When I gave the commencement speech at Georgia State University last year, one line earned me a standing ovation. It wasn’t some nugget of wisdom about life, or advice on how to forge a successful career, it was merely a statement of fact. I said: “For the last four years Georgia State has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any other non-profit college or university in America.”
(Image: Sue Desmond-Hellmann along with two graduates at Sinclair Community College, a Frontier Set School, in 2017. Image: LinkedIn)
It went down so well that I said it twice.
The Class of 2016 was rightly proud that they were graduating from a university that stands as a powerful example of how—with the right strategies and the right support— students from any background and from every background can succeed.
You can imagine my alarm then when I read former University System of Maryland chancellor, Brit Kirwan, warn yesterday that “we are creating a permanent underclass in America based on education, something we’ve never had before.” These words stopped me in my tracks. As a former university chancellor myself, I believe with every bone in my body that education should do the opposite: It should be a bridge to economic opportunity and social mobility.
Recent surveys suggest that the vast majority of Americans feel the same way. In its annual Poll on School Reform, Education Next found that nine in 10 parents want their child to achieve at least a two-year degree, and an Echelon Insights poll in counties that voted for Donald Trump found that a majority strongly agree with the notion that education after high school opens up more job opportunities. At the same time, other polls show that people are losing faith in colleges and universities, expressing a growing sense of skepticism and anxiety about whether education after high school is available, affordable, or relevant to their needs.
This contradiction paints a clear and challenging picture for higher education: how to neutralize the toxic mix of rising aspiration with rising frustration.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this paradox. After all, much of our public conversation around higher education focuses on issues that aren’t relevant to many would-be students. As Politico noted, the renowned U.S. News and World Report rankings, which came out [Sept. 12], do just this. By favoring metrics such as alumni giving, faculty salaries, and SAT scores, they promote prestige over opportunity. This is what led to Chancellor Kirwan’s chilling warning.
The good news is that there are other rankings that measure relevant and important data for today’s college students. Washington Monthly publishes its annual college guide and rankings, which focus on areas like access and success for low-income students and adult learners. There is also The Equality of Opportunity Project, which assesses colleges and universities on the movement of their students from lower income to higher income categories.
Viewed through these lenses, many institutions are excelling. Georgia State is one of them. And our foundation is supporting others through the Frontier Set, a network of 29 colleges and universities committed to getting many more students to and through credential programs, and into jobs. It’s time to move on from outdated notions of what constitutes “a good school” and start celebrating institutions that are inclusive, not exclusive.
This post was written by Sue Desmond-Hellmann. She is CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.