Keynote: Prepared remarks

Jamie P. Merisotis ’86, Bates Trustee and President of the Institute for Higher Education Policy

Bates College, May 10, 2007

(Audio slide show is available.)

We live in a fast-paced world in which, as the saying goes, the only constant is change. Like the rest of society, the American higher education system is grappling with changes that are significantly altering the landscape as we know it.

Some of these changes are positive, leading to widespread benefits for society. Changes driven by new teaching and learning strategies, dramatic increases in access to information and new knowledge, and efforts to more effectively engage students and ensure their success are just some of the improvements we are now seeing.

At the same time, however, a series of trends are converging in a way that may decrease college opportunity, especially for underserved populations. The trends are interrelated and, though their cumulative impact probably cannot be quantified, they are critically significant for the future of the whole system.

Today I’d like to talk with you about some of these trends, and suggest what I think they may mean for our country broadly, and for one of America’s great higher education institutions, Bates College, in particular.

Improving access to higher education continues to be one of the most important investments we can make in our collective well-being. The simple fact remains that increasing educational opportunities for all Americans results in tremendous public, private, social and economic benefits.

We know that workers who have gone to college tend to have higher salaries, higher savings, more overall productivity professionally and personally, and better health and life expectancy. For example, national data show that U.S. workers over the age of 18 with a high school diploma earn an average of about $27,000 annually, while those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of more than $51,000, or nearly double that amount.

Higher earnings for college graduates result in more revenue for government expenditures through increased tax collections and through budget savings from avoided social expenditures.

Increasing the number of college graduates saves millions of dollars in avoided social costs every year, as a result of improved health, lower crime and reduced welfare and unemployment. The social benefits from higher education range from higher voting rates to more charitable giving and volunteerism.

In short, by investing in our fellow Americans who might not otherwise go to college, we are investing in our united future and well-being. It’s not simply that it’s the right thing to do, but that it is in our collective economic and social self-interest to do so.

So what do these Americans who will drive our future development and growth look like?

We’ve already seen tremendous demographic changes in our nation over the last two decades, with the juggernaut of the booming Hispanic or Latino population, continuing increases in the African American and Asian American/Pacific Islander populations, and even growth in the often marginalized Native American population.

Of particular importance is the fact that the under-24 youth population, together with the early adult populations in the 25- to 44-year-old age group, all will see real declines among whites by 2020, while Hispanics, African Americans and other populations — including Asian Americans and Native Americans — will increase significantly.

You can also see that in the 45 to 64 age group, which is often referred to as the prime earnings years, Hispanics and African Americans together will grow at twice the rate of whites. These fastest growing populations are who we rely on to drive many of our core economic indicators like savings and investment rates, and big ticket consumer spending like homes and cars.

You can also see that the age range where whites are growing fastest is the over-65 age group, a majority of whose members are retired and many of whom will be collecting Social Security and taking advantage of Medicare and other federal benefits. Clearly that population will be relying heavily on the rapidly growing African American, Hispanic and other populations who are the fastest growing in the 25–64 age spectrum to support their retirement years.

Another important trend will be the changing geographic center of the nation.

As the nation’s population has expanded to just over 300 million people, the population has consistently shifted west and south over the course of the last century, with the highest population declines experienced here in the Northeast.

Today, we see significant numbers of college students in the Northeast and particularly the New England states in terms of total enrollments. But given these overall population trends, I think it’s fair to say that the salad days will soon be over.

It’s unlikely that the Northeast will be able to maintain this share of the national higher education market without some substantial changes in marketing, recruitment and fundraising strategies.

These population shifts can already be seen in the changes in high school enrollments nationally, with all of the states that are experiencing significant high school enrollment growth in the next decade coming from the West, and most of the states east of Texas (except for Georgia) experiencing declines or only very modest growth.

On this chart, those states that are in the lighter shares are those with no or negative high school enrollments growth, while those in the darker shares are those with the most growth. It’s pretty obvious to see that those places with the most growth are a long way from Maine, and except perhaps for California not states where it is easy to target our current student recruitment efforts.

These recent changes portend what may be more substantial shifts in the decade to follow.

