A Question of Access
President Shirley M. Tilghman
March 14, 2006
Presented at the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers
Good afternoon. I thought I would use my time at the podium to focus on one particular issue, which is ensuring that higher education continues to provide one of its greatest public goods, namely, social and economic mobility. In my view, colleges and universities have an almost unique capacity in our country to level the highly unequal playing field that is created by the very large gap between the rich and poor.
I have alluded to the public goods that colleges and universities provide, but these are often overshadowed by the obvious private benefit that education offers to individuals. While professors like to think that the goal of a college education is to expand intellectual horizons, it is also true that the professional opportunities of graduates are multiplied and their standard of living enhanced as a result of four years on our campuses. A college graduate commands nearly double the annual income of a worker with no more than a high school diploma. Today, American society is placing an ever greater premium on a college education or, expressed another way, is attaching an ever smaller value to a high school diploma.
Less well understood is the fact that colleges and universities provide a wide array of public goods to society at large. Let me take a moment to describe a number of these benefits, beginning with the most obvious, which is the generation of a well-educated citizenry, fully armed with the capacity to provide leadership for the future. Our distinctively American higher educational model incorporates a broad liberal arts undergraduate experience, in which students are purposefully exposed to ideas and ways of knowing in fields as different as mathematics and literature. Despite the plaintive cries that I have heard from humanities and social science students facing the dreaded science requirement at Princeton, it is important that college graduates understand how scientific knowledge is acquired, for some of them are going to be in decision-making positions in which they will be asked to weigh in on difficult technical issues. Just ask Judge John E. Jones of the Middle District Court in Pennsylvania, who wrote an extraordinarily nuanced decision in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District on the teaching of intelligent design in biology classrooms. My new rallying cry, by the way, is "Judge Jones for President." As you know, college graduates can go on to become scholars, scientists, doctors, lawyers, architects, businessmen and women, and many other specialists, thanks to graduate programs and professional schools. Today, there is broad consensus that the societies that will prosper in the 21st century will be those that educate effectively the greatest proportion of their population.
The great American public and private research universities provide a second critical public good by standing at the forefront of the nation's research enterprise, channeling public and private dollars into critical fields of inquiry. The kind of fundamental research that institutions such as Princeton undertake has no analogue in American society – research universities are the research engine of our nation – and the new knowledge that is generated in this process is placed at the service of national goals and applied and adapted by the marketplace, yielding benefits to human health and wellbeing and new industries that diversify and strengthen our economy. Yet, if we are crucibles of innovation, we are also guardians of tradition. In our libraries, museums, and classrooms, the legacy of the past is gathered, preserved, interpreted, and transmitted. To the extent that a full record of human experience, from prehistoric times to the 21st century, can be said to exist, colleges and universities deserve much of the credit, ensuring that our cultural identity is not only protected but enriched.
We are also uniquely equipped to foster a full and frank debate about the social and political issues of our day. By welcoming new ideas, however unorthodox; by upholding the principles of academic freedom in a censorious world; by shunning the superficial trends of popular culture in favor of thorough research and nuanced analysis; and by serving as a counterweight to propaganda, ignorance, and baseless revisionism, higher education makes it possible for many different voices to be heard in a framework of free and rational discourse. I profoundly reject the oft-expressed view that our faculties are bastions of close-minded, left-wing, and politically correct individuals who are brow-beating the young to adopt their narrow views. I invite anyone who believes that to spend just one month at Princeton and to experience the extraordinary diversity of views that are being expressed in classrooms, dining halls, and auditoriums. By at least one unscientific survey instrument – my daily mail – I take great comfort in the fact that for every letter I get complaining about the leftward tilt of the faculty, I receive another claiming that we are pandering to the Bush administration. I rest my case.
