Engaging the World Anew Conference

Archived Information

Engaging the World Anew Conference

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the National HBCU Week

September 20, 2011

It is great to have the opportunity to talk with the HBCU family once again.

It's been almost three years since the President offered me this job. It has been a wonderful opportunity, one of the best jobs in the world.

But apart from wanting to serve the President and our country, I took this post for a simple reason. I believe that transforming and elevating education is one of the most important, urgent challenges facing our nation.

I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. I believe that in a knowledge economy, there are no good jobs anymore for high school dropouts. I believe that it won't be long before high school graduates—and even college students without a degree—are going to have trouble finding good jobs that pay enough to support a family. In fact, you all know that that day may have arrived already.

In the information age, knowledge is power. But ignorance is not bliss. The world and the global job market have changed. The country that out-educates us will out-compete us.

I want to talk to you today about two trends in this knowledge economy. First, I want to talk about how Washington has changed. And second, I want to talk about how the world of higher education is undergoing its own sea-change.

HBCUs, along with other institutions of higher learning, are facing challenges today they have never faced before. Yet there are also new opportunities to accelerate achievement and attainment, and especially for students of color.

Let me start right here in Washington. Too many people in Washington and around the country still fail to make the powerful link between investing in education, especially in minority education, and our nation's economic prosperity.

I often see a disturbing complacency when I talk to people about education. They think their child's school is fine.

They are shocked to hear that achievement and education are stagnating in the United States, and that other countries are rapidly passing us by. They cannot believe other countries are out-educating us, and are doing a better job of investing in their children and workforce.

Just last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, released a report that underscores the continued threat of educational stagnation in the U.S. The OECD report found that in 2009, the proportion of young adults with a college degree in the United States dipped to 41 percent, one percent lower than the year before.

Only a generation ago, America led the world in college attainment. We were number one. But by 2008, we were tied for ninth in the world among young adults. Now, in 2009, guess what—we have fallen to 16th in the world. Young adults in Israel and Australia are more likely to have a college degree today than young adults in the United States.

It's time for a wake-up call about education in America. But our nation is asleep at the wheel—and we cannot afford that.

This complacency about the state of American education is taking hold even as profound demographic changes are underway. By mid-century, America will be a majority minority nation. We will have a predominantly minority workforce. Already, several of our largest states, like California and Texas, are majority minority populated.

It is plain that these demographic shifts are going to transform the job market and higher education. And they will create a premium for colleges and universities with deep experience in educating students of color.

As all of you know, President Obama has set a national goal that America should once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. This is a bipartisan goal. And the math here is straightforward. The 2020 goal can only be attained if an unprecedented number of Americans enroll in and complete college. But here is a telling fact that not many people outside this room know. African Americans are more likely than any major ethnic group in the U.S. 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.

To put it as simply as I can, our nation is facing a crisis that we must address openly and honestly—we are squandering human capital and wasting extraordinary opportunities. The loss to our families, our communities, and our country is staggering. Too few students of color are persisting through the journey of college—and that must change.

So HBCUs absolutely must play a critical leadership role in meeting the President's 2020 challenge. We project that to meet the President's goal, HBCUs, at minimum, will need to increase their number of graduates by about 50 percent over the next decade, going from awarding a total of about 35,500 baccalaureate degrees a year to more than 54,000 a year.

Now, I know I am preaching to the choir here. I don't need to tell any of you that strengthening HBCUs, and boosting completion rates at HBCUs is important to reviving the economy and retaining our international competitiveness.

But I do want to tell you that some lawmakers, here in Washington, state legislators, and even some governors are skeptical. They doubt that states and the federal government must continue to invest in education for America to thrive economically and remain competitive.

They say America's mounting debt trumps efforts to create jobs now or invest in education for the future. The skeptics have a three word solution: cut, cut, cut.

I want to say first that the skeptics have a point. It is vital to reduce our debt. Our education system is not as efficient and productive as it should be.

State and local funding forms the bulk of funding for both K-12 and higher education. And given state budget crunches and the mounting federal debt, education budgets are unfortunately going to be tight for the next several years. I've called it the New Normal. As a nation, we need to invest wisely in education—but be smarter about it as well.

Still, I do not subscribe to the belief that we can prosper economically by slashing preschool spending, Pell Grant scholarship aid, or support for HBCUs.

We must invest. If people think education is expensive, try ignorance. As a nation, we readily lock young men up for $40,000 to $50,000 a year but endlessly debate adding a small amount of money to properly educate children on the front end. It makes no sense to me. Our priorities are wrong.

So, I believe in HBCUs. I've seen them work. I've been to Hampton University and seen its cutting-edge Proton Therapy Institute for treating cancer. President Harvey, your vision there blew me away.

