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.
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