September 7, 2006
I welcome this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on a topic that has long been a very compelling one for me: the promise and importance of our community colleges.
Although my affiliation with Smith College is what brings me here today, my connection to this issue dates much further back, to my career at the University of California Berkeley. As one of the country’s leading universities, Berkeley has many claims to distinction, but the one that still makes me proudest is its continuing commitment to enrolling fully a third of its upper-division students from community colleges. That decision has its roots, of course, in the broader public mission of the UC system but is nonetheless highly unusual and commendable, particularly as we see other so-called elite colleges and universities wringing their hands about the difficulties of recruiting and retaining a socio-economically diverse student body.
Smith College enrolls about 100 students each year who come to us from community colleges. While some of these students fall within the traditional 18- to 22-year-old age bracket for college students, the majority of them are older and they enter through our Ada Comstock Scholars program. Before I address my broader points, I would like to share with you brief snapshots of three local community college students who transferred to Smith and who personify the very real benefits of cooperation among our institutions.
Heather Neal, who transferred from GCC, entered Smith in the fall of 2002 and majored in psychology. She graduated in 2005. In her previous “lives” she had worked in corporate America and earned a certificate in massage therapy. In her junior year, she received support from Smith to purse an internship in Florida, working with a leading expert on the study of human touch and depression in neonates, incorporating her previous training in massage therapy with her growing research ability in physiological biology. As a follow-up to her summer work, Heather designed and produced an independent study that evaluated stress levels in various populations by measuring corticosteroids in saliva cells. Along the way she worked as a personal assistant to former Smith president Jill Ker Conway. Heather hopes to teach in GCC’s massage school and to continue her research interests in physiological biology.
Christine Hebert, who came to Smith from Holyoke Community College, graduated this spring after completing a major in studio art. Throughout her time at Smith, Christine served in the Air Force Reserves, going to summer camp and spending one weekend a month on base. Despite concern about a potential deployment to Iraq, she focused on her studies and explored new areas of art and art history. She became fascinated with a course on the history of the book and spent many hours with renowned artist Barry Moser. Christine’s senior art show was stunning, and she capped it off by winning a national art competition in New Mexico. She is currently seeking to paint and draw full time, to market her work via the Web, and to retire her student loans.
Kate Winans, a current Smith student, is majoring in American studies, taking two courses a semester while her children are young. A fascination with the history of her old house in Conway and an old schoolhouse in that town has led Kate to a wider interest in the material culture of old New England. She hopes to develop her knowledge of material culture with work at the Old Deerfield Museum and Library, possibly through an independent project. She has served as a peer adviser for other older students and can usually be found at lunchtime in the Campus Center café, discussing her courses and professors with classmates. Kate has bloomed as a confident and independent scholar while at Smith, but the groundwork for that growth was laid at GCC.
For students like Heather, Christine, and Kate, the attractions of a community college might initially have been pragmatic. They needed to hold a job while going to school; they needed to live at home; they had family responsibilities.
These are very real considerations, and ones that, by and large, private colleges like Smith aren’t often well positioned to address. But equally significant—and of deep interest to me—are the psychological challenges to which the GCC Foundation refers, quite eloquently, in its mission statement: the fact that, for many people, a college education is somehow “beyond the borders of their personal geographies.”
That’s so well put, and in many ways it echoes the very basis on which Smith College was established. The college’s founder, Sophia Smith, sought to create a liberal arts college for women and offer an education equal to the best available to men— something that was not only unavailable in the 19th century but, for many, unimaginable. Today, women’s colleges, like community colleges, embody one of the signal strengths of the American higher education system: a recognition that one size does not fit all, and that true access to education requires a multitude of pathways, a wide range of choices.
There is ample evidence that the community college model is thriving. According to a provocative new book soon to be released by the University of California Press, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Higher Education and Society by Peter Sacks, the number of community colleges increased by 171 percent between 1965 and 2003. In 2002 community colleges enrolled 43 percent of all undergraduates and housed 40 percent of Pell Grant recipients. Community colleges have become more influential, farther-reaching, and more esteemed. It’s not surprising, then, that they are also under greater scrutiny. (It is perhaps a mark of distinction that the Chronicle of Higher Education now publishes some community college presidents’ salaries.)