Within our local communities, we aspire to reach out to our neighbors, addressing local problems and hosting exhibitions, lectures, artistic performances, and athletic events that make our communities more vibrant places in which to live. Finally, in a nation with a weak tradition of state support for the creative and performing arts, colleges and universities have increasingly become important patrons of the arts, nurturing young artists whose work is not ready to survive the demands of the marketplace and providing all our students with exposure to the arts so that they will support their local museums, orchestras, theaters, and dance companies in the future.
Yet, for my money, none of these public goods is more important than the role that higher education plays as an advocate of equal opportunity for all Americans and as an engine of social and economic mobility. The gap in American society between the haves and the have-nots, between the well-educated and the poorly educated, between what happens in the classrooms of Princeton High School and Trenton Central High School just 15 miles apart, and between the reasonably secure and the perpetually insecure concerns me deeply, and for two main reasons. The first is a matter of fairness. The United States was founded on egalitarian principles that presumed that each citizen should be provided an equal opportunity to develop his or her talents fully. Furthermore, founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison perceived a vital connection between popular education and democratic government. In Jefferson's words, "Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like the evil spirits at the dawn of day." Education in America has always been perceived to be the most effective means of transcending human distinctions, be they ones of status, wealth, or race, and we must strive to live up to that expectation. Indeed, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s eloquently made the case that equality before the law is inextricably linked with equal access to the advantages of education. The stratification of our society along educational lines, making social and economic mobility the exception rather than the rule, would do irreparable harm to our democracy.
Yet, this is what is happening. While for many American families, a college education is taken for granted, for an even larger number of Americans, colleges and universities are just not on the radar screen. In 2004 just 29 percent of Americans between 25 and 29 years of age had earned a bachelor's degree, which makes the college graduate of today a clear minority. While this statistic is a vast improvement over the state of affairs in 1940, when less than 5 percent held a bachelor's degree, the rate of growth in college completion rates was actually less in the last two decades of the 20th century than it was between 1960 and 1980. This is a serious problem for our nation, especially in light of the increasing sophistication of society, the dwindling number of positions that require no more than a high school diploma, and the widening disparity between the rewards that accrue to high school and college graduates. Unless the path to higher education is widened, our position as a world power will be compromised, which brings me to the second reason why a lack of social and economic mobility should worry us.
There is, in my view, a compelling case to be made that our national self-interest requires us to develop and utilize the talents of our entire population, giving as many citizens as possible the means to contribute fully to society. Only in this way can we continue to generate the knowledge – both fundamental and applied – that lies at the heart of American prosperity and security. As our world grows more competitive and specialized, as the so-called knowledge economy takes hold, we will need to "tool up" in ways that depend more heavily on our nation's intellectual capital than ever before, especially in the natural sciences and engineering, where we run a grave risk of falling behind our international competitors. To these overseas challenges, I would add the internal strains that an unequal distribution of educational goods creates at home, strains accentuated by changing demographics. By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that white Americans will be the barest of majorities, which means that unless we improve the educational opportunities available to minorities, who presently go to college in smaller numbers than whites and have greater financial needs, our nation's colleges and universities will grow increasingly isolated – ivory towers in the truest sense of the word. This isolation will naturally extend to those we educate, creating the narrowly based elite to which I alluded earlier.
If higher education holds the key to our nation's future wellbeing, how well are Princeton and other selective private and public institutions doing at putting this key to work? We have certainly made significant strides in diversifying our student bodies in recent years. At Princeton, for example, a record 55 percent of our freshman class is receiving need-based aid, and a record 35 percent of this class is composed of minorities. The Class of 2009 also consists of an unprecedented number of students from low-income households – 16 percent – and while this number has more than doubled since the Class of 2001 was admitted, it points to a fundamental problem in higher education and in American education as a whole. At selective colleges and universities, students from the four lowest income quintiles (with family incomes under approximately $95,000) are under-represented, and those from the top 20 percent are significantly over-represented. The missing students are not only the truly poor, but also the children of policemen, firemen, teachers – in other words, middle America. And this is not because we are giving an edge to students who can pay their own way. On the contrary, Princeton and other institutions with the resources to do so have a need-blind admission policy, which means that we do not consider a family's ability to meet the costs of tuition, room, and board when making admission decisions. If anything, we give special weight to students who have made the most of difficult social and economic circumstances. In other words, if academically gifted students from truly low-income families apply on a need-blind basis to a selective institution such as Princeton, their odds of being admitted are as high, if not slightly higher, than those of affluent students. Unfortunately, this is less true of institutions where financial need is a factor in admission decisions.