In the New England states, there will be a substantial decline in high school graduates between now and 2018. That decline is entirely driven by falling numbers of white high school graduates. But even for the fast-growing Hispanic and Asian American populations, the increase in high school graduates will be fairly modest compared to other parts of the nation.

In short, there will plainly just be fewer students from the New England states in general who we can draw from in terms of our potential future student cohorts.

These trends will obviously have a profound effect on the Northeast’s dominance of the higher education enterprise and will push institutions like Bates to expand their recruitment and marketing efforts westward and southward in the coming years both to maintain their overall enrollments and to recruit and retain diverse classes of students.

If you consider what our national needs are in the specific sense of human capital, it’s clear that we are looking at an enormous shortage of skilled workers in the not-too-distant future.

Already, we are seeing corporations recruiting overseas in critical workforce sectors like technology, and by 2020 we will be looking at a gap of about 14 million people to fill jobs that require a college education.

Unless we plan to radically alter our immigration policies — an unlikely scenario in the current political context — we will need to significantly increase the number of people who go to college. This is our best hope in terms of remaining competitive on a global scale.

But already, we can see from international comparative data that we are falling behind our economic competitors in terms of increasing higher education opportunities.

As you can see from this chart, among the oldest working age group (55–64), the U.S. is still number one with regard to the proportion of the population with degrees. Close behind is Canada, followed by several of the Scandinavian countries. This chart essentially represents what our educational system looked like 30 years ago.

But that picture changes dramatically when we look at the youngest working age cohort, the recent college graduates. On this chart, focus on the black dots, which represent where we are right now.

This chart shows, in descending order, the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have a college degree. As you can see, we now stand in eighth place in terms of the proportion of this population with degrees. Far ahead of the U.S. are Canada, Japan and Korea. Several other nations, including the Scandinavian countries, are also now out front. Note also that several European nations and Australia are close on our heels.

We expect that as a result of what is known as the Bologna Process, which is a European-wide agreement to invest in higher education on a large scale, the U.S. will fall further behind many of the European nations in just the next few years.

This precipitous decline in such a relatively short time frame tells an important story about our inability to sustain the investments we have made in higher education as other countries have surpassed our commitment. And it also tells us that for schools like Bates, our ability to recruit and retain students will increasingly be driven by global concerns.

An interesting slice to look at in terms of this 25- to 34-year-old cohort is to see how these college degree rates compare at a state level.

Here I’ve overlaid data about some of our key competitor and partner nations that you saw on the last chart with how those rates compare with our degree attainment levels by state.

Not surprisingly, many of the New England states and those from the Midwest are those above the national average, whereas states like Arkansas, Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico trail badly. Some of those lagging states have college degree rates that right now look like the lagging European nations.

But we know that those nations are quickly moving ahead in terms of their higher education degree production. If current trends continue, most of the rest of the developed world will surpass many U.S. states, further adding to our international competitiveness deficit. And of course, those states at the bottom are the ones who we will increasingly need to draw from to maintain our enrollments at schools like Bates.

Let’s now take a longer-term perspective on U.S. higher education and look at various eras over the course of the last 80 years, and then what things may look like circa 2020.

Here, I’ve identified the eras using the names of some of our famous Bates alums — some of whom are here today — to identify the eras for ease of reference. So from left to right we have the Benjamin Mays era, circa 1920; the Bob Kinney era, circa 1940; the Jack Keigwin era, circa 1960; the Dana Petersen Moore era, circa 1980; and the Lena Sene era, circa 2000. I’ve also done some projections using U.S. Department of Education data to take us forward to 2020 — around the time when my own son will be applying to Bates.

The chart clearly shows that we have seen dramatic changes over the course of a century, reflected in different ways across the eras. For example, the number of colleges and universities today is more than twice as large as the number in the early 1940s. But the number of colleges and universities is not likely to change significantly in the future.

The total number of students has quadrupled since the early 1960s, to more than 16 million students today, making the U.S. college student population larger than the national population of more than 160 countries.

A great deal of recent discussion also has taken place regarding the changing gender profile of American higher education. The proportion of students who are women, which was about one-third in the early 1960s, is projected to be almost the mirror opposite by 2020, with nearly three out of every five students being women.

