College-Ready Students and Student-Ready Colleges: Remarks of Deputy Secretary Tony Miller at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference

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College-Ready Students and Student-Ready Colleges: Remarks of Deputy Secretary Tony Miller at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference

September 14, 2010

Thank you, Thelma, for that generous introduction. I am delighted and honored to be here in Secretary Duncan's place. He has always enjoyed the opportunity to speak and meet with HBCU presidents. He sends his regrets that he could not join you. But I know that improving the education of all students—but especially for students of color--is never far from his mind.

He believes, and I believe, that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And so I know the Secretary is filled with a sense of urgency today about transforming the education of African American children as he joins the President in Philadelphia. He also has a deep appreciation for the tireless commitment, the extraordinary accomplishments, and the proud traditions of the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

I don't think it's a secret to anyone in this room that HBCUs are at a pivotal moment in their long and distinguished history. In the current fiscal climate, the budgetary challenges for all institutions of higher education are great--and especially so for HBCUs.

The administration recognizes the essential role that HBCUs play--and we have provided unprecedented resources at the federal level for HBCUs. The historic Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act that the president signed earlier this year provides the biggest infusion of student aid and Pell Grants since at least the days of the G.I. bill.

This new law provides HBCUs with $850 million over the next decade in mandatory funding to renew, reform, and expand programs, so that all students at these institutions get every chance to rise to their full potential. It is legislation will help shape the future of HBCUs for decades to come.

Now, despite this increase in federal support, we recognize that HBCUs still face a daunting financial crunch. Much of the funding for HBCUs comes from the states--and state budgets continue to be in crisis. At too many HBCUs, endowments are undercapitalized. Faculty salaries are too low. Financial aid is inadequate. Far too few students arrive on campus ready for college coursework. Cordell Wynn, the former president of Stillman College, put it well when he said of HBCUs, "no other institution of higher learning has had to do so much, for so many, with so little."

Well, if I can borrow a phrase from President Clinton, we feel your pain. The budget is going to be tight in Washington next year. We at the department have to continue to do everything in our power to make sure next year and in coming years that HBCUs not only survive but thrive.

The administration is currently reviewing the HBCU Capital Financing Program to see how we can strengthen its operation. And we recognize that the fight for civil rights is not a sometime thing. Our administration is working actively to ensure compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state higher education desegregation plans. We will continue to work with governors and state higher education officials to reach agreement on what must still be done to eliminate the vestiges of formerly segregated systems and enhance our HBCUs. And we will not close any of these cases until the vestiges of state-imposed segregation have been completely eliminated.

Yet for all the challenges HBCUs face today, I'm convinced that HBCUs now have an unprecedented opportunity to thrive--and can help lead the adaptation to competing in the global economy. As the Secretary has said, the administration seeks to shift the narrative on HBCUs in the philanthropic sector from an appeal centered on the need for corrective contributions to an appeal centered on creative investment and innovation.

The truth is that throughout higher education, institutions need to do a better job of harnessing technology. They need to accelerate developmental education. They need to provide better induction and support for first-generation college students, particularly during the first semester of college. They need to concentrate not just on how many students enroll but on how many are in a cap-and-gown on graduation day.

None of these challenges are peculiar to HBCUs. But HBCUs can show the way to innovation--and to preparing all students to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

The future of HBCUs is not an abstract concern for me. Both of my parents attended Virginia State University in the 1950s, at a time when higher education opportunities for African Americans were limited by race throughout the South. My mother became a high school teacher. My father went into business and accounting and finished his career at Ford Motor Company. I am the direct beneficiary of HBCUs. They empowered my parents--and allowed me to be a second-generation college graduate, and my son to be a third generation student.

As you know, President Obama has articulated a national goal that America should once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. That goal is the North Star for all of our education efforts. Reaching it will require institutions of higher education to dramatically boost college completion—by the end of the decade, our national college degree attainment rate must rise from 40 percent to 60 percent.

The math here is pretty simple: The president's goal can only be attained if an unprecedented number of Americans enroll in and complete college--whether it is a four-year degree, a two-year degree, or a certificate. And that means that student populations with high dropout rates, especially African American students, will have to exponentially increase their college graduation rates.

Here is a telling fact that not many people know. African Americans are more likely than any major ethnic group in the United States to have some college experience but no degree—35 percent of African Americans, fully a third of all blacks, started college but never got their degree. That graduation shortfall is a tremendous target of opportunity. As the Secretary has said, HBCUs will—and absolutely must—play a critical leadership role in meeting this challenge. This is not just about access—this is about attainment.

