A Progressive Vision for Higher Education: A View from Washington

This is an edited transcript of a speech given before the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers on March 28, 2008.

Thank you for that great introduction Sandra (Schroeder, president of the AFT). It’s an honor being here. I have a tall order this evening. I not only stand between you and dinner, but for probably many of you, between you and the next fix of March Madness.

You know, when George W. Bust first ran for president, we all knew he was a sports fan. But how many of you thought that he was such a college basketball fan that he would take the concept of March Madness and make it applicable to every month of every year of his presidency?

It has been an exciting political season, but I have to confess I wish we didn’t have to wait until November for the general election. I don’t think we’ve needed a new course for this country as urgently as we do now since our nation was stuck in a depression and we had to wait until March of 1933 for FDR to be sworn in.

The next president has a tall order. He or she will lead a nation struggling with an economy that has lost its edge, with an international reputation that has lost credibility on issues such as climate change, and with a national security strategy that has lost its way.

Over the past seven years, President Bush’s conservative economic policies have created an economy that does not deliver for working Americans. Consider the state of our fiscal house today:

  • Inflation is up. The dollar is down.
  • Median household incomes are nearly $1,000 lower than in 2001.
  • Household debt is at an all-time high.
  • Job growth that was anemic (the lowest of any post-World War II expansion) has now turned negative.
  • Five million more people—1 in every 8—live in poverty today than in 2001.

We are facing the highest rate of mortgage foreclosures in the last in 30 years. And we are locked into spending more than $10 billion a month in Iraq, with over 4,000 American men and women killed, thousands more injured, and no strategy to bring the war to an end.

History now summons the next leader of our nation to tackle a dizzying set of problems simultaneously. In my view, this president has gotten virtually all the big stuff wrong these last seven years, and there is much that needs to be set right to get wages growing again and set our economy in the right direction.

A critical pillar of that has to be education.

From keeping our economy innovative and growing to tackling climate change and building a green economy to fighting the downward pressures on middle-class living standards exerted by the global economy, education—with robust budgets, and a strategy that aligns the curriculum with our broader economic and social goals—is central to what we hope and believe in and want for our country.

We need to get both the policies and the politics right. And that is what I want to talk about tonight.

The United States has always relied on rising educational attainment to help propel our economic growth. Over the last four decades of the 20th century in particular, steady increases in the education level of our labor force have contributed significantly to steady productivity gains, sustained economic growth, and formidable national competitiveness in an increasingly global economy.

All those gains are under threat today because of a complex mix of factors that boil down to a single reality—the American workforce is steadily becoming less educated relative to our global peers and competitors, just as better and more diverse educational opportunities are essential for our workers to maintain their justifiably famous productivity, flexibility, and ingenuity.

Unless the United States makes critical adjustments now to its national human-capital investment strategies, educational attainment will stagnate and future economic growth will falter. In today’s world, higher education is no longer optional. For the individual, higher education offers the promise of economic mobility—the “ladder” to higher income and greater opportunity.

Economists have long established that individuals with higher education enjoy significant advantages in earnings. According to the Census Bureau, over an adult’s working life, high school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million. Associate’s degree holders earn about $1.6 million. And bachelor’s degree holders earn about $2.1 million.

The education premium has grown in importance over the past few decades. As economist Brad DeLong has noted, “In the U.S., the average earnings premium received by those with four-year college degrees over those with no college has gone from 30 percent to 90 percent over the past three decades, as the economy’s skill requirements have outstripped the educational system’s ability to meet them.”

Consequently, we are rapidly becoming a society stratified by skill and incomes. We already have a two-tiered labor market, where the highly skilled and educated enjoy better job opportunities and higher incomes than those without this knowledge. And numerous studies show that we in the United States are falling well behind other nations in preparing our students for higher education and the new economy.

A 2005 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the U.S. 9th among industrialized nations in the share of its population with a high school degree, and 7th in terms of those with a college degree. Twenty years ago, the United States ranked first on both indicators.

While a four-year degree may not be for everyone, some kind of post-secondary credential is necessary in order to compete in the global economy. Americans sense that higher education is necessarily part of the solution to what ails our economy, and I think they will naturally look to progressives for answers. And I believe there are two overarching principles that should guide any progressive policy on higher education:

First, everyone should have access to higher education and the opportunity that it affords.

