Innovating for Equity: The Future of American Higher Education

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Innovating for Equity: The Future of American Higher Education

Remarks of Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell
January 12, 2017

Thanks for the kind introduction, and for the welcome to Northeastern. I have to say that when we called and asked if we could do this here—if I could give my final speech here—the response was, "Thank goodness."

I wasn't quite sure how to take that, but I'm really thrilled to be here.

The progress that we have all made is testimony not just to my work, or even the work of the Department: it's testimony to the work that we've done together as colleagues and collaborators across the field. From public institutions to private institutions, from two-year institutions to four-year institutions, we've all worked together. And I know we will continue to do so in the future.

It seems right to recognize this work here at Northeastern, one of the great American universities.

At Northeastern, a university that builds on a proud legacy of excellence and opportunity that is rooted in robust and relevant research, innovative online learning, and one of the oldest and largest co-op programs in the country, linking what students are learning in the classroom with opportunities in the world of work.

So, in other words, our partnership with Northeastern makes this feel like home. And it is particularly so today, because we're joined by a couple of my old and dear friends who helped get me into and through this business: Richard Culatta, who served with distinction as the director of education technology in the Department and is now in the state of Rhode Island; Josh Lewis, who got me into this business a long time ago; Tim Clifford, Northeastern alum who today will be announcing an exciting partnership between his organization and the Boston Public Schools to provide better data to informed decision-making; and my colleague and former boss, Chris Gabrieli, who is the chair of the Massachusetts Commission on Higher Education, and served as a board member of the NewSchools Venture Fund when I was there.

So, home this really is, and it's a privilege to be here.

Just a few days remain of my time at the Department of Education in a position I never dreamed I'd hold. It's been one of my life's great privileges, as it's given me the opportunity to work with so many of you. So I appreciate your willingness to hear some parting thoughts from this lamest of ducks!

Welcome to you here today, and welcome to those who are watching online.

Northeastern's motto is "Light, Truth, and Courage." To have come this far in providing opportunity for education to all Americans, we've needed all three. To continue that work, we'll need them all the more. Because the crucial challenge we share is to keep extending quality higher education to all Americans in a world in which all really needs to mean all. The fates of our students, the fate of our economy, and the fate of our democracy depend on this vital work.

Because every morning a veteran wakes up eager to turn the skills from her years of service and sacrifice into a new civilian career. Every day, a 50-year-old displaced worker races from his class at a community college to line up early at a career fair, hoping the certificate he is gaining helps to land the job that helps restore not just his income, but his dignity. Every evening—the day a blur of deadlines, bus schedules, and hurried meals—a single parent shuffles through a stack of bills and imagines completing the degree that will lead to a life-changing promotion. Every night, an undocumented college sophomore with a 4.0 GPA wonders if his dreams of graduating, his dreams of a good job, and his dreams of a safe home for his family will end in happiness or heartbreak. And every day students like Malachi pursue American higher education. And yes, there are 18-year-olds hoping that the college application process works out right for them, too.

These are the people we work for: a diverse tapestry woven with a common thread—the drive to get an education that betters individuals' lives and the lives of those who love and depend on them. Theirs are the hopes we aim to fulfill without exception and without exclusion. By doing so, we fulfill not only their hopes, but our common hopes for our country.

Last week, in her final speech as first lady, Michelle Obama spoke about the principles for which our nation stands—and I quote: "Our glorious diversity, our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds—that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are." And then she spoke directly to students: "Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don't matter, or like you don't have a place in our American story, because you do."

Then she added, "But I also want to be very clear: This right isn't just handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You can't take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms."

Higher learning has been central to the American story, written over centuries, empowering individuals not only to advance their own station, but to engage in our democracy—to preserve and protect those freedoms. Our colleges and universities are communities that must strive each day to embody our highest aspirations for our country. Today, that means they must not only be bulwarks of rigor and academic excellence, but also of liberty and equality, diversity and inclusiveness, freedom and opportunity. If we retreat from those, we risk not just the integrity of our institutions, but the viability of our democracy.

We need to remember that these values are not evident in many parts of the world. I once spent time cooling my heels under armed guard, waiting for an audience with an autocrat who was trying to hobble the academic freedom of his island-state's flagship university. He feared the independent thinking that characterizes higher education. He did not see that higher education made his people stronger, not weaker.

Needless to say, we didn't get on very well.

While great American thinkers in every generation have hailed education's power to promote prosperity, social mobility, and democratic engagement, the idea and the ideal of postsecondary education for all is a rather modern one, and signals an important shift in higher education. It is a shift fueled by advances in civil rights, and by demands of a changing world. Today's competitive global economy demands postsecondary education for even entry-level work in many fields. As recently as the 1970s, people with only a high school education could qualify for nearly three-quarters of the nation's jobs. By 2020, that number will drop by half. Those jobs are going away and they're not coming back.