The significant successes we have seen in terms of enrollments and degrees conferred to women have obviously contributed enormously to our economic prosperity as a nation over the last 30 years. At the same time, declining participation by men is an important but unfortunately not well understood phenomenon that will merit our attention in the coming years.

We’ve already talked about some of the trend concerning enrollments by race and ethnicity, but perhaps a different view of this is how much the enrollment has changed just in the course of a generation, reflecting our rapidly changing national demographics.

As recently as 1980 only 15 percent of students came from the four major so-called minority groups — a term that is sure to be outdated in the near future—to just under 30 percent today. This continuing evolution of student enrollments has had, and will continue to have, profound effects on the nation as a whole and the higher education system in particular.

Remember that even at these levels these populations continue to be underrepresented in higher education overall compared to the U.S. population in general and particularly compared to the younger population of the country.

Let’s now turn to some of the basic realities of U.S. higher education. The line from that old car commercial — “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile” — has a clear corollary in the higher education context. This is not your father’s higher education system.

As president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, I’ve had the opportunity to frequently interact with government leaders, many of whom share a deep commitment to higher education. But the five most dreaded words I hear from many of these policymakers are “when I was in college.”

This phrase strikes fear in my heart because, to put it bluntly, unless you graduated from college in the last decade or work in one of these institutions, you probably have no idea what college is like today.

In today’s higher education system, three-quarters of the students are what are strangely referred to as “non-traditional students” — that is, students who did not graduate from high school and enroll as a full-time student immediately thereafter. The majority of first-year students in college today are in community colleges, a segment of our higher education system that is one of the only aspects that the rest of the world still envies.

Particularly surprising to those of us who have had the great privilege of getting educated at schools like Bates is that only about 5 percent of all students attend colleges that accept less than half of those who apply. In other words, the vast majority of students in both two-year and four-year colleges enroll in what are often called open access institutions.

In considering some of the other basic realities about our higher education system, it’s also important to note that many students face financial challenges in paying for a college education, with one-half of all students participating in federal student aid programs and, according to a government study released just this morning, three-quarters receiving financial aid from any source.

Another myth-busting reality about higher education today is how much student’s work. We’ve all heard, and maybe a few of us have actually uttered, the phrase “I worked my way through college.” I can recall a few years ago giving a speech and regrettably lapsing into a personal recounting of my own poor upbringing and challenges as a Pell Grant recipient at Bates who had to work year-round to keep up on the tuition bills. After my speech, a student in the audience got up, and said, in an exasperated voice: “Big deal.”

And of course, he was right, because today’s college students work far more than any prior generation — in some cases, at levels that endangers their ability to stay in school and do well.

We also know that for the majority of college students today, the typical experience is attending more than one institution — that is, either transferring or, in some cases, dual enrollment in two different institutions to take advantage of the coursework or scheduling offered at another college.

And finally, a reflection of our demographic realities is that the fastest growth in enrollment in U.S. higher education is actually in a group of more than 350 colleges and universities that literally don’t exist in the New England states. These institutions collectively are referred to as minority-serving institutions and include many well-known institutions like Morehouse, Spelman, Morgan State, the University of Texas at El Paso and many of the campuses in the City University of New York system. They also include some you may not have heard about, like Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Tohono O’odham Community College, which sits in the Sonoran Desert on the border with Mexico.

The nation has made great progress in expanding the number of young people going to college. Approximately 85 percent of the nation’s young adults graduate from high school by age 24, and 64 percent of seniors in high school go on to college the next year, as you can see from this chart on the bottom line that says “total.”

But for a significant number of people, the system does not work well, if it works at all. Low-income students, students of color, first-generation college-goers and other students who might not otherwise attend college are not recruited and retained in an equitable manner. For example, in 2003, while 80 percent of high-income high school completers were enrolled in college by the following October, only 53 percent of low-income students were.

Gaps between white and their African American and Hispanic are significant and troubling given where we are seeing the fastest population growth. The chart shows that these gaps have largely persisted over the past 30 years.

We also know that there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and achievement. This chart, which looks at an achievement variable made up of test scores and grades compared to an SES variable made up of family income and parent’s educational attainment level, tells a very dramatic story.

