2012 APLU Convocation

2012 APLU Convocation: 'The Future of Education'

June 26, 2012

I think Justin Morrill and Abraham Lincoln would have agreed with NY Times columnist David Leonhardt’s recent observation:

More educated people, he writes, are healthier, live longer and, of course, make more money. Countries that educate more of their citizens tend to grow faster than similar countries that do not. Education—educating more people and educating them better - appears to be the best single bet a society can make.

Public land grant universities are America’s single largest engine of human capital production and research and innovation. Without us, observes Dan Fogel, America’s post-war prosperity and power would have been unthinkable and unattainable.

No question, the contemporary challenges in the early decades of the 21st century are what headlines are made of: steeply declining state appropriations, wavering federal investment in research, an aging physical plant, upward pressure on tuition, and alternative instructional delivery systems demanded by a new generation of digital natives.

Today and repeatedly, we have heard President Obama’s call for reduced college cost, increased productivity in all that we do, and a stronger commitment to degree completion for college students and adult workers. And we agree - this “iron triangle” of challenges must be bent in the direction of bringing down our administrative and operational costs so that more of our funds can be invested in student services: shorter time to degree, increased availability of required courses, and more focused advice on navigating offerings in-residence, on-line or next door.

We must, in short, ‘get down to the business’ of making our sector more nimble, more accessible, more transparent and yes, more efficient. Critics condemn this efficiency mentality as an attribute of business, one not appropriate for higher learning. I think Jim Collins got it right: We must reject, he says, the idea—well-intentioned, but dead wrong—that the primary path to greatness in the social sector is to become ‘more like a business.’ Most businesses—like most of anything else in life---…have a desperate need for discipline…disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined actions….A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.

Higher education has historically embraced this principle; to think and act in a strictly disciplined manner. In fact, it is this way of thinking – and of doing business – that should shape the land grant university of the 21st century. We must, for example, stand for a more “rational tuition,” one that is planned over a four to five-year window, so that parents and students know from the beginning what their full-term degree is going to cost. And we must make sure that tuition and fees stay with our students; and are not siphoned off during a budget crisis to serve agendas far removed from student need.

This is part of the reason why the Obama administration is directly addressing our governors and compelling them to realize the return on investment when they fund higher education in their states; why he is continuing to beat the drum about our tuition policies. “Know before you owe,” and the idea of a student and family “shopping sheet” that allows them, as consumers, to price their college costs in advance, is precisely the kind of transparent financial sharing the president is urging. The Secretary’s right, “….the urgency of controlling college costs is not at odds with the urgency of increasing college attainment.”

So, getting down to business as 21st century land grant institutions is an expectation of our sector whose time has come.

But our greatest gifts to this society remain in improving the quality of life among all citizens, increasing access and the distribution of a standard of living that closes, once and for all, the immense poverty divide in this country, and ensuring that the best and brightest ideas get translated into a better economy and a better life for people in America and around the world.

In reviewing the strategic visions posted on our websites, we do not lack ambition. We can see Collins’s Big Hairy Audacious Goals peppered throughout the aspirations of every campus represented here today. We pride ourselves in not only the familiar higher ed motto - “to learn, to search, to serve” - but on those far-reaching promises we make to solve the world’s greatest problems and to address those societal issues that ultimately distinguish a flourishing democracy from countries riddled with poverty, illiteracy, and social unrest. That is exactly the character and climate of the 1860s that undoubtedly drove Lincoln to advocate for the Morrill Act. And it characterizes, even today, this dilemma:

If we are the most preeminent higher education system in the world, producing more knowledge and innovation, and educating more of our population than institutions in other countries, sought after by parents and students from literally all around the globe, why is America still facing so many seemingly daunting and unsolvable problems? In short, what is the relationship between our magnificence and the problems of the world in which we live?

One must ask - how can American higher education put its imprint on the most challenging problems of our day? Perhaps a page from SUNY’s playbook would help characterize the magnitude of our collective opportunity. I could give many examples, but three will do.

Imagine APLU and THE SEAMLESS EDUCATION PIPELINE. An educated population is the foundation of economic growth. Studies show that in the years ahead, almost half of all jobs will require at least some college experience. But in reality, more and more of our young people are being sidelined from the knowledge economy.

After World War II, U.S. schools had the highest graduation rates of any nation in the world. Today, we have fallen to 18th, with more than 1 million high school students dropping out each year. You may have seen the picture on Secretary Duncan’s Twitter page last week – of him standing in front of 857 empty school desks, set up by the College Board to represent the 857 students they say drop out of school every hour in this country. Every hour! We can and must do better.

And lest you think this is not higher education’s problem to solve, I remind you that we prepare the teachers who teach the students who come to our campuses underprepared for college and career. This is exactly what the APLU/AASCU completion agenda is all about; for all students, and especially for more STEM students.

