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President's Office


KEYNOTE ADDRESS, UTAH ASPIRE CONFERENCE

Sherwood Hills
Utah State University President Stan L. Albrecht
March 30, 2006


Thank you for the invitation to spend a few minutes with you today. You are engaged in an enormously important work. Utah State University is honored to have the opportunity to be your host for this conference.

Utah-ASPIRE is a professional organization of dedicated TRIO personnel who are striving to reach measurable and ambitious objectives. The impact of these objectives is making a difference that affects all. For over 30 years, America's federally funded TRIO programs have been helping low income, first generation and disabled students finish high school, enter college and successfully graduate. TRIO programs are designed to identify promising students, prepare them to do college level work, strengthen math and science skills, provide tutoring and support services to students once they reach campus and provide information on academic and financial aid opportunities. TRIO programs have been successful in changing the availability of opportunity in education not only in Utah, but across the nation. TRIO is not "just another social entitlement program;" rather, it is a group of dedicated personnel who daily see positive changes in the lives of students brought about by empowerment achieved through educational success.

Numerous student lives have been changed through TRIO programs' staff and services. Each story explains how a simple program for educational opportunity can make the difference in the life of the participant. When students think education is beyond their reach, TRIO programs in ten Utah colleges and universities enhance access and retention for higher education. These programs currently provide more than 8000 disadvantaged Utah students the upward mobility afforded by higher education.

I am impressed with the broad range of programs you offer, and your ability to truly change lives through these programs.

One of the reasons I describe your work as enormously important is because you are engaged in the business of creating opportunities for a higher education for students who otherwise would not have those opportunities. William Kirwan, Chancellor of the University of Maryland System, recently noted that "virtually every parent….wants his or her child to get a college degree. It is seen as the means to an economically and socially satisfying life." Yet, as David Ward, President of the American Council of Education also recently noted, "While we may have reached the apex in the recognition of the value of a college education, we are also experiencing limits in the support for public education."

This is the context I would like to use for my remarks today. While there is a greater recognition than ever before of the critical importance of obtaining a college degree, we are, at the same time, seeing a significant decline in the level of public support for public institutions of higher education. Let me give you just a quick example from my own personal experience. I served for four years as Utah State University's Provost. This was during a rather challenging time for the economy of the State of Utah, as most of you will remember. We all faced difficult budget cuts, little or no support for salaries and benefits, and a failure to fund even our most basic needs, such as student growth, the costs of fuel and power, and the operating and maintenance costs for our buildings. During that four year period, the percentage of Utah State University's total budget that was covered by the State of Utah reduced from 36 percent to 29 percent. As you all know, this year's state budget was much better. We had the largest surplus in recent memory - over $1 billion dollars. A great time for higher education to catch up, you would think. But has that happened? You all know the answer to that question. The trend of the previous years will continue. My institution will soon be in a position of receiving less than one-quarter of its support from the state.

We still call ourselves public institutions, but increasingly we are being required to find other ways to support ourselves - through research grants and contracts, through public philanthrophy, through partnerships with the private sector, and increasingly, through higher tuition - something I will say more about in a few moments.

The outcome of all of this is that, increasingly, we are taking the "public" out of public higher education. Those who fund us are increasingly seeing higher education as more of a private good, rather than a public good, thus justifying a decreased public investment in its future.

And, yet, we can make a very strong case for the PUBLIC benefit that comes from higher education. ACE recently initiated a new campaign entitled Solutions for Our Future that is designed to spark a national conversation about some of those broad-based public benefits of higher education and the importance to our country's future of sustained investments in our colleges and universities. Among the critical public values noted by the campaign are the following:

  • Well-educated citizens are crucial to the nation's ability to address the challenges that come with increased global competition (I will say more about this in just a moment). Our standard of living and our place in the world, the survival of our democratic society, the quality of life in our communities, the competitive strength of our economy, and our very future all depend on a better and more fully educated population.
  • Our colleges and universities contribute to the economy, well-being, and quality of life of our country. It is at our institutions of higher education that the discoveries are made that improve our health and quality of life.
  • Our colleges and universities contribute to an informed public, and more discerning electorate, a more tolerant mind-set. As Sanford Ungar has recently quoted from Nathan Pusey, "our job is to educate free, independent, and vigorous minds capable of analyzing events, of exercising judgment, of distinguishing facts from propaganda, and truths from half-truths and lies." This is not a bad outcome. Certainly, there is public benefit in that.
  • College graduates are less likely to be unemployed and to rely on public assistance.
  • On average in Utah, someone with a bachelor's degree earns twice as much per year as someone with a high school diploma.
  • Graduates are more likely to have employee benefits such as health insurance, retirement programs, leave time, etc.
  • College graduates are more likely to be in good health and live a healthy lifestyle.
  • College graduates are more likely to vote and to volunteer in their communities.

