Enlarging the Tent: The Challenge for U.S. Higher Education
President Shirley M. Tilghman
October 26, 2012
Presidential Address, Presented at the College Board Forum
Thank you for your kind introduction, and thank you all for welcoming me so warmly. If truth be told, however, I should be applauding you — especially Rebecca, Meredith, and Tijesumini. Your educational journeys have demanded a level of commitment and perseverance that many of us have never had to exercise. Excelling in the classroom is rarely effortless, but with social, cultural, and economic barriers in the mix, the path to high school and college grows steep indeed. You are overcoming these barriers, aided by your teachers and principals, who have found ways to unleash the transformative power of education. Together, you are accomplishing wonders, and this should hearten all of us as we contemplate the precarious state of our nation's public schools.
I do not want to dwell on the bleak statistics that illustrate our collective failure to invest sufficiently — and by this I mean much more than dollars — in the education of our children. They are, I am sure, all too familiar to you. Rather, I would like to focus my remarks today on what universities such as Princeton can do to advance the cause of educational opportunity — a cause that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has famously called "the civil rights issue of our generation." Like him, I believe that education represents "the one sure path to a more equal, fair, and just society," and as wellsprings of democratic culture, universities have a special obligation to broaden this path or, to use my metaphor, enlarge the tent of higher education. We cannot hide away in our ivory towers and await the arrival of the fortunate few whose talents were consistently nurtured and affirmed from pre-kindergarten to grade twelve. On the contrary, we must do our part, as the College Board's new president, David Coleman, puts it, "in helping all students achieve high academic standards to thrive intellectually and to compete in a global economy." This is our common challenge, and all of us must rise to it if the United States is to flourish in the 21st century.
But before I explore the "hows," I would like to discuss the "whys." Why should a university like Princeton, which has room for only 5 percent of the 26,663 applications we received last year, concern itself with questions of access? Why should we intervene in a struggle that is, in many ways, remote from our daily experience, blessed as we are with ample endowments, high-performing students, and brilliant faculty? Why, in a word, should we care? The answer is simple: the success of this nation's colleges and universities is inextricably tied to the future economic wellbeing of the United States. Princeton's fortunes — as measured by the growth in the endowment or the extraordinary philanthropy of its alumni — has waxed and waned over the decades along with the S&P 500 index.
And what does that economic success depend upon? In the view of economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson's fascinating new book, Why Nations Fail, the sustained wellbeing of a country is most closely correlated with the degree to which all citizens share in the increase in wealth and prosperity over time. Using history as their guide, they point out that unequal societies, in which the few reap the lion's share of the wealth, and in which social class is destiny, do not thrive over time, largely because those with vested interests in the status quo suppress the innovation that successful societies use to reinvent themselves and evolve.
So what has this to do with universities and colleges? I think it has everything to do with them for the simple reason that those institutions are our most powerful engines of social mobility. A good education creates opportunity for its recipient, allowing movement up the socioeconomic ladder, thereby weakening the influence of social class. Universities cannot cure what ails our economy, but we can ensure that we are not contributing to the creation and perpetuation of an economic aristocracy that is every bit as corrosive as a royal aristocracy. In other words, expanding access to higher education is not an act of altruism, but an act of self-preservation for our society.
I think a persuasive argument can be made that the G.I. Bill — more than any other piece of legislation — explains the immense prosperity that the U.S. enjoyed after the Second World War. By 1956 over 2 million veterans had taken advantage of its tuition benefits and acquired a college education. Another 5.6 million had used the bill to obtain post-secondary training. Students from all socioeconomic strata had access to higher education, and the rest, as they say, is history. In their book on the impact of the G.I. Bill, Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin write that the bill "made possible the education of fourteen future Nobel laureates, two dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court Justices, and three presidents of the United States." It opened access to higher education for students who had been previously excluded for reasons of cost and prejudice, and the nation, along with its educational institutions that expanded to meet the demand, was changed for the better.
Despite these changes, however, we still have a long way to go. At the risk of breaking my pledge, let me share with you four seemingly unconnected facts that capture for me the challenge we face. First, almost one in four American high school students fail to graduate with their class, and in the African American community, more than a third drop out. Second, when their knowledge of American history was tested in 2010, just 45 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above a basic level. And don't get me started on the percentage of Americans who reject Darwin's theory of evolution — one of the bedrocks on which modern biology rests! Third, as of 2009, 65 percent of public high school physics teachers had majored neither in physics nor physics education. And fourth, the best predictor of SAT success is family income.