Let me throw some quick statistics at you to give you a sense of what the President's 2020 goal would mean for HBCUs. At present, HBCUs award just over 36,000 undergraduate degrees a year. More than 80 percent of those degrees, about 31,500 degrees, are baccalaureate degrees.

HBCUs currently award about 15 percent of all undergraduate degrees nationwide for African-American students. And if we assume that continued to be the case in the coming decade, HBCUs would need to produce an additional 135,000 undergraduate degrees during the next decade to meet the President's goal--roughly an average of an additional 11,250 to 12,300 degrees a year.

I've just recited a lot of numbers. But the long and short of it, is that HBCUs would have to increase the number of their graduates, on average, by about a third over the next decade.

That may even be conservative—that's the graduation jump at the low end of the spectrum. Realistically, we know it would take time to boost attainment rates. In the early years of the decade, HBCUs would record smaller increases in college completion but larger and larger increases as 2020 neared. In that scenario, HBCUs might well need to produce an additional 26,000 degrees in the year 2020 to be in line with the President's 2020 goal—a jump of about 60 percent from today.

It's clear that change of this order of magnitude cannot come by sticking to the status quo. It's also clear that HBCUs alone cannot be responsible for accelerating college attainment. This is very much a collective responsibility that falls to local educators, and state and federal government.

Many college freshmen at HBCUs are nowhere near college-ready when they arrive on campus. When incoming students have to spend their first year in remedial classes, it drives up HBCU dropout rates and burns up those students' Pell Grants. That is why our K-12 reform agenda is so heavily devoted to fixing the college pipeline, especially for disadvantaged students.

The Secretary has talked about the "quiet revolution" that is occurring in K-12 education in the states and districts. We still have a long way to go. But we have come much further, much faster than anyone expected when the administration took office.

As you know, under the No Child Left Behind law, many states dummied down their academic standards to make more students look proficient when they were far from college-ready. But a high school diploma should universally signify career and college-readiness without the need for remediation. Its value should not vary by state or zip code.

Lowering the bar for academic success hurts low-income, minority students more than anyone. Many of those students arrive on your campuses thinking they are ready to do college-level work when in fact they are totally unprepared for credit-bearing courses.

Thanks to the courage and tenacity of state leaders, the nation is finally starting to put an end to the practice of lying to children about their college and career-readiness.

The experts didn't see it coming, but 35 states and the District of Columbia have already voluntarily agreed to rigorous, Common Core standards in math and English. More than three-fourths of all U.S. public school students now reside in states that have voluntarily adopted higher common, college- and career-ready standards.

For the first time, academic standards will truly let students and parents know if students are on track to college and if they are ready for college and careers. That is an absolute game-changer in a system which, up until now, has set 50 different goalposts for success.

Now, we know that dramatic improvement in the educational pipeline won't come just from maintaining or increasing formula spending--as important as those programs are, and as much as that will remain the mainstay of the department's budget. To move beyond the status quo, we need to also provide incentives for educators to be creative and innovative, to develop and test new approaches, and to scale up successful programs. One way to create those incentives is through competitive programs like Race to the Top.

The response to the $4 billion Race to the Top program was tremendous. Forty-six states submitted applications—and the competition drove a national conversation about education reform. Thirty-two states changed specific laws that posed barriers to innovation. Forty percent of all African-American students in the United States live in one of the 12 states that won a Race to the Top award. But even states that did not win awards now have hammered out ambitious roadmaps for reform.

Other major administration initiatives also are targeted on low-income minority students—including getting more effective teachers in high-need subject areas in schools where they are needed the most. Our $3.5 billion dollar school turnaround program has six times the funding it received in the past--and serves only high-need schools. The $400 million Teacher Incentive Fund targets only high-need schools. And our $210 million Promise Neighborhoods proposal--modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone—would serve only high-poverty communities.

At the same time that the administration is working to strengthen the K-12 pipeline, it has also expanded access to college. We simplified the complex FASFA form so that it doesn't deter deserving students for financial aid.

The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act invests some $40 billion in Pell Grants to ensure that all eligible students receive an award. And for the first time, those awards will be indexed to keep up with inflation.

To put this legislation in perspective, the new law--coupled with the funding provided in the Recovery Act and the President's first two budgets--more than doubles the total amount of funding for Pell Grants since President Obama took office. Over the course of the next decade, we project that nearly 60,000 additional Pell Grant awards will go to African-American students--and 21,000 of those Pell Grants will go to students at HBCUs. Other changes in the law are going to make it easier for more than a million borrowers to pay off their student loan debt after they graduate.