Now I recognize that many of these are benefits that accrue to the individual, but you can also see the societal benefits that follow, as well.

I have talked about individual and social benefits that come from having an educated population. Let me add a third important consideration by providing a global context for today's discussion. The reality is that by virtually any measure you want to use, our country is falling behind. William Kirwan quotes a recent speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wherein she noted that the United States ranks fifth among the industrialized nations in high school completion rates and seventh in college graduation rates. U.S. 12th graders recently performed below the international average for 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in mathematics and science. Our investment, both in higher education generally, and in funding the research and discovery process, is now trailing many other countries, including China, India, and several countries in the European Union. A decade from now, unless important changes occur, we will be making these same observation about Indonesia and Brazil and who knows who else.

As we consider the increasingly global economy and challenges to American economic dominance in worldwide markets, having an educated population is absolutely essential.

As never before, our issues are global issues. You have all read the major indicators - they are legion. No longer is the United States the unchallenged world leader in higher education, science, or engineering. Many political, educational and business leaders have observed that the world is fast catching up to the United States on a range of crucial measures.

Literacy rates are climbing across what we used to call the "Third World." Asia, Europe and South America are investing more and more in higher education. Other countries are investing more in research and in industrial start-ups - notably, for example, in China, which is scrambling to train the number of managers and engineers and scientists it needs to feed a roaring economic engine.

Over recent years, U.S. percentage of total world output of goods and services has declined by half, from 40 percent to 21 percent. As researchers point out, U.S. scholars used to create more than 60 percent of all published research - a number that has dropped to 29 percent as other nations gear up their higher education systems in close partnership with their business communities.

China, of course, is the most obvious example. China is now the world's largest consumer of construction and energy products, the second largest consumer of energy and the third largest importer of oil. China now manufactures two-thirds of the world's copiers, microwave ovens, DVD players and shoes, and nearly all the world's toys. Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, imports about 18 billion dollars worth of goods from China, and about 80 percent of Wal-Mart's suppliers are Chinese.

China's challenge to American higher education can be documented by the fact that undergraduate university enrollment in China rose 25 percent in just one year, to 9 million students in 2002. And more than one-third of those students were engineers. Last year more than 600,000 engineers graduated from institutions of higher education in China. In India, the figure was 350,000. In America, it was about 70,000. There is a similar trend in Europe, which granted 40 percent more PhDs in engineering and science in 2001 than the United States did.

In this context, we simply cannot afford as a nation not to invest in human capital; we simply cannot afford to waste human potential, wherever that human potential is found. Otherwise, our position of leadership will be increasingly at risk.

Let me now turn briefly to the theme of access. I noted earlier that state allocations cover a smaller and smaller portion of the cost of running these wonderful public institutions of higher education. As a result, we are forced to look to other ways to fund what we are doing. The most immediately obvious, particularly to our students and their parents, is that many of us have been forced to rely on higher and higher tuition costs to cover our basic operating expenses. You know from the newspapers that one of the institutions of higher education in the state is planning to increase tuition by more than 25 percent this year for some of its students. All institutions in the state, with the exception of Salt Lake Community College, added second tier tuition costs to the first tier increase imposed by the State Board of Regents. Most of us also increased student fees. There are important consequences associated with these decisions, but the most important of those consequences are the impacts on access.

One of my greatest concerns is that we are going to price out of the market an increasing percentage of individuals who both need and desire to obtain a college education. As William Kirwan recently summarizes, "In the mid-to-late 1970s, our nation invested in higher education at a rate of more than $10 in public funds for every $1,000 of personal income. Today that investment stands at about $6 for every $1,000 of personal income." That public investment is being replaced, at many of our institutions, by higher tuition costs, and the challenges for our students, particularly those from limited economic backgrounds, become greater.

By shifting the equation from public to private benefit, and then loading the cost on the recipient, we do two things that I have described above: first, we fail to properly value the very real public benefit that comes from investing in higher education. Second, we make it more difficult for those of lesser means to have the opportunity for a college education, particularly when increased tuition and fee costs are not offset by increased availability of need-based aid. And, in this state particularly, we have largely ignored the need-based aid side of the equation.

Recent estimates suggest that 500,000 college-capable students did not attend post-secondary institutions in 2003-04 because of financial reasons. That is unacceptable.