As calls for accountability have risen in all sectors of higher education, they have become particularly pointed in regard to serving our nation’s most vulnerable student populations, including first-generation and low-income students. Lately, as I’m sure you know, some have argued that state and community colleges need to take greater responsibility for ensuring that students who seek a degree, principally a bachelor’s degree, complete their education.
According to Peter Sacks, 63 percent of students enrolling in community colleges say they would like to earn a bachelor’s degree. Yet of those who started at a community college in 1995 and who wanted to transfer to a four-year college, only 23 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree six years later. The distinctions sharpen when you control by income. Although community colleges are rightly praised as providing opportunities for low-income students, only 21 percent of students from the lowest income quartile actually transfer to a four-year college or university (as opposed to 49 percent of community college students from the top socio-economic quartile.)
I’m not convinced that six years represents a magic number. Or four. Or two. How many years is the “right” amount of time to complete an education? And, by extension, what is the right definition of a college’s success? These are worthy questions but not simple ones.
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University, a small women’s college in Washington, DC, argues compellingly that “time-to-completion is often the least useful indicator of true academic success,” especially when your students are nontraditional, have families, are older and/or financially challenged.
Do institutions have a responsibility for students’ success? Absolutely. But defining success, in the context of a college’s particular mission, calls for thoughtful conversations that balance the importance—and the challenges—of access against the often arbitrary and artificial accountability measures that policymakers increasingly seek to impose.
One of the privileges of working at both Berkeley and Smith has been the opportunity to examine issues of accountability from two—at least two—distinctly different lenses. And while neither public nor private colleges can be said to universally embrace external scrutiny, I’ve come to understand such initiatives as, well, a peculiar form of flattery. A sign that you’ve arrived.
Let me explain.
Never before in history has a college education seemed more important to the prospect of economic well-being. The lifetime income differential attributed to college education has been rising. According to a Business–Higher Education Forum paper on accountability, a male college graduate’s first job in 1973 typically paid 33 percent more than that of a male high school graduate; today, the difference has grown to more than 80 percent. When people see a good, a product, that is critically important they become concerned about who has access to it, how it is distributed, and (particularly in the case of private colleges) why it costs what it does.
Perhaps more importantly, they also begin to see themselves, in a sense, as investors or even part-owners. Indeed, in The University: An Owner’s Manual, author Henry Rosovsky agues that the definition of “my college” or “my university” today is no longer akin to “my car” or “my house,” but instead has come to occupy a much larger public sense of affiliation and investment, as in “my country.”
If we are all owners, then, we owe it to ourselves to take a harder look at the data we’re receiving. For while educational opportunities have been widening for many sectors of the population, the gains have not been universal. Students from upper-middle- class families saw their bachelor’s degree prospects nearly double in this period, but the prospects of students from the lowest U.S. income quartile have stayed stagnant, at just 6 percent. And it is significantly more likely for low-income women than low-income men to attend and to graduate from college. The median family income for a woman student attending college is now $10,000 less than it is for a man.
The most significant challenge facing higher education today—for the institutions themselves and for the country—is the relationship between cost, affordability, and access. Tuition, room, and board at a private college is beyond the financial reach of the great majority of American families. The comprehensive fee (tuition, room, and board) at Smith is $43,438 per year—only about $3,000 less than the 2005 United States median family income. We’ve done a rough calculation at Smith; we estimate that students from families who pay the full comprehensive fee—“full-pay” students in college lingo—come from the top 10 percent of American income distribution. To put that figure another way, 90 percent of households in the United States cannot afford the cost of a private college.
Fortunately, many U.S. colleges, like Smith, have generous financial aid programs—most of which commit to meeting the full financial need of all admitted students, according to a set of federal guidelines. Sixty-one percent of Smith students receive need-based financial aid; the average Smith grant is $21,000. Twenty-seven percent receive Pell grants, the federal financial aid grants for the lowest income students, a figure that places us second among private liberal arts colleges in the United States (after Berea College, which only admits financially needy students). Almost a quarter of our first-year students come from families in which neither parent graduated from college.