That last fact is worth pausing over — the best predictor of SAT success is family income. I find it deeply ironic that after the Second World War Princeton and its peers self-consciously rejected the idea that their missions were to educate the elite and admirably announced the arrival of a new meritocracy in which academic excellence was the new coin of the realm. Yet without fully realizing it, they were trading the old measure of family status for an indirect one — academic achievement. In 2011, for example, the mean test score in mathematics for the lowest income decile was 460; for the highest, it was 586. What these figures suggest is that despite the efforts of many in this room, a significant number of students are falling by the wayside, emerging from high school, if they emerge at all, with inadequate preparation for the intensifying demands of our "knowledge economy" and attendance at our colleges and universities.
Let me raise another compelling reason why colleges and universities should be aggressively seeking a more diverse student body. The world is growing more competitive each year, and unless we mobilize the talents of all our fellow citizens, and educate them to succeed in the information age that is upon us, we will be engaging countries like China, India, and Brazil with one arm tied behind our backs. The most recent national census should be a wakeup call for all of us. Never has the population of the United States been so diverse; indeed, we are poised to become a nation of minorities in which no one group can claim pre-eminence. This year we reached what the Los Angeles Times described as "a historic tipping point" when, for the first time, African American, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race births outnumbered those of white Americans. With California, New Mexico, Texas, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia leading the way, demographers predict that by 2042, if not before, white Americans will lose their overall numerical superiority. To the extent that our campuses fail to reflect this shift, we will grow increasingly out of touch with the aspirations and concerns of the cultural and racial mosaic that surrounds us.
It is true that Princeton and its peers are dramatically more diverse than they were when I was a college student, and this year, our freshman class included more students of color than ever before at 42.1 percent of the total. But if we break this figure down, we find, for example, that Hispanics accounted for 7.5 percent of the Class of 2016 at a time when they represent 16 percent of the population, constituting more than half its growth between 2000 and 2010. And if we look to our faculties, the gap between the microcosm of our campuses and the macrocosm of our nation yawns even wider. Despite a longstanding institutional commitment to diversity, which we are currently in the process of revitalizing through the work of a University-wide committee, 81 percent of our tenured and tenure-track professors are white, according to a survey conducted last fall, and just 4 percent are Hispanic. This is an untenable position if we hope to represent and thus invigorate our nation as a whole.
Sadly, we confront a similar challenge when it comes to the economic profile of our students. Although approximately 60 percent of our entering classes now receive financial aid, students from our nation's top two income quintiles continue to represent a majority of Princeton's undergraduates. This is not because we are giving an edge to students who can pay their own way. On the contrary, admission to Princeton is need-blind with full need met, and, if anything, we give special weight to students who have made the most of difficult socioeconomic circumstances. Rather, as with SAT results, wealth confers immense educational advantages in the form of superior schools, abundant extracurricular opportunities, and other forms of intellectual and social enrichment, to say nothing of the counseling and coaching that does so much to shape our applicant pools. Indeed, as I noted in my annual report to the Board of Trustees this year, "If our admission process did not actively seek out and encourage applications from students from lower-income families, one could imagine a class drawn almost entirely from families of means." So although we have come a long way since F. Scott Fitzgerald unkindly described our campus as "the pleasantest country club in America," we have a long way to go before economic diversity becomes an inescapable fact of life at Princeton and its peers. My predecessor Bill Bowen captured this tension in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. "By providing an increasingly straight path to entry and graduation for academically talented students from all socioeconomic strata," he writes, "these prestigious institutions are fulfilling their historical promise to serve as 'engines of opportunity.' On the other hand, the disproportionately large number of graduates of these schools who come from the top rungs of American society indicate that they also remain 'bastions of privilege.'"
A lack of equity also means a lack of excellence. At a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is once again debating the legality of race-conscious admissions, I cannot do better than to invoke the arguments mustered by former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her landmark opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which affirmed that diversity is a legitimate and compelling interest in the realm of education. As she noted, "'classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting' when the students have 'the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.'" One of my favorite examples of the benefits that flow from this variety comes from my colleague, Professor of Politics and International Affairs Gary Bass. Among the courses that he teaches is one on human rights and international justice, and a number of years ago, he had in his class a student from Bosnia. The quality of the discussion was profoundly raised by the presence of this student, whose family had lived through the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina and who could describe firsthand the specter of genocide. What could have been an abstract idea became a vivid reality for every student in Professor Bass's class, and he, like them I suspect, never forgot this experience.
