past few years while also maintaining UNC’s commitment to access and quality as it serves the growing number of students coming to UNC.

As we returned to the campus and drove by residence halls, playing fields and the Campus Recreation Center, President Norton pointed out that “not one penny of federal or state government support was spent to build these facilities.” Reductions in state taxpayer support ultimately put pressure on students as universities rely more on tuition and fees to provide a high-quality educational experience.

President Obama has made a series of bold proposals for FY13 that includes a Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion, a new partnership between states, higher education and the federal government to help states put reasonable financial plans for education in place and give higher priority to colleges and universities who are providing good value, serving high need students well, and keeping college affordable for the middle class.

As we look ahead, UNC’s partnership with Greeley is a model for the way 21st century communities can grow and thrive as we think of creative ways to invest in education and the economy for a nation “built to last.”

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

Sharing Responsibility for College Affordability, Quality and Completion

One of the best parts of my job is the chance I get to meet outstanding academic and student leaders as I travel around the country.  For me, the best moments often come right before or after I deliver my formal remarks, when I get to visit with faculty, administrators and students at my speaking location one-on-one, find out who they are and learn about their challenges, hopes and dreams. These individual informal chats never last long enough for me, and they are the moments I remember most from each visit.

During my recent visit to Palm Beach State College, I had the opportunity to discuss the higher education proposals President Obama announced in his State of the Union address, with students, professors, policy makers, state and local officials, business and community leaders. I felt a great source of pride in describing what we’ve been able to accomplish in higher education over the past few years:

    • Reforming the student loan program,
    • Boosting the maximum Pell grant by more than $800 and dramatically expanding the number of Pell grant recipients from 6 million to more than 9 million students from our nation’s lowest income families,
    • Enabling Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) to build capacity with the $2.55 billion 10-year fund for MSIs, and
    • Providing $2 billion dollars for next generation job-training at community colleges over the next few years, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor.

As you can see, the President’s education vision for 2020 and beyond inspires me every day to build on this substantial progress and to breakthrough the obstacles ahead to keep college affordable for the middle class, to provide students more opportunities through campus based aid and work study reforms, to enable postsecondary institutions to innovate and implement those high impact strategies that will help more students succeed, and to support states to increase their support for higher education – all for the purpose of increasing our nation’s college attainment goal.

The President has proposed a $1 billion Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion to help states and a $55 million First in the World fund for institutions. Why? We need states and institutions as well as the federal government and students themselves to share responsibility to meet our vision to produce a far better educated citizenry than we’ve had in decades past. We need a more highly educated workforce, and we need leaders at all levels of government, business, labor and the non-profit sector to bring our nation to a level of excellence in our global society that sadly we do not enjoy today.

In all of this work, please know it’s the series of tiny “aha” moments that, when taken together, create the momentum that move us forward. After I left Palm Beach State, I received an email from Carlos Ramos, the university’s Associate Dean of Math, Engineering, and Science who wanted to learn about a new resource I mentioned, a set of free high quality STEM-related college level textbooks that Rice University’s Connexions project is rolling out in the next few months in association with a new organization called OpenStax College.

For me, Dean Ramos’s communication was more than a simple email.  It was a statement that my visit mattered — and that because of my visit, Dean Ramos will now be able to help more students in more ways.  And that is the way real change happens, one by one, on the ground, by meeting individual student needs, one student at a time. Whether we call it “shared responsibility” as we heard in the State of the Union, or working together from the one to the many as Dean Ramos is doing, we will become a better nation if we all do our part to keep college affordable, increase educational quality at all levels, and help more students graduate from our colleges and universities with a world-class education, prepared for success in the 21st century!

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

Thanking Miss Leverich

Imagine for a moment having your teacher tell you that you had to compete to sit in the front row each time you entered her classroom. Imagine her telling the class that she expected every student to raise her hand every time she asked a question and to vie for the honor to be called upon to answer. Imagine that teacher telling you that getting an education was a privilege that demanded you give your best, that you had to work hard, and then, that she motivated you to love learning so fervently that you were happy to work as hard as you could.

I was fortunate to have had that teacher in 9th grade and her name was Miss Leverich. Miss Leverich taught Language Arts at the Winsor School, and, looking back, she was my favorite teacher. My love of writing and literature was inspired by her profound knowledge and artful pedagogy. She was an incredibly talented, passionate teacher, and I was thrilled to have landed in her class.

Everyone in our class was inspired by Miss Leverich. She performed her magic in each and every class she taught, transforming us into sponges who absorbed all we could. Miss Leverich made writing and books come alive, and we all read incessantly to keep up with her.  She would go into the world of a character, but through discussion and analysis, we came out with a better understanding of who we were and what we must accomplish. She knew everyone individually, and she did not let anything go – there were no casual moments in her classes. In retrospect, she spent a great deal of time teaching us the essence of analytical reasoning – the why and why not and pros and cons of each topic we covered.  Even if we didn’t come up with the right answers, we learned something!  She helped us become critical thinkers.

I did a ton of writing in her class, because I wanted to do well.  Everyone wanted to do well and we never considered the dark side of failure, even though we demonstrated many imperfections in our journey through her class.

As a teacher, Miss Leverich was well organized. She had very high expectations of everyone. She understood the benefit of healthy competition. She had students work in teams and she knew how to get the best out of her students. It was evident that Miss Leverich loved the artistry of teaching and through her skill, talent and energy, she created a dynamic learning community that in the end resulted in students like me who exceeded my expectations of what was possible for me to know and do. She opened doors for me into the world of literature that have never closed since that first time I entered her classroom and for that I am grateful.

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education.

Ed. note: This post is part of an ongoing series of ED staff thanking teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week.