I've been to Xavier, which awards more undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences to African Americans than any university in the nation. It still sends more African-American students to medical school than Harvard. Like many of you, I think Dr. [Norman] Francis walks on water.

I visited Howard's dynamic charter school, which sits right on its campus here in D.C. More colleges need to open and run their own schools.

I've been to Jackson State with Marian Wright Edelman—and seen the extraordinary Freedom School that Jackson State and the Children's Defense Fund helped create, and fund, and house.

I've been to Morehouse to recruit more black male teachers, and I was deeply impressed by their storied alumni and high graduation rates.

Yes, I believe in HBCUs. I seek the input and counsel of college presidents and leaders of the HBCU community. Your wisdom, candor, and advice have been invaluable.

And please know that my door is always open. My team and I want to be great partners, including John Wilson, the outstanding leader of the White House initiative, and my Undersecretary Martha Kanter, who work tirelessly to support HBCUs.

In the months ahead, I will be absolutely as responsive as I can in this brutal budget and political environment.

It's important to remember that the administration has made unprecedented investments in HBCUs over the last two years. As you know, President Obama fought for and won a historic commitment to fully fund Pell Grants.

Over the course of the decade, we project that nearly 60,000 additional Pell Grant awards will go to African American students and 21,000 of those additional Pell Grants will go to students at HBCUs.

The nation just recently passed a major milestone. For the first time, Pell revenue to HBCUs now exceeds $1 billion—and it has doubled in just the last five years.

As you know, President Obama also fought for and won an unprecedented one billion dollar investment over ten years for MSIs, $850 million of which goes to HBCUs thru Title IIIB.

And starting in 2010, the Obama administration increased the financial capacity of the HBCU Capital Finance Program. The new funding has supported nearly $280 million in new loans in 2011, more than $100 million over the previous year's lending total. And the fiscal 2012 budget would lift the cap and provide for $300 million in new loans.

This expanded funding will help HBCUs not only to build and modernize but also to be more successful, by expanding their capacity to boost completion rates and student achievement.

Finally, the administration has requested $40 million for a new Hawkins Centers for Excellence program, which would support teacher preparation programs at MSIs. The Augustus Hawkins Centers of Excellence programs was authorized by Congress in 2008. But it was never funded.

I have said repeatedly that we need to strengthen teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities throughout the nation. HBCUs are no exception. At Morehouse, where I was on a panel with Spike Lee, Jeff Johnson of MSNBC, and one of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis, everyone agreed that America has too few teachers of color and too few men of color in our nation's classrooms.

Less than two percent—one in fifty—teachers today are black males. When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I visited too many elementary schools that did not have a single black male teacher. How can that be a good thing for young children, especially boys?

The under-representation of black and Hispanic men in the teaching profession is a serious problem. And it is not self-correcting. Very few traditional schools of education have shown creativity or any urgency on this issue. MSIs, which collectively prepare more than half of all minority teachers, must play a major role in preparing the next generation of outstanding minority teachers.

We need more HBCU teacher preparation programs that produce teachers who excel in boosting student learning. The Carolina Institute recently assessed the impact of teachers from different UNC institutions on student achievement in a range of subjects in more than 143,000 public school classrooms in North Carolina.

Its study found that Fayetteville State University consistently produces teachers who generate higher than average gains in children's academic achievement. I can't tell you how important that is; we must support and replicate that success.

I've talked here today at some length about how Washington has changed in the last two years and what that might mean for HBCUs. We know about the critical importance and relevance of HBCUs. But not everyone does—and so I would urge you to make the case for the importance of HBCUs in the 21st century. And when you are leading the fight against cancer, producing the next generation of black doctors, and training excellent teachers who are transforming the life chances of their students, you are helping take the country where we need to go.

The UNCF's new study of HBCUs by the Frederick Patterson Research Institute has some illuminating data that might surprise many Americans.

We know the jobs of the future are in the STEM fields. But outside of this room, how many people know that eight of the top 10 colleges that produce African American graduates who went on to get doctoral degrees in science and engineering actually got their baccalaureate degrees at HBCUs? Or that a third of all recent African American Ph.D.s received their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs? Those pipelines must continue to grow.

Our Department of Education will work with the White House Initiative to place more emphasis on the critically important work carried out by HBCUs—whether it is research, community outreach, or empowering ill-prepared students to become competitive achievers.

By drawing more attention to the tremendous accomplishments of HBCUs, we seek to shift the narrative around HBCUs in the philanthropic sector. We seek a shift from an appeal centered on the need for corrective contributions to an appeal centered on creative and entrepreneurial investment.