More broadly, the best education is one that transmits knowledge and understanding by opening the mind to other points of view; that engenders a respect for and comprehension of those least like oneself. This can only happen when different perspectives and experiences are represented on our campuses: when black sits down for lunch with white; when straight and gay rub shoulders on the same athletic team; when students of many faiths and none at all probe each other's beliefs in a class on religion; and when the economically advantaged and disadvantaged find themselves roommates. The glue that will hold tomorrow's America together is empathy — a capacity to identify with the concerns and aspirations of others. And empathy depends on shared experience, especially in the formative years of childhood and adolescence. It is much harder to dismiss or belittle one group of human beings when they bear the face of a friend or classmate or to silently accept the false dichotomies of "us" and "them" that fill this political season. Nor is empathy a purely domestic imperative. Americans will also require a heightened level of cultural sensitivity and cosmopolitan knowledge in order to prosper in our shrinking world, where India can feel much closer, at times, than Indiana. All this universities can, if sufficiently diverse, provide.
So, if reflecting the face of America is in our interests, how can universities go about achieving this ideal? What can we do to widen the pipeline that leads to our campuses? There is, alas, no silver bullet, but with determination, creativity, and generosity of spirit, much, I believe, can be accomplished.
Our first obligation is to do everything possible to ensure that those who can least afford a college education are provided with the means to do so. Even in the depths of the Great Recession, as we tightened our collective belt, I am proud of the fact that Princeton made more, not fewer, resources available to students in need of financial aid. We have also taken steps to ensure that tuition increases are felt only by families in the top 5 percent of the American income distribution. Indeed, for many years, such increases have been outstripped by the growth in scholarship expenditures, which means the average "net cost" to students of a Princeton education is actually 25 percent lower now than it was in 2001. I am also delighted that Princeton was the first to substitute grants for loans in its financial aid packages, lifting the burden of college debt from our students and freeing them to follow their passions rather than their pocketbooks. I realize, of course, that Princeton has far more latitude in this regard than many universities, especially public ones, which are caught between government retrenchment and rising costs. This fall, the National Science Board reported that between 2002 and 2010, all but seven states reduced their per-student support at major public research universities. Although enrollment at these institutions increased by an average of 13 percent, state support fell by an average of 20 percent. Well might the headline writers at The Chronicle of Higher Education ask, "Public No Longer?"
But regardless of their financial circumstances, our nation's universities need to develop ways — and here I quote NAICU President David Warren — to "cut their operating costs, improve their efficiency, and enhance their affordability" to remain "within reach of families from all backgrounds." This will assuredly entail some difficult adjustments on the part of institutions. In addition to administrative reforms and the usual resort to larger enrollments and bigger classes, there is currently what I would describe as an epidemic of "irrational exuberance" surrounding the possibility that online courses, which lack the costly constraints of brick and mortar classrooms, may come to the rescue. It is frankly too soon to tell, both in terms of whether such technologies will really reduce costs, but much more importantly, to my mind, whether the quality of the education that these courses provide will pass muster.
But for all its importance, college affordability is not itself sufficient to enlarge the tent of higher education. We also need to actively reach out to potential applicants, as well as their families and schools, with the message that even highly selective universities are realistic destinations for them. If they think of Princeton and its peers at all, many of these students regard our campuses as places where "other" people go, and so are lost to us. There are terrific organizations ready to partner with us — two that come to mind are QuestBridge and Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, better known as LEDA, which are dedicated to helping low-income students prepare for and matriculate at selective colleges and universities. We have even created our own "academic and cultural enrichment program" for bright, under-served local high school students. Founded in 2001, the Princeton University Preparatory Program brings these students to campus for three consecutive summers for courses on topics ranging from art to mathematics, and the results have been impressive. Among PUPP's first four cohorts, for example, 70 percent have earned a college degree, compared to a national average of 55 percent for all college students and a meager 9 percent for low-income students.
The common denominator in these and many other programs is their capacity to level an educational playing field that all too often advantages the advantaged. As PUPP graduate Cynthia Michalak put it, "One of the best things PUPP did for me was give me the confidence to apply to schools like Princeton — that I could compete with peers from elite prep schools and handle the level of work that would be expected of me there." I am pleased to say that Cynthia was admitted to our University, graduated in 2009, and is now an admissions officer at Princeton, where, closing a virtuous circle, she can encourage students like her to maximize their possibilities through an outstanding education.
