Archived Information

Under Secretary Martha Kanter’s Remarks to Women Administrators in Higher Education



I am thrilled to be here today at WAHE conference and to address a group of women who share my priorities.

First I would like to start with the story of how I got my present job at the US Department of Education.

Before coming here, I wasn’t looking for a new job. I had been working in education my entire career. Some of you may remember Mel King who was the mayor of Boston. When I was in the 9th grade, he changed my life when he gave me the opportunity to tutor third graders at the Sound End House in Roxbury, Massachusetts. From there, I entered the profession of education and here I am, more than 40 years later. I knew teachers and staff could change lives then as I know it now, here with you today. For the past 16 years, I’ve been a college president and most recently chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in California, one of the largest community college districts in the nation, educating 45,000 students a year.

From an early age, I had been taught that when the call comes, you go, but make sure you know who’s calling. So a few months ago, when I got the call from Secretary Duncan, I went to Washington.

We talked candidly about the impact of higher education on our students and families, and I shared my deep concerns about the gathering storms coming at us: the thousands who are getting shut out of higher education, whether our democratic society in the larger sense would survive the threats, and how urgent it is for our families to understand the fundamental purpose and value of higher education. Secretary Duncan told me about President Obama’s robust vision for education, his plans to increase student access and achievement in our K-12 schools, his belief in the importance of higher education and workforce training, his perspective about lifelong education starting with early learning through adulthood, his commitment to ensure that college readiness and high school graduation mean the same thing, his commitment to high academic standards and quality assessments , and his significant accomplishments as superintendent of the Chicago public schools.

On the way home, I thought about the fact that getting a few big things done in a senior position in government would often seem impossible, but that if asked, I had to say ‘yes without question’—yes because education is a priority for President Obama, Secretary Duncan and our entire administration. And—simply—because we owe it to our students and to future generations.

We all know that the majority of our students enter higher education with enormous challenges, often having overcome great adversity in their lives. That is why I came to this position: to open doors and focus on ways to increase academic achievement and success for our students, to increase by 50% the number of graduates from our institutions.

Based on my background, my determination, and my intelligence – I think I can do this. But will being a woman stand in my way?

Women have long sought to be educated, to be treated fairly, to receive an equal education, and to receive equal work for equal pay. But I am frustrated because I know we are not always taken seriously and all eyes in the room inevitably turn to us when someone says, “who’s going to make the coffee?”

We are, of course. Because we do it all.

Women have incredible managerial skills right from the start. In my case, I was the eldest of five children – with three younger brothers and a sister. Early on, I learned how to referee fights, to listen to people’s problems, and to keep people, especially my brothers, on track. I had to speak directly and clearly and get people to follow my directions – and I also had to listen to them -- all qualities that a new age administrator should have.

The roles I played served me well – but did they prepare me for the real world?

In today’s world, according to a 2008 survey, “The Changing Face at the Top,” nearly 400 senior human resources executives from 24 countries around the world shared their insights on the demographic make-up of the Chairman/CEO and executive management teams (called C-suite), as well as trends regarding talent demand and acquisition.

  • The survey found that only 20 percent of all executive committee members are female, with nearly one-half of respondents reporting no females whatsoever among their executive committee members.

  • 78 percent of respondents believed diversity is an important strategy, but only 13 percent believed the that the number of minorities in the executive suite will increase over the next three years.

  • Approximately 20 percent of C-Suite executives are a different nationality than the country in which their headquarters are based. However, less than 10 percent (9.2 percent of CEOs, 9.9 percent of CFOs and 8.1 percent of COOs) are of an ethnic minority.

There is no doubt that women have progressed considerably among our global workforce, especially over the past few decades, but they have still not broken through the glass ceiling.

The same is true in higher education. When I became president of De-Anza College, I didn’t see many other women who were college leaders.

In 1986, women represented only 9.5 percent of college presidents. But like the corporate world – we have made some progress. In 2006, women represented 23 percent of college presidents. But still 77 percent are male.

Women often don’t see leadership as a career path. So it takes mentorship and coaching and the recognition of goals that we, as leaders must provide and achieve, to change that.

