Ensuring Higher Education for All

Ensuring Higher Education for All

March 25, 2016

As prepared—speaker may have deviated from this version

I'm so honored to be with you all today – and so grateful for the work of your institutions.

This has been a remarkable couple of weeks for me during our College Opportunity Across America tour. It has been my privilege to learn more each day about your colleges and universities, and about the best practices and innovative approaches you've pursued to make major strides, in not just admitting, but supporting and graduating some of our country's hardest-working, low-income students.

I feel especially thankful because when I was still a middle school principal, those were our kids. And like you, we knew that if they were going to make it all the way to commencement, they were going to need some extra help.

It wasn't about ability; it was about access – access to the expectations, supports and opportunities that most middle-class kids take for granted. It was about ensuring that someone was there to nag them to meet deadlines, fill out forms and sign up for the classes needed to graduate on time – because let's be honest: sometimes, kids need to be nagged a little. And it was about providing services and setting up support systems that could give our least fortunate kids all the things we take for granted if we grow up in a family where college is the norm.

The people in this room understand that. By your words and actions, what you have proven is that the notion of choosing between providing an excellent education and ensuring equitable access is a false choice.

We must always do both:

Open the door. And raise the bar.

I offer that observation against the backdrop of an increasingly divided country, and an increasingly polarizing presidential election, with deeply conflicting notions of what it means to be an American.

But I do so because there is a direct connection between the tenor of that discourse and the centrality of your work.

Whether you are talking about the future of our country or the future of higher education, the essential questions are the same:

Will we expand opportunity more fairly and fully to each succeeding generation – or will we contract it?

Will we strive to create unity in the interest of our diversity – or at the expense of it?

Will we break down barriers to inclusion – or build walls of separation?

Now, the reality is that while the people in this room have limited say over how the next president of the United States chooses to answer those questions, we can help shape what America's colleges and universities do – and, consequently, have a huge chance to accelerate the push toward a society that is more equitable, more healthy and high-functioning, and more reflective of the principles on which this nation was founded.

But we can't do that until we become clearer on three components of the evolving story of higher education: where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. And that's what I'd like to talk about with you this afternoon.

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.

While the number of students enrolled in higher education has grown steadily since the post-World War II era, with record numbers enrolled in recent years, the amount of money it takes to complete a four-year-course of study has risen much faster.

And not surprisingly, although 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.

Consider this:

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.

Over the past few decades, tuition at public four-year colleges – and the average amount of student debt – has more than doubled.

Nearly half the students who begin school at a four-year college don't finish within six years.

And the success rates are even worse for community colleges, where just over 30 percent of students finish a two-year degree within three years.

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.

In fact, students who drop out of school are three times as likely to default on their loans as their peers who complete their degree. And 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.

So while it's true that college remains the greatest driver of socioeconomic mobility in America, it's also true that if 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.

This is the challenge that all of us must be willing to accept and resolve.

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.

When it comes to affordability, we need to recognize that when poor students borrow at least half their annual household income just to attend college, we are dangerously close to college obstructing, rather than driving, social mobility in this country.

And when it comes to completion, we need to acknowledge that, although the percentage of 23-year-olds with some college experience has increased considerably, their likelihood of graduating strongly correlates to income or racial background, which means that we must shift our attention toward the more essential metric of success: degree attainment.

The good news, as you all have shown, is that we are already making progress toward reimagining higher education in ways that can make it more accessible, affordable and, most importantly, attainable.

But before I share some of those highlights with you all, I think it's worth recalling briefly how we got here, and what lessons there are to be learned from the journey.

If the story of the present is about the growing unsustainability of higher education as we have known it, the story of the past is about the transformative potential of well-crafted policies on American public life.

It was the G.I. Bill, after all, with its promise to provide all wartime veterans with the opportunity to go to college, that helped engender the largest class mobility in our nation's history. And it was in 1965 – amid another era of heightened civil discord – that President Lyndon B. Johnson worked with Congress to pass the Higher Education Act as a cornerstone of his comprehensive War on Poverty.

Johnson understood that the essence of America was to open doors, not to close them. For future generations of young people, he said, "and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open—the door to education. And this legislation" – the Higher Education Act – "is the key which unlocks it."