So, yes, we need more college-ready students. But we need more student-ready colleges, in the words of the Center for American Progress. We talk a lot about college-ready students--but not enough about student-ready colleges.

On average, nearly 40 percent of students entering HBCUs drop out before their second year. Supporting and inducting freshmen during that first semester is critical to boosting college graduation rates, especially for first-generation students. And providing high-quality developmental classes is also critical.

Some HBCUs do an excellent job of supporting and retaining students. But others with similar student demographics have room for improvement.

The completion gap in high-demand fields in science, technology, engineering and math is particularly troubling. Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of white students in STEM fields complete their degrees, compared with just 42 percent of African-American students.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: We want to revise the public narrative around HBCUs. It's a narrative that has too often been remiss in celebrating success and innovation in HBCUs. Over a period of many decades, HBCUs, working with limited resources, have done a remarkable record of educating students who arrived on campus ill-prepared for college work.

The HBCU tradition of providing customized support for first-generation college students is being updated in programs like the ICB Enrollment Management Program, which, in its pilot phase at four institutions, is boosting enrollment and retention. Other HBCUs, like North Carolina Central University and Coppin State University, are making smart use of technology and online education.

I want to close by addressing two great challenges for HBCUs as we move ahead. First, we want to see HBCUs taking the lead in improving teacher preparation programs and training a new generation of minority students, especially black males, to teach in our nation's public schools.

Outside of the HBCU community, not many people know that most HBCUs were established a century ago for the purpose of training a generation of black teachers. Black educators in the South used to have a saying about the importance of teachers. It went: "As is the teacher, so is the school."

I think our elders were absolutely right. I think my mother was right. Not many people realize that HBCUs account for roughly half of all African-American teachers in U.S. public schools today. Every day, African-American teachers are doing extraordinary work in helping to close the achievement gap. Yet we also know that children of color have too few teachers of color. Nationwide, more than 35 percent of public school students are black or Hispanic, but less than 15 percent of our teachers are black or Latino.

It is especially troubling that less than two percent of our nation's 3.2 million teachers are African-American males. On average, roughly 200,000 new teachers are hired a year in America--and just 4,500 of them are black males.

It is not good for any of our country's children that only one in 50 teachers is a black man. I am delighted to see that so many HBCU students are seeking positions in Teach for America. But this can only be the start of elevating the teaching profession and driving a cycle of continuous improvement in the classroom.

Again, this is not an issue particular to HBCUs. Last year, the Secretary urged all teacher preparation programs in the country to make better outcomes for students in the classroom "the overarching mission that propels all their efforts."

His message and mine was that university-based preparation programs, across the board, need to elevate their quality of teacher training in America. To prepare students to teach diverse students in the information age, teacher preparation programs need to become more rigorous and provide better clinical training and training in the use of data to improve instruction.

The second challenge I would like to see HBCUs continue to tackle is the one I began my remarks with: Boosting graduation rates. African-Americans cannot be the segment of the population most likely to drop out of college without a degree.

In the coming decade, more and more jobs are going to require a college degree. As public officials and educators we do a disservice to minority students if we do not do everything in our power to make sure that all students make it to graduation day.

In the end, we know that institutions matter. Despite the difficulties of working with under-prepared students, some HBCUs do an outstanding job of getting at-risk students to cross the stage in a cap-and-gown. Others still have a lot of work to do. Some HBCUs do an excellent job of helping graduates find good jobs and are especially strong in STEM fields; others have room to improve.

The rising demand for advanced skills in the global economy and the President's goal for 2020 make it imperative that every institution of higher education take stock of where it stands and how it can improve.

This is not an HBCU task alone. Every institution should have measurable goals for increased college completion--and create a plan to achieve those goals.

Improving productivity is hard work. I understand that it is not the glamorous part of the role of a college president. But reducing redundant administrative costs and centralizing shared back-end services like information technology support, human resources, and health benefits are often vital to increasing efficiency.

I have tremendous confidence that HBCUs can elevate graduation rates. HBCUs have overcome greater challenges in the past—whether it was lowering student loan default rates, improving pass rates on the National Teachers Examination, or surviving on a shoestring budget and shoestring endowment.

In America, education has long been thought of as the great equalizer. It doesn't matter what your wealth, your race, or your zip code, every child is entitled to a quality education. If we are to fulfill that American credo, let us do all that we can to get children of color to graduation day.

With your courage and with your commitment, HBCUs have helped make that dream a reality for hundreds of thousands of students. It's time now to innovate, to improve productivity--and to help update the HBCU narrative for the 21st century.