Income inequality has been growing in America at a staggering pace, and a yawning wealth divide separates many families of color from their white peers. While education alone can't close these gaps, it's an essential part of the solution—because, as we know, last year college graduates earned, on average, 70 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.

And our democracy depends on an informed, educated citizenry. Jefferson was clear—and I quote: "If the nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." The issues we face as a democratic community, from international relations and poverty to the local city budget and policing, are complicated and getting more so. So, the stakes have never been higher for postsecondary education, and postsecondary attainment has never been more important.

That's why, as Malachi noted, in his first days in office, President Obama challenged the United States to reclaim its distinction of leading the world in postsecondary degrees and credentials. We call that goal our "North Star" goal, and it's lit the way for several important shifts in priorities and philosophy over time.

We've acknowledged that we have both a math problem and a moral problem—to reach the President's goal, we will need to open the doors of higher education to students who are usually excluded from college, or don't have the opportunity to go.

We've moved from seeing college as a luxury to recognizing that affordable, quality degrees and certificates are essential for anyone to advance in today's knowledge economy. And, we've moved from focusing on inputs like enrollment and spending toward outcomes as the measure of success in higher education, including completion rates, degrees awarded, and whether those degrees have real value in the marketplace. Access will always matter, but only if students who start, finish.

These are important changes, and we must not slide back. Our collective commitment to access, affordability, and completion of high-quality degrees and certificates for all students must remain strong if we're to sustain economic prosperity and the health of the democracy.

But even as we need to maintain that commitment, we must go about it in new ways. We must innovate. And there is no clearer reason for this than the changing nature of our students themselves.

Often, when we think of the typical college student, we conjure up a picture of a mom and dad and their 18-year-old pulling up to a dorm on a leafy state university campus and dropping them off—expecting fully that four years later they will return on graduation day. But in 2017, our college hopefuls represent a variety of different backgrounds, different needs, different experiences, and different circumstances and contexts.

In fact, what were yesterday's non-traditional students are today's new normal.

I have met with and learned from hundreds of them during my time as Under Secretary. They are students like Darby Conley, a mother of three who works full time. After high school, she started at a four-year college, then dropped out to earn a living. She rose in her job from customer service representative to a manger. But she knew that, no matter how hard she worked, without a bachelor's degree some doors would remain closed.

Darby returned to school, but felt awkward as the oldest student. Juggling studies, work, and family proved too hard. Next, she tried an online program, but missed the personal connections and the clear ties between her work and her career goals. And so she put her higher education on the shelf again.

For many people, the story ends there—but for Darby it didn't. She did not end up, as so many do, with only debt and no degree. She instead tried a fourth time, enrolling in a self-paced, competency-based learning program at Southern New Hampshire University's College for America Program, a program built around the needs of today's new normal students. That was Darby's turning point. She moved quickly through what she had already learned, and focused on mastering new skills. She had support from her company and, importantly, a group of coworkers who enrolled together in a cohort.

Today, she has her associate's degree and is advancing toward her bachelor's.

Students like Darby are knocking on the doors of all of our colleges and universities, and in record numbers. But there aren't enough programs like Southern New Hampshire's, tailored to their needs.

Too many colleges operate as if all of their students fit the old stereotype: that 18-year-old, taking 15 credit hours per semester, working each summer, and finishing an associate's in two years or a bachelor's in four. That model still serves many students well.

But for those who have families, work full-time, or are older, first-generation, low-income, or underprepared for the rigors of college work, that approach is a barrier to reaching educational goals.

Yes, we expect students to work hard at their studies and sacrifice to get a college certificate or degree. But we shouldn't make it harder than it needs to be. We should make it easier.

We should make it cheaper and quicker, while ensuring or even expanding quality. That's been the special magic here at Northeastern. We all—the federal government, state governments, and institutions—have a responsibility to do what it takes to help the new normal student succeed.

I lived for nearly a decade in a small hamlet called Strafford, Vermont. And I'd often walk from my house to the historic homestead of our most famous resident, Justin Morrill, who served in the U.S. Senate during and after the Civil War. Justin Morrill authored the Morrill Act, which was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It created land grant colleges throughout America, and laid, in Morrill's words, "a sure and perpetual foundation accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil."

Over time, Morrill's idea and land grant colleges democratized access to education for women, for people of color, and for students from poor families who would never have expected to go to college. These colleges would serve not just the individual interests of students, but the nation's interest.