So, what accounts for the imbalance in the socioeconomic profile of our student bodies? The answer lies in the fact that students from the lower income quartiles are also under-represented in our applicant pools, which, in turn, reflects their under-representation in the ranks of students who have excelled in high school. One of the most sobering truths in this country is that the best predictor of SAT score is family income. Just under 5 percent of students in the lowest income quintile score above 1200 in the SATs, while 42 percent of those with family incomes in the top quintile are in that category. In the words of my predecessor at Princeton and current head of the Mellon Foundation, Bill Bowen, "the odds of doing both (taking the tests and doing very well on them) were roughly six times higher for students from the top income quartile than for students from the bottom." And so, when we look at the landscape of higher education today, we see that wealth opens doors even at need-blind institutions, not at the point of application but long before, when parents were able to give their children the intellectual stimulation and extracurricular opportunities that are associated with well-funded primary and secondary schools and ample family resources. Across the board, there is an inescapable correlation between family income and educational attainment.
From my perspective, there are three primary obstacles confronting socially and economically disadvantaged students on the road to higher education. The first is the weakness of many of our nation's public schools, the second is an insufficiency of student financial aid, and the third is the perception of many low-income students that selective institutions such as Princeton are not for them. Unless these impediments are overcome, our ability as colleges and universities to foster greater social and economic mobility in this country will be seriously impaired.
The most daunting of these challenges is undoubtedly the sorry state of many public schools, especially those that serve the poor. I find it an enormous paradox that this country has the finest higher education system in the world, and one of the most mediocre K-12 systems. This is not simply a public-private issue, for some of the finest universities in this country are public ones, like the Universities of California, Michigan, and Virginia. However, public K-12 education is dogged by structural inequalities that favor students in affluent communities over those in needy ones. In 2001-2002, for example, school districts with the highest levels of poverty received $868 less per child in local and state support than those with the lowest levels of poverty. When compared with 49 industrialized countries, American 15 year-olds placed 16th in reading, 19th in science literacy, and 24th in mathematics. Behind these figures lies the fact that far too many teachers lack the depth of knowledge needed to enlighten – and inspire – their students. In 2000, for example, more than half the physics and chemistry teachers in American public schools and almost half the biology teachers had majored in other fields. This is bad news, for the most consistent predictor of student achievement in science and mathematics is teachers who are fully certified in these disciplines.
While colleges and universities cannot themselves transform our nation's poorly performing public schools, we do have the power to make an important contribution to this cause. We can, for example, make teacher preparation an institutional priority by combining rigorous disciplinary education with teacher preparation programs and reaching out to current teachers in need of professional development through summer institutes and other initiatives. We can also intervene in the lives of students while they are still in school. At Princeton, we sponsor a very successful venture called the Princeton University Preparatory Program, which brings bright and ambitious low-income students to our campus for three successive summers to acquire the knowledge and confidence they need to apply to selective institutions. Two members of each of the first two graduating classes were admitted to Princeton, while others earned a spot at institutions ranging from Columbia University to Vassar College. While these may seem like drops of water in the ocean – a former colleague of mine referred to this as solving a problem by "one-seys and two-seys" – they are transforming lives and creating an educational continuum that stands in sharp relief to the leaky pipeline that currently snakes from kindergarten to graduate school.