Second, higher education policy must be aligned with our broader economic and societal goals.

How do we go about turning these principles into policy?

To begin, we must ensure that every American student who wants to go to college—and does his or her part to qualify—can afford higher education. Sadly, this is not the case today. Nearly 25 percent of academically qualified low-income students either do not apply to college or drop out, because they are unable to keep pace with escalating prices.

While higher education is a great investment for the individual, it is also true that students graduating with substantial educational debt face life in a very different position than those students who graduate debt free. The average student borrower now graduates with $27,600 of debt—almost three-and-a-half times what it was a decade ago.

That is why the youth organizing arm of the Center for American Progress, known as Campus Progress, is running a national campaign titled “Debt Hits Hard” to raise public awareness on the need to provide adequate federal support for college aid and improve upon the gains we made under California Congressman George Miller’s leadership in 2007.

We must also ensure that all students are adequately prepared for the challenge of higher education so that college is a realistic option if they so choose. And we must make sure that students who start college finish with a degree, whether a two- or four-year degree—or a credential that leads to a good job with potential to move up to increased responsibilities and income.

While addressing the needs of students, we must also attend to the needs and goals of our economy. American economic competitiveness should be seen as a vital driver of our higher education system. For example, it’s no surprise that our nation needs more engineers, scientists, and workers with technical skills.

We know that there are huge social problems that may ultimately be solved with the help of technological advances—issues such as global warming, environmental sustainability, and disease treatments. We should seek out ways to better connect our higher education policy to these broader national goals. That’s why we, at the Center for American Progress, have been arguing that education, innovation, and the development of new skills for our workforce have to be core elements of the next president’s economic program, and not just seen as an element of a social program.

In the short time the Center has been around, we have been able to influence the national conversation in key policy areas such as the war in Iraq, health care, energy, and taxes, as well as education. Most of our efforts on education have centered on K-12 reform to better prepare students for the rigors and challenges of a college curriculum. Last year, we did something unusual. We teamed up with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to release a 50-state report card on student learning and school management as well as a joint platform for change.

You might be asking yourselves: Why did a progressive think tank led by the former Chief Of Staff to President Clinton join forces with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to work on education? Well, it’s simple. Our organizations found that while we disagree about a host of issues we agreed on the notion that a nation that purports to value human dignity, freedom, mobility, and progress cannot tolerate a status quo that leaves our children dramatically undereducated and unprepared for an increasingly competitive global economy.

Needless to say, the results of this report were not too encouraging. The conclusion we came to was that years of well-intentioned—but ultimately ineffective—reforms have done little to improve overall academic performance in our nation’s public schools, particularly for low-income and minority students. Despite steps to increase per pupil spending, decrease student-teacher ratios, and recruit a better-prepared teaching force, student test scores have improved very slowly over the past 35 years.

It’s clear that we need structural reform if we are to change this pattern. Our goal in working with the Chamber was to focus efforts on four core goals: better teaching, more innovation, better data, and better management. I won’t go into all the details but I would highlight a couple of points.

We know that among all school resources, teacher quality has the biggest impact on student achievement. Dramatic increases in student learning will, therefore, require better teacher preparation programs, well-designed professional development opportunities, good working conditions, and the creation of nontraditional teaching paths.

And to attract the best talent to teaching, we need to improve starting pay for teachers, pay teachers for improving student learning and for teaching in high-needs schools and in hard-to-staff subject areas, and provide them with better career advancement opportunities.

Steps to encourage innovation and experimentation in our school systems will also be critical to breaking the status quo and finding new ways to tackle seemingly intractable problems. We have put forth ideas such as small learning communities, early enrollment in college-level courses for credit, youth apprenticeships, charter schools, and online learning, but there are other innovative ideas that we should also explore.

Changes of this magnitude require some risk taking. But the alternative of deteriorating schools, undereducated children, and declining economic fortune for this country is unacceptable.

In addition to some of the ideas about better teaching and learning I just discussed, the Center’s education work is also guided by the findings of a taskforce report that was led by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and civil rights and education activist Roger Wilkins we released in 2005 with the Institute for America’s Future.

