Living a Lie?

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking at the College Board Major Systems Meeting in Napa, California. The audience included superintendents and principals from mostly California, but also Washington state, Utah, and other states in the western region.

The purpose of my discussion was to provide a macro overview of the changing world, ala my article in Change magazine back in 2002: understanding how the world around us is changing and how it impacts our education system, from K through 16+, as well as on our economy.

Par for the course, I offered that while we may never achieve equity in our education system, we owe it to our youth to provide them with the best opportunity to make choices on their terms, not ours. Unfortunately, through current and past public policy and by remaining status quo on most educational reforms, we do a very poor job of providing even remotely equitable opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds, from rural areas, and those who are historically underrepresented in higher education, which includes students of color. That is, by doing nothing, we are actually making a strong statement that we don’t care enough to do anything for disenfranchised youth. That’s a pretty strong statement that was largely echoed by my colleague, Peter Negroni, Senior Vice President of the College Board.

But what if we “equaled” opportunity out there? Could our system handle it? Could our economy handle it? It’s one thing for people, like me, to offer that we have some moral obligation to provide this opportunity, but that’s a very simple statement to make, because we “know” we can’t really do it. We clearly understand, at least at this point in time, that the political will or the practical ability does not exist to achieve this goal, rendering this discussion largely moot.

One of the questions I posed to the audience last night was why do we believe higher education is the answer to opportunity? Is it because people with a BA get more money than others? Because they become “better citizens?” One audience member suggested that it brings higher status; those who “have” versus those who “have not.” This is certainly true. And, albeit the traditional underpinnings of higher and tertiary education (e.g., for the “public good”), has higher education not become simply a filter for these haves and have-nots? In the US and Canada, probably more than anywhere else, the bachelor’s degree has become as much a wedge in society as opposed to a lever for opportunity.

I have conducted analysis of workforce requirements with higher education, and many professional jobs do not require the skills developed in a bachelor’s degree. I argue that if we did high school better, we could probably save people the time, effort, and most certainly cost required for higher education. But we’ve traveled so far down this road, and it easy for someone like me, who has three college degrees, to suggest that higher education isn’t the answer to mend all evils. I am one of the “haves,” for sure, and I live my life benefiting from that investment and opportunity.

This statement, however, brings us back to the original thesis: how much is enough? And can we escape this seemingly uncontainable spiral for more? Over the past decade, the discussion in California regarding higher education is what to do about the Title Wave II, sometimes called the demographic Tsunami. How do we build an infrastructure, largely publicly supported by taxpayers, to meet the increased demand for higher education? Some of the calculations suggested that there would be a need for 20 more California State University (CSU) campuses to meet the need caused by demand and demographic pressures.

Currently, using dated NELS data, only 6.9 percent of low-income 8th grade students achieve a BA within 8 years of schedule high school graduation compared to 51 percent of affluent students. If we were able to bring the college-going rates for these groups even remotely closer, would we be able to provide the infrastructure to support it? Would we have the tax base to actualize this reality? Probably not, unless we can find a way to reduce the cost (not “price,” just “cost”) of postsecondary education. Just this week, to complicate the discussion, Governor Schwarzenegger announced a 10 percent across-the-board cut in the California state budget, which includes cuts at the UC, CSU, and CCC. Yet the demand is increasing at these institutions, which can hardly take a huge cut as suggested.

Secondly, if we increased the numbers of BA recipients by the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, do we have the workplace for them? Or in economic speak, would it flood the market and bring the financial returns to this level of degree down? And would that, in turn, further reduce the returns to lower levels of education, including the associate’s degree?

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