That's why Title IV of the law focused exclusively on the federal priority of equal access. It created student support programs to help low-income students enroll in and afford higher education. And its 1972 reauthorization brought us the cornerstone of federal student aid: the Pell Grant program.

But the overall costs of higher education have risen dramatically since that time. Today's Pell Grant covers about 30 percent of the average cost of a four-year public college, which is the lowest share in 40 years and less than half of what it covered in 1980. At a minimum, we should continue to index the Pell Grant to inflation indefinitely beyond 2017 to protect and sustain its value for future generations, as the President has proposed.

This problem of escalating college costs requires our urgent attention, because college continues to be the best investment young people can make in their futures. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That's up from 89 percent five years earlier. And by some estimates, a bachelor's degree increases lifetime earnings, on average, by about a million dollars.

In response, I am proud to say that President Obama has made college affordability a central focus of his Administration. Since 2009, total annual aid to students has increased by over $50 billion. The maximum Pell Grant award has grown by more than $1,000 – and, for the first time, has been tied to inflation. More than four million students are now enrolled in income-driven repayment plans – in which student loan debt is made more manageable by capping a student's monthly payment amount based on her income. And, now, the President has proposed America's College Promise, a new federal-state partnership that would invest $61 billion over the next decade to provide eligible students with two free years of community college, or the first two years of a four-year degree at either a Historically Black College or University or Minority-Serving Institution.

Both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that, if enacted, could make two years of college as universal as high school, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor's degree and skills needed in the workforce at no cost. But we also know that if we are serious about making college more affordable, more accessible, and more achievable, 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.

That is where we need to go next.

At the state level, we need our states to stop their trend of disinvestment and instead invest more in higher education and training, promote key reforms, and start piloting new approaches to college funding.

Tennessee's work is instructive here. State officials thought offering free community college might be a good way to improve college access. In the first year of the program, 57,000 students, representing almost 90 percent of the state's high school graduating class, applied for the program.

Think about that.

But Tennessee realized that enrollment was not enough. So their free community college program is combined with college counseling, mentorship opportunities, and community service. And state officials haven't limited this holistic approach to their community college program; they've made it a cornerstone of their entire public higher education financing system.

This means all colleges and universities in Tennessee receive their funds based on student outcomes, like attainment, instead of inputs, like enrollment. It's a new approach to higher education financing, and it's designed to foster the efforts of colleges and universities to assist students more proactively once they're enrolled.

That's why the President has proposed the America's College Promise program to bring free community college along with other key state reforms and critical supports for students to all hard-working people seeking higher education across the country.

We also know that there are school-level changes we must make, and we want to do our part in supporting institutions.

For that reason, the President proposed establishing the College Opportunity and Graduation Bonus program, which would reward colleges that successfully enroll and graduate Pell students and encourage all institutions to improve their performance. In addition, this new program would incent successful institutions to continue improving their performance and to graduate even more low-income students by providing a significantly larger bonus amount for additional Pell graduates.

Eligible institutions would receive a grant based upon the number of Pell Grant recipients they graduate on time, with the funds used to make key investments and adopt best practices that will further increase college access and success for low-income students. That includes partnering with school districts and schools to provide college recruitment efforts, establishing student-based incentive payments, increasing awareness and preparation activities to enable students to enter and complete postsecondary education, as well as providing comprehensive student support services, both academic and non-academic, including mentoring and advising.

The Administration has also sought to reform the campus-based student aid programs to ensure funds are allocated to schools that provide a quality education at a reasonable price, particularly to their low-income students.

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.

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.

We need more from our top colleges, and better uses of their multi-billion dollar endowments.

They could learn something from a school like Georgia State, a school I had the privilege of visiting with Under Secretary Ted Mitchell just last week, and a place where more than half of the students are Pell-eligible.

A few years ago, GSU realized that as many as 1,000 of those students were dropping out every semester.

So Georgia State examined its past student performance to uncover useful patterns that could inform an orientation guide for future student support. And now, GSU advisers are immediately alerted if any student's grades dip below a certain level in a course he or she must pass to graduate.

That student who just enrolled in an expensive course outside his major? He might get a double-check notice from an adviser. And even though GSU is the first to admit that the school isn't where it wants to be yet, GSU is a lot closer to President Mark Becker's goal of providing what he calls "personalization, at scale."

Good things are also happening at the City University of New York, which now offers an Accelerated Study in Associate's Programs, or ASAP Intervention, which provides students with more academic and financial support than they usually receive, and dramatically improves completion rates as a result.