Let me briefly describe some of what is happening in Utah. At present, only 80 percent of Utahns even graduate from high school - and remember that is in a world where not just a high school, but a college education is increasingly a necessity. The number of Utahns enrolling in college by age 19 is down 10 percent in the past decade. Only half of Utah college students finish a four year degree in six years. In fact, of every 100 current ninth graders, 83 will graduate from high school four years later, 36 will immediately enter college, 24 will still be enrolled in the second year, and 17 will graduate with an Associates degree in 3 years or a Bachelor's degree in 6. Utah ranks 12th in the nation in the 45-64 year age group in the number having completed bachelor's degrees, but only 31st in the 25-34 age group. So, we are falling behind at a time when we can least afford to fall behind.

But there is another statistic that is particularly important for us to consider - in Utah, white adults (age 18-24) are more than three times as likely to attend college as young adults from minority groups. One of the reasons is that state funding for student financial aid, as I noted above, has not increased in several years, despite the increased tuition costs. Since 2001, the number of student borrowers has increased 55 percent and the average debt burden for four years of higher education has increased 14 percent to $14,049. But many of our students cannot, or will not, borrow.

Let me provide one other statistic that is a bit chilling. If one looks at the total charges at four-year institutions - these are average charges, not just in Utah - the percentage share of family income required to meet the costs for the highest income quintile in our country - was about 5 percent in1976, and just above 5 percent in 2004. Little change had occurred for this highest income group. On the other hand, for the lowest income quintile, the figure was about 40 percent in 1976, but had risen to over 70 percent in 2004. So you can see what is happening.

You can see from these figures the critical importance of your challenge. We simply must work together to continue to serve traditionally underserved groups, even at a time when tuition costs are going up to address the shortfall in funding from the state. And those traditionally underserved include, most prominently, first generation students and students from ethnic and minority backgrounds. This point in underscored by a brief examination of the demographics of higher education in our country. We are increasingly becoming a nation of minorities. We are also becoming a nation with a changing profile in our college and university student bodies. More of our students work; more are older; more have stopped out for a time; more are transfers from other institutions, but all of them require our help. We must be better prepared to serve these groups. At present, nationwide, only seven percent of minority enrollees graduate by age 24. Almost one-third of Hispanic and African American freshmen drop out during their first year.

The glory of American public higher education has always been its democratizing reach. Its great landmarks are the establishment of the land grant system in the mid-19th century and the GI Bill at the close of World War II. We must extend those traditions of spreading opportunity across all groups in our society, or we fail to achieve what we should achieve as public educators. In this context, we must embrace diversity AND the means to get there. We must make sure on our individual campuses that diversity isn't just tolerated, it is celebrated. If we can live diversity, rather than just preach it, it becomes normalized, it becomes a part of our institutional culture. That should be our goal. If we don't do this, then educational opportunities AND benefits will continue to be stratified by race and income, and too many of our citizens will not derive the benefits from increasing economic returns on education.

Let me add just one additional thought before closing. To achieve the end I am talking about will require that we do business a little differently than we are currently doing it. For example, in a recent piece by Lani Guinier entitled The Miner's Canary, he noted that in the traditional admissions process, particularly at more selective institutions, there is too much attention focused on looking for predictors of student success based on past achievement and too little attention devoted to looking for ways that our institutions can invest in students based on a commitment to future success. Guinier notes that there is a stronger correlation between SAT scores and family background than between SAT scores and first-year college grades. Moreover, the best predictor of future success in our society is socioeconomic status - and not just your own, but that of your parents and grandparents. Test scores tell us more about your grandparent's wealth than about your first year grades.

This is not an argument for lowering standards; it is an argument for investing in a way that will provide increased access to students who would otherwise not have the opportunity. It doesn't mean lowering standards, it means making sure that no one is denied the opportunity because of economic reasons. That is our charge; that is your charge. We cannot be satisfied with maintaining the status quo.

As David Ward has recently noted, "we benefit today from investments made years ago. It is our turn to invest on behalf of future generations. This commitment is especially important now, as other countries dramatically increase their investments in higher education."

Let me conclude with one final quote from William Kirwan: "At both the state and national levels, we must work to remind the public that higher education raises incomes and reduces poverty. Higher education creates opportunities and solves problems. Higher education reduces barriers and elevates civic engagement. Higher education enhances social equality and creates a broader middle class. Higher education changes the lives of the people who will change the world."

So, your work in helping ensure access for all qualified students at one of our several wonderful institutions is essential.

Thank you for what you do. Keep up the good work.

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