Students with the highest test scores from the lowest socioeconomic group attend college at the same rate as students with the lowest test scores from the highest socioeconomic group — put more plainly, smart poor kids go to college at the same rate as “the academically challenged children of financially gifted parents.”

Students from traditionally underserved populations, including low-income students and students of color, are also less likely to be enrolled in certain types of institutions, such as private institutions, four-year institutions and selective institutions.

As you can see from this chart, drawn from data used for the famous books by Bowen and Bok, like The Shape of the River, only about 5 percent of students at the most selective public and private institutions come from families in the lowest income quartile (about $27,000 a year and under) and only 6 percent are first generation students. This includes students attending the so-called COFHE or Consortium on Financing Higher Education schools, made up of many of Bates’ chief competitors (e.g., Carleton, Trinity and Williams), the women’s colleges and the Ivy institutions.

No matter what group of selective institutions you look at, enrollment of the poorest students is a major concern.

So if we then zero in on how Bates is doing in the current context in terms of its efforts to enroll and retain a diverse student population, you can see that we have work to do. We will be discussing what Bates is doing and should be doing throughout the day, so I don’t want to belabor the points that will be made by others in these discussions.

But it’s worth noting that Bates does not compare favorably with many of its peer institutions in several key areas. Bates has the second lowest percentage of students from underrepresented minority groups enrolled compared to this group of institutions, with several of our chief competitors enrolling twice and in some cases three times the percentage of these underrepresented minorities.

We are also below several of our peers with regard to the percentage of students enrolled who receive Pell Grants, which is a sort of rough proxy for low-income status. So this is our baseline, and this gives us a basic sense of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

So what does all of this mean for the future? I’d like to conclude with some brief observations about the implications of these trends for our country as a whole, and without trying to anticipate or steer the important dialogues that will take place today, offer my own observations about what they mean for Bates.

It has taken centuries for our nation to construct the higher education system of today. Step by step, the country has built public and private universities, then sought to widen their reach through efforts like the Morrill Act (1862) that promoted “the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”; the GI Bill (1944) that provided educational benefits to World War II veterans; the Higher Education Act of 1965 that seeded today’s federal student aid system; and the Pell Grant (1972) program that created federal grants for low-income students.

These government-driven strategies have been complemented and in many ways shaped by the convictions and commitments of America’s colleges and universities to expand opportunity for more Americans to achieve the dream of a college education.

But now I believe we stand at a critical juncture. We face a great risk of creating a society cleaved along a very distinct line: those who were able to go to and complete college, and those who were not. It is true that we have always had these two groups in our society. But in the future this division will be far more stratifying, far more oppressive for those without a college degree, than we have ever seen historically.

Countering this troubling prospect will require more than tweaking at the margins. It will require a true partnership that dedicates time, understanding, effort and financial resources to ensure that college opportunities are available to students who would not otherwise attend.

There are solid strategies at the disposal of the higher education system to address this convergence of trends, but the higher education system itself will have to change significantly in terms of its commitment and sustained investment in these strategies.

As for Bates, one of America’s great institutions of higher education, I think these trends make a compelling and direct case for the kinds of sustained, comprehensive strategies envisioned in the Benjamin Mays Initiative.

What is particularly important to me about the Mays Initiative is its specificity; that is, it aligns important goals with concrete strategies that can make a difference in making Bates a more inclusive, more appealing, more comfortable place for all who seek to benefit from its great resources. How to prioritize those strategies, and strengthen them, and get to the real task of implementation, is a key part of today’s discussion.

I conclude my brief overview of the changing demographics of U.S. higher education and its implications for Bates with a quote from the person who has inspired this work, Dr. Benjamin Mays.

Here are some inspiring words delivered by Dr. Mays during one of his most famous sermons. Mays said, “The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is a sin.”

Our task today is not to change the world of Bates in a single moment. But we do have the responsibility to proceed in this dialogue about diversity at Bates by recognizing that we must set our sights high and that we need to dream big to make a difference.

The world is indeed changing, and Bates must respond to the challenge by seeing diversity as an ideal opportunity to enhance both the quality and inclusiveness of this great American institution.

Thank you very much.