This choice clearly has costs and is an easier one (though by no means painless) to make with an endowment the size of Smith’s. I believe that we can take steps, both as a country and as a higher education community, that will address the opportunity gap in higher education, both by increasing equity of access and containing costs:
Higher education in the United States is the finest in the world. The sheer number and variety of private colleges and the breadth and extent of our public college and university systems provide the United States the most extensive set of opportunities for higher education in the world. America’s college and university system is one of the greatest achievements and most powerful strategic advantages for our country. However, it is subject to increasing competition as countries, particularly in Asia, have been investing heavily in higher education.
In closing, I want to focus on a special case—science and mathematics. I am sure that many of you have read Tom Friedman’s recent book, The World Is Flat. In it, Friedman describes an alarming numbers gap. In 2004, the National Science Board reported that the number of American 18- to 24-year-olds receiving science degrees has fallen to 17th in the world, down from third just three decades ago. Of the 2.8 million bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering granted worldwide in 2003, 1.2 million were earned by Asian students in Asian universities, 830,000 in Europe, and 400,000 in the United States. In engineering alone, Asian countries are now producing eight times the number of bachelor’s degrees as the United States. United States’ graduate enrollment in science and engineering remains below where it was a decade ago.
This worrisome story has a disturbing gender dimension. Women now make up almost 60 percent of the college population and almost 60 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients. Yet they are severely underrepresented in many fields in science. In engineering and physics, for example, women represent only 20 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees.
We cannot solve the national problem of degree production in science and engineering until we address the gender gap—most importantly in engineering.
Many of you know that in this arena, Smith has taken a bold step. Seven years ago, the college established the first-ever engineering program at a U.S. women’s college. This coming May we will graduate our fourth class; this spring we will break ground on a new building for engineering and science, a so-called “green-design” building that we plan as a model for environmentally sustainable building systems. In a very short time, engineering has emerged as a popular major at Smith, even attracting students from other disciplines who had never considered the field before enrolling at the college. Many coed institutions are looking to emulate a teaching model like ours that attracts, rather than weeds out, talented female students.
Indeed, speaking more generally, data show that women’s colleges have unusual success in motivating women to become scientists and engineers. Women attending women’s colleges major in the sciences in larger percentages, and they go on to graduate study in larger percentages.
But women’s colleges represent a relatively small segment in American higher education. To increase the numbers of women, and men, studying science and engineering, we must all play a role. The ultimate key lies in K through 12 education and, particularly, in better training for our teachers responsible for instruction in science and mathematics. The case is simple: if your teacher is uncomfortable with mathematics and doesn’t understand it very well, the chances are you won’t either.
However, that is a long-term objective, and, in the meantime, community colleges can play an important role in creating multiple paths of entry to college work in these disciplines, enabling students to make up work they have missed or understood only marginally. Articulation agreements in these fields make real the paths from two-year to four-year colleges in science and engineering and reflect the importance of strong bonds among our multiple institutions.
I began my remarks this evening by introducing three community college students and recounting, in a sense, what coming to Smith has done for them. But that’s only half the equation. Equally resonant is what nontraditional students like Heather, Christine, and Kate bring to a college like Smith.
Because you are closely involved with community college students it won’t surprise you—though I find it does surprise many others—to learn that our nontraditional students are among our strongest scholars. Having worked hard to get to Smith, they take nothing for granted; they are goal-oriented, focused, curious, and engaged, bringing a wealth of life experience into classroom discussions. Faculty, including me, delight to have them in our classes because they are actively engaged in their own educations and often serve as models to other students whose paths might have had fewer obstacles. They earn Latin Honors at a higher rate than our traditional undergraduates, even while performing astonishing feats of juggling responsibilities and managing time. Without question, Smith would be a diminished institution without their vibrant presence, and I look forward to our continued work together on behalf of students from all walks of life.