There are other approaches that expand the tent for students who historically have not considered selective colleges and universities. I have been impressed with partnerships between selective colleges and community colleges, like the one at Amherst College, which has enabled more than 100 community college students to transfer to Amherst over the past five years. Other colleges, like Dartmouth College, have focused on recruiting recent veterans who interrupted their education to serve their country.
Whatever the path that under-served students take to our campuses, it is critical that their experience is not perceptibly different from that of their historically well-served classmates, whether that means subsidizing co-curricular activities, creating a supportive residential atmosphere, or developing a critical mass of students with similar backgrounds. We do not want to replicate the experience of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who likened her arrival on our newly co-educational campus in 1972 to a "visitor landing in an alien country" — not that this prevented her from winning Princeton's highest undergraduate honor. Her eloquent call in her senior year for Princeton "to accommodate and harmonize with the beat of those of us who march to different drummers" is an aspiration that guides us to this day and should infuse the mission of every university.
Even if we persuade more students that Princeton and universities like it are hospitable environments; even if we offer lavish financial aid and champion diversity, we will still fall short of our goals if we do not add our weight to your efforts to strengthen college preparedness. Every year we turn away low-income applicants who have the capacity to engage in rigorous intellectual pursuits but who, thanks to inadequate elementary and secondary schooling, lack the preparation they need to thrive at Princeton. Simply put, we cannot in good conscience admit them. But neither can we wring our hands and blame the sorry state of our nation's public education system. Without in any way usurping your role as educators or absolving government of its responsibility to guarantee the right of all to a quality education, universities need to intervene in the lives of students well before they attain college age. There are many strategies available to us, but let me briefly touch on two.
The first is to cultivate an environment in which public education receives the respect and support it deserves, either formally, through academic units like Princeton's Program in Teacher Preparation, which has been equipping students and alumni to make a difference in our nation's classrooms for more than four decades, or informally, through campus-based organizations like Princeton Students for Educational Reform. Their quest for "educational equity in the United States" is at once thoughtful and ardent, and it is echoed by another movement that Princeton played a role in nurturing — Teach for America, the brainchild of Princeton alumna Wendy Kopp, who turned the subject of her senior thesis into the destination of choice for thousands of college graduates. What is interesting about Wendy's story in the context of my remarks today is that she traces her awareness of and interest in educational inequalities to the very kind of encounters that a diverse student body fosters. As she noted in her book One Day, All Children . . . , "My roommate, who had attended public school in the South Bronx, was smart and creative. She was a brilliant poet. Still, she struggled under the academic demands of Princeton until she had time to gain the skills necessary to compensate for her weak preparation. . . . Princeton University was not the most likely place to become concerned about what's wrong in education, but it made me aware of students' unequal access to the kind of educational excellence I had previously taken for granted."
But there may be more we can do. A novel idea I have been mulling over is inspired by the United World Colleges, which offer two years of pre-collegiate education leading to an International Baccalaureate Diploma and are distinguished by their multicultural and multinational student bodies. Students spend their last two years in high school living together on campuses all over the world. Attending a United World College is a uniquely empowering and broadening experience, and I have been asking myself if something similar could not be designed for socially and economically disadvantaged students who have the inherent abilities but not the requisite preparation to excel at selective colleges and universities. What I envision is a bridging school, national in scope and outstanding in reputation, that will carry these students across the chasm that lies between the potential to succeed and the capacity to succeed, a bridge that will swell our applicant pools and student bodies with the very students who are so noticeably under-represented now. Such a school would remove the stigma associated with remedial education, transcend the limitations of summer institutes and after-hours counseling, and end the sense of isolation that many gifted high school students feel as high achieving students in their neighborhoods. Much will have to be considered and achieved before this idea can assume a concrete form, but I raise it now in order to illustrate the scope of the action universities must contemplate if, as I told our trustees when I broached this idea, we are "to get closer to the ideal of a student body that looks like America."
In 1937, 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." By increasing our stake in the lives of the latter and helping them to develop their talents to the full, universities will be fulfilling their historic — and rightful — role as agents of progress, to the lasting benefit of all. And your work, though far from being done, will be rendered a little easier.
Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you today.