Thursday, January 22, 2015

America's College Promise: A Revolution in the Wings

In the mid-1800s, during the creative rush of the early Industrial Revolution, it became apparent that the United States needed a better educational system.  The innovations of the Industrial Revolution required new kinds of leaders for industrial innovation:  scientists, engineers, and managers, to name a few.  It also needed new kinds of professionals to ensure that the broader society could support an industrialized economy:  social scientists, teachers, and civic leaders, as examples.  At the same time, we needed universities where research was on an equal footing with teaching, so that new knowledge would freely enter into the thinking of new professionals. 
            The result was a revolution in education—one that we take for granted today.  In an era where most universities were church-related or private, our forefathers invented the public university.  This included state universities created by the sale of federal land grants to the states, where research, teaching, and technology transfer in the “mechanical and practical arts” fed innovation in industry while securing  the increased agricultural productivity needed to support immigration and urbanization.  It also included creation of public “normal schools”—teacher colleges, the antecedents of today’s state colleges—that trained the teachers necessary to staff public grade schools and high schools which were seen as a key to assimilating the millions of immigrants who had come to our shores to work in the mines and mills and to ensure that a goodly percentage of them (25% was an early goal) were prepared to go on to college for professional training.  A bit later on, we also created community colleges that could better respond to local workforce needs and feed students to four-year colleges.
            Today, we are in another creative rush as the Information Revolution matures into a global information society, and the question, once again, is how do we prepare the workforce for this new environment?   This time, the question contains another:  how do we as a country compete in an industrial supply chain whose workforce is distributed globally?  Over the past couple of decades, the nation has been pretty much silent on this issue.   Higher education, once seen as a national priority, had lost its place in the public discussion.  Increasingly, it was seen as a private good—preparing individuals to make their livings--rather than a public good that prepared citizens to live and prospect in and with our communities.   As government funding declined, the direct cost to students rose.  Corporations, the most direct beneficiary of an educated workforce, looked the other way, focused more on short-term profit than on long-term investments in their workforce.
            That is now changing.  The Obama Administration has proposed America’s College Promise, a new initiative that would allow responsible students (both traditional-aged and adult) to earn an associate degree or the first two years of a baccalaureate degree at no direct cost to them.  Just as high school graduation—once something students paid for themselves—became a universal expectation early in the 20th century—America’s College Promise is a step toward making a college degree a realistic expectation for tomorrow’s workforce.
            The ACP is not a give-away.  Funding comes with some very real requirements for both students and community colleges:
·      To be eligible, students must attend college at least half-time, recognizing that some students will be working adults.
·      Students must also maintain a 2.5 average and make steady progress toward their degree.
·      Participating community colleges must offer academic programs that are fully transferrable to local public four-year colleges and universities OR offer occupational training programs that are in demand among employers.
·      Colleges must also adopt institutional reforms to improve student persistence and degree completion.
            The federal program will be a partnership with participating State governments.  Federal funding will cover 75% of the community college costs; states will be required to provide matching funds (the specific percentage varying based on the state’s current contributions to its community colleges).
            The America’s College Promise initiative could be a major step in positioning the United States for long-term success in the global information economy.  It will plant the seed of a public expectation that all responsible students should have access to undergraduate education just as they have access to high school graduation.  In the process, it will demonstrate the idea that higher education should be a normal expectation of citizens in a global information society.  In the process, it could very well break the longstanding barriers between high school and college curricula and create new relationships between community colleges and their four-year public colleges and university counterparts.  In the process, it could give four-year colleges and universities a heightened focus on professional education and research.  Its impact may be far reaching, indeed.
            As one might expect, there are many questions to be asked at this early stage in the consideration of the ACP proposal.  One that arose quite early was funding:  how will the federal government pay for this new service?  What other government projects will be scrapped to allow the government to realize the ACP vision?  There are many ways to answer that question.  President Obama suggested one in his 2015 State of the Union message:  close the tax loopholes that currently allow many corporations to avoid paying their due taxes.  Another would be to re-direct funds that are now spent on maintaining our military presence in other countries.  In short, money can be found.
            Another question is how to make the Promise a reality in states that have weak community college systems.  Pennsylvania is a good example of this.  For many years, Pennsylvania’s land grant university—Penn State—has maintained a network of 17 community-focused undergraduate campuses.   Other schools in the State System of Higher Education have done the same.  As a result, while Pennsylvania has 14 community colleges, many potential students live outside the range of a community college.  As America’s College Promise is implemented, this imbalance will need to be taken into account.
            A third question speaks to the supply side of increasing community college graduates:  the need to ensure that enough high school students graduate with the skills they will need in order to go on to higher education.   This may inspire new “dual enrollment” partnerships between high schools and colleges to allow talented high school students to earn both high school credit and college credit, preparing them to move quickly into college while also reducing their total time to degree.
            These are not reasons to abandon America’s College Promise.  They simply are examples of the kinds of issues that will surely arise as folks get down to brass tacks and start to construct the means by which to realize the potential of ACP.  It is an incredibly exciting initiative, one that might just help us build a new public consensus around higher education as a key societal investment in this new economy.