Now, all of this leads me back to the second theme I mentioned earlier in my remarks. Not only is Washington changing, so is the world of higher education.

There is a New Normal in higher education. Everywhere, college presidents, professors, and program administrators are being asked to do more with less. Nowhere is that stress being felt more than at HBCUs.

The metrics of success in higher ed are also undergoing a sea-change. The college president's job is no longer dominated just by fundraising, building facilities, and getting more freshmen in the door. College leaders are also being held accountable for success like never before.

Their mission today is not just about increasing access, it's about increasing attainment.

Their mission is not just about getting more students to the starting line, it's about getting more students through the finish line.

Their mission is not just to secure more bucks but more bang for the buck.

And their mission is to get out of the business of playing academic catch-up—and into the business of accelerating credit-bearing courses and college completion.

Everywhere, college administrators are under pressure to show results—to show that students are learning and acquiring 21st century skills, and are not academically adrift or wasting precious financial aid.

It is no secret that these challenges are even more pronounced at HBCUs. You work with disproportionate numbers of students who need remedial course work, who have significant financial hurdles, and who often are the first members in their family to attend college. Individually, and collectively, these are huge challenges.

Yet we also know that institutional commitment and leadership matter. We need many more college-ready students, and we are driving K-12 reform as hard as we can. But we also need more student-ready colleges.

Despite the obstacles, some HBCUs, like Elizabeth City State University and Philander Smith College, do a great job of working with at-risk students to help them graduate. Others still have a lot of work to do. Some HBCUs do an excellent job of helping graduates find good jobs; others do not.

In a globally competitive, knowledge-based economy, every institution of higher education should have measurable goals for increased college completion—and create a plan to achieve those goals.

The role of government has to shift slowly as well. We know that transformational change to the status quo won't come just from bumping up existing formula spending—as important as formula programs are, and as much as they will always remain the mainstay of the department's budget.

To move beyond the status quo, government needs to also provide additional 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 our First in the World initiative and Race to the Top—which helped encourage 45 states to move ahead to adopt internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready standards.

In the fiscal 2012 budget, we proposed $123 million for the First in the World Initiative. That initiative looks to apply the lessons of the successful Invest in Innovation program, or i3, to the challenges of improving college completion and educational productivity, particularly for minority and low-income students. And in the new Washington, and in the new world of higher education, I anticipate we will see a slow drift to providing more incentives for innovation from both sides of the aisle.

There is no question that these are enormously challenging times for HBCUs. But I have great confidence that HBCUs will not only survive but thrive. The truth is that HBCUs have a great deal to teach other institutions in higher education about doing more with less—and about educating students of color who arrive on campus less than college-ready.

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."

HBCUs have overcome great challenges in the past—whether it was surviving on a shoestring budget or lowering student loan default rates to retain eligibility for federal student aid. No group of institutions in higher learning has done a better job than HBCUs of preparing African American professionals and developing 21st century workplace skills, values, and a commitment to service among students of color.

No sector has done a better job of building a sense of community to sustain first-generation college students when they arrive on campus. You aren't just supporting those students—you are changing the opportunities available to them and their families for generations to come.

In my work, I've found that leaders tend to look at the challenges facing higher education in one of two ways. They either look out the window or they look in the mirror.

Those who look out the window see the if-only solutions: if only that government agency, or that donor, or that alumnus would change their ways.

Those who look in the mirror ask a different question. What is in my power, and within my institution's control, that I can change for the better?

It's important to both look out the window and in the mirror. But in the end, looking in the mirror, and improving those things in your control, is where much of one's power resides.

Please know that as much as I am challenging everyone here today, we are challenging ourselves as hard or harder. I would be the first to admit that the federal government has often been a stumbling block to transformational change. Too often, we have been a compliance machine, not an engine of innovation. Too often, we were simply in the wrong business, stifling creativity, instead of nurturing and supporting it.

I am not going to lie to you. When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not welcome those calls from the nice man or woman in Washington. I know our culture must change in fundamental ways—and please hold me accountable for driving that change.

But know, too, that I have great faith that HBCUs will continue to thrive. Know that I believe HBCUs have a leading role to play in educating the workforce for the 21st century, and helping our nation once again lead the world in college graduates. And know too that I have great faith in our collective ability to creatively overcome today's tough challenges.

With your courage, your creativity, your commitment, and with our collective collaboration, I am confident that HBCUs will add another chapter to their amazing accomplishments. HBCUs have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of students for the better, opening doors of opportunity that for far too long were locked shut.

You have shown every day that education is the great equalizer. Let us work together to fulfill the American promise that every child should have equal opportunities to explore—and be free to go as far as their talents will take them.

Thank you—and thanks for your remarkable commitment to molding our nation's future leaders.