The Morrill Act was only a step to all means all. And in 1890, faced with the brutal fact of the exclusion of African-Americans from land grant institutions, Morrill pushed new legislation to advance their enrollment in land grant colleges. As he said, "They are members of the American family, and their advancement concerns us all." Seventeen Historically Black Colleges and Universities owe their existence to this second Morrill Act, and we owe Morrill a great debt in signaling the importance of public investment in higher education to expand opportunity for all.

This is just one example of the nation's step-by-step journey toward fulfilling our ideals and extending their promise to everyone. Today, the members of the American family are more diverse than ever. And it's truer still, in Morrill's words, that their advancement concerns us all.

But we have work to do. College completion rates continue to hover around 50 percent. Completion rates for African-American and Latino continue to lag, though they are improving. These outcomes hobble our economy, endanger our democracy, and threaten the idea of the American Dream.

The good news is that we're making progress. A million more African American and Hispanic students are in college today than eight years ago. A record number of students are using Pell Grants to support their education. At the other end, the number of student loan defaults is trending down.

As Malachi noted in the beginning, we've tried to do our part. We've created tools like the College Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet to provide better information to families as they make important college-going decisions. By making FAFSA easier and moving the deadline forward, students and families can learn about their eligibility for federal aid while they're applying for college.

We've also ended student loan subsidies for private banks, shifting more than $60 billion in savings back to students and taxpayers. We've cracked down on bad actors that leave students with debt and meaningless credentials.

And we've shined a light on schools that are committing to student success, including those highlighted in the Department's 2016 College Completion Toolkit. This resource, designed by and for institutional leaders, features data-driven practices from some colleges and universities that are doing the much-needed work of promoting student success.

And finally, we've made it easier for students to pay back their student loans by creating income-based repayment plans that cap the payments at 10 percent of earnings.

But let's be clear: Improving federal student aid, and focusing even on best practices, is not and cannot be the sole solution to making college more affordable and ensuring completion for the new normal student. We must turn back the tide of state disinvestment in higher education. Altogether, funding for public two- and four-year colleges, adjusted for inflation, is nearly $10 billion less than it was before the recession.

Community colleges in many states have been particularly hard hit. This year, Arizona, for example, took the unprecedented step of zeroing out the budget for two of the state's largest community colleges.

Over the past 30 years, damaging cuts like these have caused major tuition hikes at public institutions, which educate seven out of ten students in our nation, burdening students and families with greater debt. And, increasingly, higher costs and debt fall on the shoulders of low-income families who can least afford it—who, in income and wealth, have far fewer resources to support student debt than other families.

More state legislatures and Congress must recognize the importance, as Morrill did, of public investments in American higher education.

I'm calling at lawmakers at all levels to renew the public compact with higher education, to reinvest in colleges and universities, and to make the kind of public investment that has deep roots in our history—and, more importantly, is an all-important foundation for our future.

That's why President Obama proposed his America's College Promise program, which aims to make two years tuition-free education available to qualified students at community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and MSIs. This plan was based on the Tennessee Promise program, which was enacted by the State of Tennessee and—prior to that—the Kalamazoo Promise program in that community.

Public support for higher education is percolating in the country. It is alive. It's not quite well yet, but it's alive. It's our job to make it both alive and well.

Since the President's announcement, more than 20 states and communities have created their own Promise programs, including, most recently, New York. These commitments recognize both the public purposes of higher education and the public responsibility to broaden access, improve affordability, and ensure completion.

As I said before, we can't reach our North Star goal and serve our diverse student population by simply doing more of the same. That's why we've been working with you to support innovation that advances excellence and equity, that helps our new normal—and all students—succeed.

That work will require continued creativity and a bold vision for what higher education can be—transforming the work we already do and inventing the work that we haven't yet imagined. We supported that kind of innovation with our First in the World grant program.

For example, two First in the World grantees have developed new approaches to enrich student outcomes and streamline pathways to degrees. By using technology to analyze and respond to student needs and progress, Georgia State has doubled—and in some cases, nearly tripled—graduation rates by race and ethnicity over the past decade in a school with a very large Pell-eligible population and high enrollments for students of color.

Those weren't the only changes George State made. They found that many students switched majors several times before graduating, causing them to lose credit toward their major over time. Those students had to take more courses, costing them more time and more money. In response, the university introduced broader meta-majors. And, within two years, the number of changed majors had fallen by 32 percent, saving students time and the cost of unnecessary credits.

At LaGuardia Community College, part of the CUNY system in New York, which caters to students representing over 100 languages and 150 countries, micro-interventions in the form of targeted advising, free metro cards, and help with child care changed degree attainment by twofold. So these micro-changes at LaGuardia have had macro results.

