Reprinted with permission from Washingtonpost.Newsweek
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Security Through Education
By William E. Kirwan
Monday, August 14, 2006; A13
A national security crisis is brewing, and if our country doesn't take
immediate action, it could be devastating for the future of the United States.
Consider these facts: Worldwide, the United States ranks seventh in
high-school completion rates and ninth in the percentage of high-school
graduates who enroll in college. Of every 100 current eighth-graders in
America, just 18 will receive a college degree during the next 10 years. Based
on current participation and completion rates, the education pipeline reveals
The "prescription" for what ails education in this country enjoys
widespread consensus: Improve the performance of our primary and secondary
school students and provide access to affordable, high-quality higher education
to more people. But how the country goes about filling this prescription is a
matter of significant debate.
Clearly, a "fix" to the problem requires the combined and
coordinated efforts of various sectors. Central to the effort, however, must be
higher education. Higher education, after all, prepares the teachers for the
schools and sets the standards for the degrees.
What should higher education do to help plug the holes in the education
pipeline and enable our nation to address its most pressing long-term national
security issue: the development of a robust and superbly educated workforce?
First, higher education must become more engaged in improving primary and
secondary school performance. Colleges and universities need to encourage more
students to pursue teaching careers and, in partnership with local school
districts, better prepare prospective teachers with the content knowledge and
pedagogy skills to succeed. Universities must work more effectively with the
K-12 sector to ensure that student assessment in high school is closely aligned
with college entrance requirements, and that the transition from high school to
college is as seamless as advancement from 11th to 12th grade.
The best way to achieve such transformational changes is through so-called
statewide K-16 councils, which bring educational leaders from all levels --
superintendents, principals, university presidents, deans -- together with business
and community leaders on a regular basis to develop reform agendas. Such an
approach is working in Maryland and a few other states.
As a second means of plugging the holes, state governments and higher
education need to rethink the way they distribute financial aid. During the
past two decades there has been a huge shift in the allocation of
university-based aid, away from students with demonstrated financial need and
toward high-ability students -- often from upper-middle-class families -- whom
universities seek in order to improve their SAT profiles and "vanity"
rankings. Too many low-income students are either discouraged from attending
college or must work such long hours that their progress toward a degree is
unreasonably delayed or, worse, terminated.
Fortunately, we have seen several "enlightened" universities --
including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard University,
the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, College Park --
introduce programs to ensure that students from families at the lower end of
the economic ladder can graduate debt-free. At the University System of
Maryland, we recently adopted a policy requiring that students from families
with the lowest levels of income graduate with the lowest debt. Planned
expenditures on institutional need-based aid by USM institutions have increased
more than 30 percent in the past year.
Finally, higher education -- especially public higher education -- must
learn to operate with a more cost-conscious budget model. Most other sectors
have experienced significant productivity gains through rigorous attention to
cost containment. Higher education can no longer afford to ignore this
Investment of state funds in higher education on a per-student basis is at a
25-year low. It has fallen from about $7,100 in 2001 to just over $5,800 in
2005. As state investment on a per-student basis has declined, the tuition
burden on students and their families has increased. In more than a quarter of
our states, tuition revenue is now greater than the state's investment in its
public colleges and universities. In the coming decades, areas such as health
care, energy, and social services for an aging population will require an ever
greater proportion of available tax dollars, accelerating the decline in public
investment in higher education.
With that decline and without serious attention to cost containment,
colleges and universities will face two highly undesirable alternatives: Accept
more students at generally affordable tuition levels and see quality erode or
protect quality by driving up tuition to levels that will be prohibitive for
With the leadership of its Board of Regents, the University System of
Maryland has incorporated cost containment as a formal part of its budget
development process. These efforts have reduced the "bottom line" by
more than $40 million for the system's 13 institutions during the past two
Filling the holes in America's education pipeline must become an urgent
national priority. Nowhere is strong, unified action more necessary than at our
colleges and universities. In partnership with others sectors, higher education
must be held accountable for embracing its role and responsibilities to help
improve K-12 education, increasing its need-based financial aid substantially,
and containing costs more aggressively. If this doesn't happen, U.S. leadership
in the global economy will erode. Perhaps even more threatening, our national
ethos of social upward mobility will be lost and we will devolve into a
two-tier society with a permanent underclass.
The writer is chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
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