How much, you ask?

According to one study of the CUNY system, participation in the ASAP Intervention was shown to nearly double graduation rates – that is, students receiving the ASAP intervention were nearly twice as likely to earn an associate's degree within three years – as those who did not. At Georgia State, where the graduation rate was just 32 percent as recently as 2004, that rate has risen by more than 22 percentage points at the same time that its acceptance rate for Pell students has increased. And 61 percent of seniors who received Panther Retention Grants – small grants that cover balances on student bills to help keep those students in class, coupled with academic and financial counseling – graduated within two semesters of receiving the grant.

These changes are brought about not by a lower bar, but by a higher sensitivity to the needs of today's college students. The Administration has proposed key investments that would help institutions make such changes with these students in mind. For example, the HBCU and MSI Innovation for Completion Fund would provide funding to support innovative and evidence-based, student-centered strategies and interventions to increase the number of low-income students completing degree programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.

We also need to restore and expand First in the World, a competitive grant program designed to support the development, validation, scaling up and dissemination of innovative solutions. The program aims to build evidence of what works to effectively address persistent and widespread challenges in improving college affordability and completion in postsecondary programs for high-needs students. Through this program, Georgia State, in partnership with 10 other universities that make up the University Innovation Alliance, is currently using its 2015 First in the World Validation grant to implement and evaluate a proactive student advising intervention designed to increase retention, progression, and completion for low-income and other high-needs students at four-year public universities.

Although the focus here is on institutions, that's not to say that students don't have a role in all of this, either. In fact, there are a number of student-level factors we should be paying attention to as well – namely, that students need to take the appropriate number of credits and earn good grades to stay on track.

That's why the President has proposed the Pell Program for Accelerated Completion, which would provide full-time students the opportunity to earn a third semester of Pell Grants in an academic year, and enable them to finish faster by taking additional courses year-round.

That's why our proposed On-Track Pell Bonus would create an incentive for students to stay on track or accelerate their progress toward a degree through an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award of $300 for students who take 15 credits per semester in an academic year.

But mostly, that's why your colleges and universities are making this commitment to low-income students in the first place.

As CUNY's Chancellor James Milliken put it, "As educators, it is not enough for us to provide just an opportunity for advancement. We have to take responsibility for equipping our students with the tools for seizing that opportunity – and be held accountable when they do not."

Amid all these changing notions of how our colleges and universities can succeed, many of the things we have always felt about college, and its unique promise, remain true. And we know that college and university presidents cannot act alone to do this work. As everyone in this room understands, it takes trustees, faculty, and students themselves.

I was reminded of this recently when I visited Valencia College, in Orlando. Like a lot of your institutions, Valencia is not serving the stereotypical college student – most of its students are part-time, and nearly half are Pell-eligible.

While I was there I got to hear from a single mother and a college student. She spoke about the struggle of balancing her many responsibilities, but what I remember most is her tremendous sense of clarity that the best thing – not just for her, but her daughter – was to finish her degree because of the opportunities it would open up for her family.

And I listened to a young man talk about the friends from his neighborhood who hadn't made it to college – the friends who'd been lost to violence, or lost to prison – or the friends who'd just become lost. And while he had already demonstrated great resilience just to make it to college, he was most grateful for all the supports he received once he was there – the orientation crew of advisers that allowed him to navigate a strange and unfamiliar wilderness. He was so clear that his life was going to be different because of the opportunity to go to college and get a degree.

That's why your work matters so much.

What you all have shown is that, even amid this period of massive structural changes and challenges, 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.

Even as you represent the leaders in this work, and others mimic your innovations and try to catch up to the new standard you have established, what will you do to set the bar even higher, and ensure even greater equity, and provide even more ambitious new standards of access, affordability and completion?

What else will allow us to create institutions that help unlock the power of each person's unique potential?

What else will allow us to leverage not just the exponential changes in information technology – but also the exponential growth in understanding of how people learn?

What else will allow us to create unity in the interest of our diversity, and break barriers, and extend the promise of freedom more fairly and fully?

This is our challenge, our responsibility, and our opportunity.

Thank you for your leadership in that fight, and for your continued willingness to reimagine higher education in ways that make it more meaningful, relevant, accessible, and transformative.