And imagine APLU and A HEALTHIER AMERICA. Healthcare costs are overwhelming our state budgets. Our population is aging. We face critical shortages in the healthcare workforce. And too many children in America come to school every day with health problems that undermine their ability to focus and learn. We must commit to putting the right medical professionals in the right communities, serving the most needy populations and their access to quality health care, an agenda now championed by APLU’s Urban Serving Universities.

And imagine APLU and AN ENERGY-SMART AMERICA. The alarms have been sounded again and again on the consequence of climate change and overdependence on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, energy costs have escalated, a burden that makes our businesses far less competitive and places enormous financial strain on households. Without smarter energy use, nationwide, economic revitalization will remain an elusive goal. The time to act is now. And our public universities are leading resources for energy-smart ideas; witness the Presidents’ Initiative on Climate Change.

I could stop here of course: calling on a more disciplined land grant university as we reinvent or reinvigorate our land grant commitment. But I have to go back to this vexing dilemma: If we are so good and so disciplined, why aren’t more of our societal problems getting solved? It’s because we are not approaching problem solving with the same discipline required to move this country from good to great, or more accurately, from great to premier.

It's because we have not engaged in a strategy reported by FSG, called “collective impact” – the idea that genuine change, real improvement on any social issue requires a cross-sector commitment from a group of passionate and dedicated leaders who are willing to set aside their individual agendas and work together to solve a specific social problem in which they all share an interest. While the land grant act was conceived of as a decentralized set of institutional efforts, our commitment to some degree of intentional “systemness,” that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, might be a better guide for us in a revitalized land grant mission.

Examples of successful collective impact at work are popping up all over the country. In Massachusetts, “Shape Up Somerville” has decreased childhood obesity. In Virginia, 1,000 acres of watershed on the Elizabeth River have been conserved or restored. “Opportunity Chicago” has placed thousands of public housing residents into new jobs. Memphis Fast Forward reduced violent crime and created 14,000 new jobs in the city. And the success of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati has compelled 80 communities across the country to replicate its framework for improving student success, from cradle to career.

It’s easy to see why collective impact is gaining popularity with reformers, policy-makers, and advocates on Capitol Hill and in communities across the country. Since Stanford called attention to it last year, hundreds of individuals and organizations across the globe – including the White House – have started to explore collective impact as a means to solve the most complex social problems of our time.

APLU is afterall, more than a membership organization; it is a leadership organization. Thus APLU may very well have the capacity to have a greater collective impact than any organization in America, because there is no greater opportunity for this approach than in reforming the way we deliver education in this country.

The truth is – we do not yet have a system of education. We have silos in which various forms and stages of education take place. Preschool programs that introduce children to the alphabet and numbers. Kindergarten and elementary school classrooms where kids begin reading on their own and learning basic English, math, and science – skills that we help them advance in high school. And then there are the nation’s colleges and universities, where – we hope – our students are prepared for sustainable, productive careers in the American workforce.

I touched on this earlier. It’s that leaking education pipeline that is at the core of all our challenges. As a nation, we have yet to connect the dots between the various stages of a student’s education. And as a result, 40 – 50 percent of children nationwide are underprepared for kindergarten. These same students are pushed through the system, and by the time they reach college – if they make it that far – they are saddled with remedial coursework that costs us all money and, in most cases, does not culminate in student success.

And just as no single organization is responsible for the problem, no one group can work alone to realize its solution. That’s what collective impact is all about. Only a single, focused and united effort will generate the kind of reform our country needs to remain a global leader in education. It compels us to identify challenging social issues, commit to evidence-based interventions that we execute by working in collaboration with our local communities, against a common set of outcome metrics. These issues cry out for our kind of institutional, place-based leadership. And APLU is just the kind of organization that can bring this approach to scale across this country.

The Morrill Act we commemorate today was visionary legislation that fulfilled a great American need for highly esteemed research universities, with public service at their core. Today, with this vision at our back, we need only to embrace our potential for collective impact to become the world’s most formidable higher education enterprise in the 21st century.

You will recall Tom Friedman defined for all of us the flat world in which we live today. Now he adds, “We have a huge natural advantage to compete in this kind of world, if we just get our act together.”

He goes on to say:

In a world where the biggest returns go to those who imagine and design a product, there is no higher imagination-enabling society than America.

In a world where talent is the most important competitive advantage, there is no country that historically welcomed talented immigrants more than America.

In a world in which protection for intellectual property and secure capital markets is highly prized by innovators and investors alike, there is no country safer than America.

In a world in which the returns on innovation are staggering, our government funding of bioscience, new technology and clean energy is a great advantage.

In a world where logistics will be the source of a huge number of middle-class jobs, we have FedEx and U.P.S.

If only—if only—we would come together on an a national strategy to enhance and expand all our natural advantages: more immigration, most post-secondary education, better infrastructure, more government research, smart incentives for spurring millions of start-ups—and a long-term plan to really fix our long-term debt problems—nobody could touch us. We’re that close.

Doesn’t that sound like exactly what Justine Morrill and Abraham Lincoln envisioned in 1862; a perfect mission for the land grant universities of the 21st century.

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