Looking ahead, the future of higher education will likely include new business models for today's institutions, and it will include the emergence of new educational providers of high-quality learning. Learning will likely be measured in new ways and certified in new ways, perhaps through badges and micro-credentials, as well as traditional degrees.

To meet the needs of our students, we'll need to develop the institutions, systems, and—yes—policy to support new ways of teaching, learning, and assessment. By doing this, we will free learning from the constraints of time and space, course schedules, office hours, and lecture halls. It will allow educators and students to focus on the mastery of skills and concept.

Several of our institutions are already leading the way through initiatives in competency-based education. The University of Wisconsin's Flexible Option program allows students to work through a degree or a certificate program at their own pace. This isn't an add-on; it's a core design element. And with many institutions launching competency-based education programs, including some with the Department, we will learn more about the effectiveness of these approaches in improving student outcomes.

We will also gain new insights into partnerships between colleges and new providers—new approaches to quality assurance. Our EQUIP program is designed to do just that. Our goal is to test new ways for students from all backgrounds to access innovative learning and training opportunities that lead to good jobs, but that fall outside the current financial aid system.

A second goal is to strengthen and broaden outcome-based quality assurance processes that focus on student learning. Northeastern has joined us in this effort, and is working with General Electric and the American Council on Education to provide a bachelor's degree in advanced manufacturing. With EQUIP, we aim to measure the impact of these approaches on college access, affordability, and student outcomes, and scale what works.

Now, let's be clear: I'm not talking about bright, shiny object innovation that sounds good but doesn't deliver. And I'm not naive about opportunists looking to make a quick buck in areas where the standards are still being defined, or where evaluations are scarce. Nor am I focused solely on technology as the savior that will miraculously transform education, as some tech devotees would have it.

Metro cards aren't high tech. Using data analytics to predict who needs them? Now, that's more like it.

I do believe technology can fuel tremendous improvements in education, from enhancing teaching, learning, and assessment, to supporting and guiding students to their goals.

In fact, later today at MIT, we will unveil a supplement to our National Education Technology Plan that focuses on higher education. The plan presents a shared vision and a call to action for transformational, technology-enabled learning. The higher education supplement covers learning, teaching, leadership, assessment, and infrastructure, suggesting ways that technology can serve our increasing number of diverse learners who come to us with a wide range of educational goals and personal circumstances.

The higher education supplement also reinforces the idea that outcomes ought to be the central measure of quality, because that's precisely how we encourage responsible innovation. We focus on student outcomes, we hold institutions accountable, and we scale up only those innovations that make a real difference for students. If we do, more folks like Darby will gain the skills and opportunities to transform their lives.

Whether high tech or low tech, I'm talking about innovation that powers a system that makes quality higher education more accessible, more affordable, and more effective in ensuring that students who start, finish. I'm talking about innovation that expands access and closes the completion gap between rich and poor, African-Americans, Latinos and whites, and that thereby serves individuals, serves their communities, and serves the nation. That's what our focus is this morning, and that is our charge for the mornings that follow.

Whenever and wherever a student entrusts her dreams and destiny to a college or university, we have a solemn bond to do whatever it takes to meet her unique needs, so that she can fulfill her promise and her dreams.

In that way, we must make room for new Americans, for vulnerable Americans, for first-generation students, low income students, students with disabilities, and older adults. We must make room for the "new normal" college student. And we must innovate—not just in technical ways—to support their pathways to success.

We must acknowledge and celebrate their success as our success, their achievements as our achievements. And, we must understand that their American Dreams can help fulfill our dream of America—an America in which prosperity, equality, injustice, are shared by all, and an America where fear, division, and opportunism are always—always—defeated by hope, aspiration, and opportunity.

This will take an acknowledgement of the truths, good and bad, about the work we have done and the work we must do. It must be buoyed by frequent acknowledgement and celebration of the light that illuminates our successes. And it will take the courage to remain constant to the highest ideals of our country and our democracy.

Reverend King, whose birthday we celebrate this weekend, said that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It is important for us to remember that that arc bends, not because of some moral physics, but because of the hard and courageous work of individuals and institutions.

I know you are engaged in that work, and committed to that work, and I thank for your courage, your creativity, and your perseverance. And I implore you to redouble your efforts and to support the hopes and dreams of untold numbers of students who come to us looking for a way to have their shot in their own lives and the lives of the country.

Reach them, protect them, nurture them, create systems that serve them, and they and we will thrive. I pledge to be your partner in that—wherever our paths may take us next. Together, we can help bend that moral arc toward justice, for all of our sake.

I want to thank you for your generous support, your guidance, and your patience as we've worked on these important issues together. It has really been my great pleasure to serve our students, to serve you, and our institutions, and our nation. Thank you.