An adequate pool of student financial aid is also essential in any effort to broaden access to higher education and create the sort of social and economic mobility that is so important to our nation's future. Princeton has a long tradition of providing scholarship assistance, and in 2001 we significantly eased the costs of an undergraduate education for the lowest income students by substituting grants for loans. Harvard and Yale are offering free tuition, room, and board to families earning less than $40,000 and $45,000 a year respectively, MIT has just announced a program in which it will match all Pell Grants, and even a number of public institutions, such as the University of Minnesota and the University of Virginia, are replacing loans with grants. There are, however, many colleges and universities that cannot afford this luxury, and for their students, financing a four-year education can be a major challenge. Indeed, there are countless students who fail to meet this challenge, limiting their choices to two-year institutions, falling by the wayside when their financial burdens grow too great, or forsaking a college education altogether. In short, the existence of unmet financial needs, which amounted to more than $31 billion in 2003-2004, and the disproportionate burden on families with limited resources are affecting the educational decisions students make and the quality of their educational experience.
Sadly, at both the state and federal levels, actions are being taken that are raising, not lowering, the financial barriers to higher education. The recent news from Washington, D.C. is a case in point. On February 1, the House of Representatives passed legislation slashing $12 billion from federally supported student-loan programs, the largest cutback in their history. While some of the resulting savings will be used for other forms of student aid, the lion's share will go to deficit reduction. Then, on February 6, President Bush proposed a budget that would freeze the maximum Pell Grant for a fifth straight year and terminate the Perkins Loan Program, which extends low-interest loans to financially needy undergraduate and graduate students. A recent headline in Inside Higher Ed captured the flavor of our times in a few bleak words: "Flat, Frozen or Facing Extinction."
Education is primarily a state responsibility, but here as well, budgets are being squeezed and, with them, public institutions. In some cases, states have reduced support to the point that institutions such as the University of Colorado, where just 7 percent of its annual budget comes from the state, are for all intents and purposes private entities; in some states the legislatures have cut their allocations to colleges and universities while forbidding them to raise tuition, leading to reductions in the quality of education; and in still other instances, tuition has been raised to fill the budgetary shortfalls, leading to a decline in the number of low-income students. These great state universities are truly caught between a rock and a hard place. Another disturbing trend is the increasing popularity of merit-based financial aid programs, which have been created to attract more qualified students and hence enhance institutional reputations, but such programs clearly undermine their need-based counterparts. Between 1993 and 2001, states increased their funding for the merit-based scholarships by 335 percent, whereas support for need-based financial aid grew by just 88 percent. State-supported institutions have historically played a vital role in ensuring access to higher education, but as the instruction they offer grows more costly, an ever larger number of students of modest means are finding themselves left out in the cold.
The third and final obstacle to more inclusive colleges and universities is one of perception. All too often, economically disadvantaged students view selective institutions as places where "other" people go, and therefore look elsewhere. Furthermore, our campuses are not always as welcoming to students of limited means as they should be. Even as we make a stronger commitment to reaching out to under-represented groups, we need – at the same time – to ensure that the daughter of the janitor and the son of the daycare worker are as welcome on our campuses as the gilded youth that many still associate with the Ivy League.
Bill Bowen has argued convincingly that the pursuit of excellence and equity are inextricably linked, that we cannot have the one without the other. How we overcome the challenges I have enumerated this afternoon will say a lot about the kind of society we want to build in the 21st century. It is my belief that the future of higher education, like the future of this country, will only be as bright as the number and diversity of youthful minds that fill our classrooms and labs. By bringing young men and women together from the widest possible range of social and economic backgrounds, we will ensure that colleges and universities fulfill the public and private goods I talked about; we will create opportunity, and we will strengthen the fabric of our nation and the international community. Almost 70 years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that "the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." Too many Americans have too little stake in higher education, and we in higher education have too little stake in the lives of most Americans. I hope that in the coming years, all of us – universities, governments, foundations, and corporations – can find the will and the resources to change this situation for the better.