In a September 26 Washington Post op-ed, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings argues that President Obama’s Administration should be focusing on creating more jobs and graduating more students – rather than decreasing access to education.
This doesn’t make sense. At a time when the administration should be focused on job creation and strategies to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs, it is targeting private-sector higher-education providers that serve about 3 million students a year. The result could be more jobs lost and fewer Americans getting the education they need to secure good jobs. Many for-profit schools are serving those least well-served by traditional higher education, whose capacity is limited, particularly in tough economic times. It is with low-income and minority students that our nation is failing. Only 30 percent of African Americans ages 25 to 34, and less than 20 percent of Latinos in that age group, have an associate degree or higher. Students from the highest-income families are almost eight times as likely as those from the lowest-income families to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24.
Former Secretary Spellings addresses the very central issue of access and success in higher education. Young people who are from working class families or happen to be African American or Hispanic are disproportionately under-represented in traditional colleges and universities. Moreover, they graduate at disproportionately lower rates from these same higher education institutions. By contrast, private sector higher education is noteworthy for its relatively high enrollment of students who come from at-risk backgrounds, and these same students are receiving degrees. This is the kind of access with success to higher education that we need to raise our competitiveness and drive our economy forward.
Higher education does need to improve its access and its success rate – in terms of its graduation rate and in the assurance of learning of graduates. When it comes to restructuring our higher education system, any proposed actions need to be implemented across the system as a whole, not narrowly focused on career colleges. In this challenging current economy our efforts – and those of the Department of Education – should be focused on encouraging and supporting higher education – both traditional and private sector. These are precisely the times when we need to invest in education, not limit access by working class students to bachelor’s degree programs.