David Brooks on higher education and access

10-09-2005

David Brooks wrote two columns about higher education and access in The New York Times in recent weeks ("Pillars of Cultural Capital,” on October 6 and “The Education Gap,” on September 25—both available online to NYT subscribers.

He raises some issues that I want to address.

In the first piece, he made a case about what he calls “the growing unfairness of American life” and how, in his view, economic and social stratifications are creating problems of access to higher education for the children of less-educated and less-economically advantaged parents. He concludes, however, that financial barriers are not the main issue, rather that “it has to do with being academically prepared, psychologically prepared and culturally prepared for college.”

There may be some truth to that. It was an issue that the Lt. Governor’s Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth (the Cherry Commission) was asked to address—increasing the number of Michigan students that actually get a college education or certification. But at the same time, a recent EPIC-MRA survey indicated that only slightly more than a quarter of Michigan parents believe that a good education is “‘essential’ for getting ahead in life.” As an educator and a strong believer in MSU’s land-grant mission of working to promote economic development and quality of life, of putting to work the knowledge we generate in our university to benefit society, I find that troubling.

Michigan State has always been about offering broad access to those who dream of coming here and succeeding. And to be honest, there’s no shortage of applicants. There is, however, a steadily declining public commitment to public higher education, as state budgets and funding to universities become increasingly constrained.

MSU really is the “people’s university,” a place where your economic status should never be a barrier to your success. We’re not and never have been what Brooks refers to as an elite “bastion of privilege.”

We know there’s more to access than just admitting students. As Brooks notes, the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of financial support, even for economically disadvantaged students. Here at MSU, we’ve continued to increase financial aid funding, with an unprecedented increase of some 15% this year alone, including a big chunk that we’ve committed for students in the economic tier just above Pell eligibility who might not qualify for adequate aid elsewhere.

We offer additional kinds of support to students who might not have had the same kind of college preparation as others. MSU has some great programs like CAAP (College Achievement Admissions Program) and SUPER (Summer University Program: Excellence Required) in the Office of Supportive Services. And we’re committed to working with K-12 partners across the state—as the Cherry Commission recommended—to make sure Michigan students are ready for college, so we all can make the most of the state’s increasingly limited education dollars.

We believe in both what Brooks calls the “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results.” Our commitment to ALL of our students goes beyond just getting them through the door and onto the tally sheet. Instead, it’s about getting them here, then making sure they have all of the tools they need to succeed while they’re here, as well as wherever they go after they leave here.

We do a good job of that. But of course there’s still more to be done. We have to address the mindset among so many here in Michigan who believe a college education isn’t important for success.

We know the value of a degree these days, in terms of predicting success. There was a time when a high school diploma was the ticket. Some time back in the sixties or seventies, a bachelor’s degree became the standard. Today, it’s rapidly becoming an advanced degree of some kind.

We also know the economy is changing, both in Michigan and across the nation, to a knowledge economy where success will depend more on ideas—figuring out how to commercialize and apply them—than on traditional manufacturing capacity. At MSU we’re preparing our students—all of our students—to excel in that environment.

So the challenge that Brooks talks about—to offer access to those who need it most, and to improve their quality of life—isn’t a new one at Michigan State. In fact, it’s been part of our land-grant mission for 150 years, and it’s one that we’ll continue to embrace as we move forward in the 21st century.

What do you think? Send your comments or questions to President Lou Anna K. Simon at presmail@msu.edu

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