The job is often demanding, but still, many of us have the background to do it, and we certainly have the talent, so we cannot let our traditional roles stop us. We can strike a balance between our family life and our work life.

Women can bring a different dimension to the job. They can lead the way for many who have lacked opportunities. They can serve as role models for others. And this leadership is important for our society as a whole.

This is a challenging time for education.

Historically, the purpose of K-12 education was to prepare young people to earn the high school diploma, a fundamental milestone for success in work and society. However, nationally 30% of students are dropping out of high school. Last year, 1.2 million teens did not graduate. This equates to 7,000 dropouts every day. In some of our largest cities, more than half of all teens who should be in school have dropped out. Of these, the majority are dropping out in the first two years of high school.

In April, McKinsey reported on “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.” They said that the U.S. lags significantly behind other advanced nations in educational performance and is slipping further behind in math, science and literacy. Regarding high school graduation rates, we rank 18 out of 24 industrialized nations.

There is also a racial achievement gap where, given our changing demographics, Hispanic and black students lag 2-3 years behind white students of the same age in achievement and graduation rates. McKinsey ends their report with some startling estimates about the economic impact of the achievement gap. They say that if we had been able to close the international achievement gap over the last 25 years the US GDP in 2008 would have been $1-2 trillion dollars higher – that’s between 9 to 16 percent of GDP; and, if we had been able to close the racial achievement gap where Hispanic and black performance had caught up with that of White students by 1998, GDP in 2008 would have been $300-$500 billion higher or roughly 2-4 percent of GDP. They go on to profile disparities in income and achievement and conclude that if we don’t have a “game-changing national strategy,” we will have a tsunami that will devastate American productivity and competitiveness for generations to come.

I also want to talk about the other achievement gap – the achievement gap that persists in college.

Barely half of high school graduates from lower income families attend college.

Even worse, too few of them complete college. Only about one in four low-income college students who start full-time graduate within six years.

This achievement gap is not new but it has become more problematic because of the new demands of the global economy. By 2016, just seven years from now, four out of every 10 new jobs will require some advanced education or training. Thirty of the fastest growing fields will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

These profound shifts in the economy drive the administration’s determination to make higher education more affordable, accessible and more cost-effective.

Yet we still have a reason to be optimistic.

In April, President Obama said:

“America cannot lead in the 21st century unless we have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world… by the end of the next decade, I want to see America have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. We used to have that; we no longer do. We are going to get that lead back.”

The President, Secretary Duncan and I have made our commitment to changing this situation clear. It starts with the fact that the department’s budget, together with the Recovery Act, provides the largest commitment to higher education funding since the GI Bill.

Next year, under our budget, the department will be administering nearly $130 billion in new grants, loans, and work-study assistance to help more than 14 million students and their families pay for college. That is an increase of a third over the amount that was available in 2008.

The President also announced a $12 billion proposal of landmark benefit to higher education known as the American Graduation Initiative. The goals for this legislation are:

  • more higher education access and completion grants to increase our graduation rates;

  • community college challenge grants to implement what works to enable more students to graduate and enter or re-enter the workforce;

  • funds to modernize facilities at community colleges and national competitive grants to create free, state-of-the-art online high school and college courses to increase and accelerate academic preparation and achievement, and provide workforce training in fast-growing fields like healthcare and clean technologies; and

  • funds to support state plans and goals for higher education, improve data systems and implement evidence-based best practices, all of which will enable us to increase student access, college affordability, academic achievement and ultimately success in the workforce.

We also propose to move to direct lending and revamp the FAFSA form—helping to support efforts at college to improve student persistence and completion.

So where does that leave us and what role do we play?

Mary Matalin (James Carville’s wife) says: men seek solutions – women seek understanding. I believe that leadership rests in the empowerment of others, that everyone can and should be a leader.

It’s time for all of us to play the leadership role. We need to be inclusive and build consensus.

We need to be direct voices in our communities – voices that are heard and considered because without us, good decisions cannot be made in the best interests of all.