Our taskforce concluded what many of you probably know all too well: Many students today complete their coursework in high school, without the necessary skills to succeed in college or in a career, and too many others fall through the cracks at some point in the high school to college pipeline.

Inadequate preparation for college results in both low college completion and high remediation rates of students in college. Less than 60 percent of students entering four-year institutions earn bachelor’s degrees, and barely one-fourth of community college students complete either an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years of entry. Moreover, approximately 50 percent of college students need remediation in at least one subject area.

We need to do a better job of preparing students for college, and of aligning high school and college expectations. One option for accomplishing these goals is through a proposal that the Center has supported called “Fast Track to College,” which has been incorporated into the Senate version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill.

This bill would authorize funding for the development of alternatives for high school juniors and seniors to take college-level courses and work toward an associate’s degree or take courses at a career or technical college. Fast Track funding could also support personalized drop-out recovery programs at community colleges that allow dropouts to complete a regular high school diploma and begin college-level work.

We have also pressed for passage of the TEACH Act, to better prepare, mentor, and reward teachers; the Graduation Promise Act, to increase high school graduation rates; and the Expanded Learning Time and School Redesign Demonstration Program.

We are also pleased to be working in conjunction with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the American Association of University Professors, and other labor and civil liberties organizations through the Free Exchange on Campus Coalition. We know right-wing groups are trying to limit the freedom of professors to teach and students to learn on college campuses. From the right it’s a familiar pattern—attack your opponents, demonize them, marginalize them, and silence them. We are not going to let that happen. But through this coalition, we are helping debunk many of the dubious accusations these conservative organizations make against professors who do not share their political views.

It is clear that we are at a critical time for educational freedom and reform. The Center will continue to move forward and work on this important issue, but we need your help. On top of the great work NEA and AFT are already doing, I think there are three specific things you can do to help ensure that progressive policies in education and other areas have a chance to get implemented and succeed.

One, recognize that your goals—as educators and union members—are larger than just higher education policy. The reforms we all want for higher education cannot occur unless progressives build and sustain power at multiple levels—from local school boards to statehouses to the halls of Congress. This will require support for a range of progressive initiatives beyond education and greater support for progressive candidates who can fight for all of our priorities.

Two, help legislators and policymakers better understand the connection between primary and secondary education, post-secondary education, and American competitiveness.

Three, continue to be strong advocates for those left behind or on the margins. With public schools becoming more segregated, affirmative action under attack at our public universities, and class lines becoming more stark in American society, we need you all to help make the case for education as the true great leveler—the best way to ensure that America can live up to its stated committed to human dignity, freedom, and advancement in life.

In addition to working together to expand access to effective education for our students we also need to have an honest discussion about the challenges our economy is facing, and we need to embrace the new opportunities ahead. In order to reverse the economic downturn we are currently facing, what we need now is a new president with a new plan for our economy.

A plan that invests in our greatest asset: the American people.

A plan that not only changes the direction of our economy but creates opportunities for economic mobility for American families.

What America needs now are policies that put investing in human capital at the center of our nation’s economic growth. On that score, there is a significant difference between Senator Obama (D-IL) and Senator Clinton (D-NY) on the one hand and Senator McCain (R-AZ) on the other.

Just a quick glance at the candidates’ websites gives you an idea of how different they are on these issues. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama both have detailed policies on education and bold, comprehensive plans for our economy, and by the way, they support the right to organize.

Senator McCain is high on rhetoric, skimpy on the details, and has a history of not supporting sound educational policies. For example, he voted against making college tuition tax deductible, and he voted against increasing Pell Grants for students. He wants to drain the federal budget with $2 trillion of tax cuts on top of extending President Bush’s tax cuts, which he now supports after first opposing them.

I think the American people are ready for a new way forward, for an agenda that can turn our nation around and get us out of the mess that seven years of failed conservative policies have created.

I believe that with the right leadership and policies, we can create a ladder of economic mobility so that Americans may make a better life for themselves and their families, and America may be once again a land with a thriving and expanding middle class prospering in the global economy.

We may have to wait until November for the election, but to get the changes we want, the time to act is now. Thank you.