Campus Discussion on Access to Education in America

Intercultural Center Auditorium
Georgetown University
April 19, 2005

I’ve invited you to join me today to consider several core issues that define this moment in time for the Academy. As universities, we are among the oldest continuing institutions on the planet, with roots reaching back to the middle ages.

But the issues that I wish to address today, issues that have shaped the modern Academy, are of comparatively recent origin. We are the heirs of a post-war movement to open wide the doors to higher education. Just as mandatory primary education was our nation’s investment in the future in the late 19th century, and public secondary education the investment of the early 20th century, a commitment to broader access to higher education was the legacy of the mid-century through the present.

The issues I raise today are part of the story of the rise of the American university to global preeminence. These issues have significance in our immediate moment and will define the trajectory of our work over a generation if we are to ensure that our institutions are to participate in fulfilling the promise of the American experiment.

I ask you to consider with me how we at Georgetown can build on our past efforts to ensure that we educate a student body that is racially, ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse. And how we can become a leader in higher education in recruiting and retaining diverse faculty.

I would like to take a broader look at access to education on the local, national, and international levels. What are the trends? And what do those trends mean for the future of this country and its competitive strength in a global context? How we wrestle with these larger generational questions will have an impact on those who will follow us.

In February of 2003, Georgetown joined Columbia, Cornell, Rice, and Vanderbilt in filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action. That month, I spoke to faculty and staff about the implications of that Court decision, about the meaning for Georgetown and about three important questions that must occupy our best thinking at this moment in the life of the Academy:

The first — we are aware that many students of color demonstrate enormous talent, intelligence, heart, and courage in dealing with enduring racism and learning to excel in multiple cultures. Does the college admissions process adequately recognize this aspect of merit?

My second question derives from research by Claude Steele into what he terms as the “stereotype threat” for minority students. This is the “threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm the stereotype.”

Steele’s work indicates that the ability of high performers to do well is not predicated on their self-confidence or their self-esteem. Instead, he has found that the most important variable in achieving success is the degree to which the students feel trust.

My question is this: How can we deepen the trust of students from diverse backgrounds, not just at Georgetown, but also throughout American higher education? What will it take to create and sustain an environment of trust in the midst of our imperfect world?

And my third question is in the tradition of our Catholic and Jesuit heritage. In the national conversation about race since the Bakke case, it is the educational value of diversity that we have embraced. Along the way, we seem to have lost the discourse about rectifying injustice as part of the social function of higher education. Is it valuable to reclaim the rhetoric of justice when we articulate our larger goals and values as a society?

A few months after that talk and raising those questions for this community, in June 2003, the Supreme Court found that the University of Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body. In a decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, the Court approved as narrowly tailored the Law Schools use of race conscious admissions policies that afford applicants of all races “a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment.”

The Court further reasoned, however, that race-conscious admissions policies “are a temporary measure taken in the service of the goal of equality itself.” In other words, such policies must have “reasonable durational limits,” and they must have a logical end point.

The opinion states: “It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity in the context of public higher education. Since that time, the number of minority applicants with high grades and test scores has indeed increased — We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preference will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

The Court’s position has established an important framework. It has provided a presumptive expiration date for our consideration of race and ethnicity among the many factors we evaluate in our admissions process. The clock is ticking. What might we now do to ensure that over the course of this next 25 years, we are prepared to address the responsibilities we have in an environment that is likely to be different than what we have today? And equally important, what might we now add to our agenda if we assume that over the course of the next 25 years, we will have a changing set of circumstances in which we can consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions?

One urgent concern is in the educational pipeline. We are well aware that current practice is not doing enough to increase access to higher education. I can think of no higher priority for the civil rights agenda than narrowing the achievement gap in our schools. This gap not only disproportionately affects minority groups but also low-income groups as well. We are all familiar with the grim statistics regarding college attendance by African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Now, thanks to the work of William Bowen at the Mellon Foundation, Anthony Carnevale, and others, we have a better understanding of the extent of the gap that is a consequence of being poor in America. According to Anthony Carnevale, only 3% of students at the nation’s most selective colleges and universities come from the bottom quartile of the income scale and only 10% come from the bottom half. Almost three-quarters come from families in the top quartile. There the average incomes are above $88,675.

I’ll return to this topic in a moment.

Let’s take a look at Georgetown. As a community, we share a passionate commitment to making this moment — this moment right here, right now at this institution — the best it can be for the people we gather here. Diversity is an historic part of our identity and a great source of academic and cultural richness on our campuses.

When I was an undergraduate here, African American enrollment was at 3% and we had even fewer Latino students.  Today, 6.5% of our undergraduates are African American, 5.5% are Hispanic, 9.4% are Asian American. Our community is also stronger for the 10% of our undergraduates who are foreign-born, representing 137 countries. This cultural mix is creating a vibrant and exciting Georgetown. Consider the popularity of Abissa, a performance celebrating five African cultures recently produced by African and African American students, as well as Rangila, staged by South Asian students and Asiafest, produced by Asian students. These were all beautiful moments at Georgetown, enlightening and enriching our campus community.

Yet none of us is satisfied that we are where we want to be. While we have done an outstanding job attracting strong applicant pools to Georgetown — including strong African American, Latino and Asian American applicant pools — there is a more complex story at work here. For example, we have typically enjoyed some of the deepest African American applicant pools among COFHE institutions — elite private schools — but our yield, the percentage of those who accept our offers of admission, is not as high as we can get it to be.

Why is that? As we seek to ensure their enrollment here at Georgetown, we are challenged by the competitive financial advantage of our peer institutions, whose substantial assets often enable them to offer more attractive grant and scholarship packages. We are also challenged by less competitive institutions who offer stronger financial aid packages to a few targeted students they wish to recruit. The solution here is financial aid. That’s why I can assure you that it will be one of the defining aspects of the next capital campaign.

We build from a solid foundation, but we know we can do better. Rosemary Kilkenny, who has served the university with distinction for 25 years as our Special Assistant to the President for Affirmative Action Programs, has consistently challenged us to be more aggressive in our marketing of Georgetown by identifying and reaching into more communities that will broaden our diversity base. We can more heavily recruit students of diverse backgrounds in our excellent private schools in Washington.

We all share a concern about our lack of enduring success in some other areas. Perhaps most important has been sustaining enduring success in recruiting and retaining African American and Latino faculty members. Here too, part of the solution is finance — we all know that we need to strengthen our ability to offer competitive salaries. But let me be clear this is not just a matter of money. It is also a matter of will. I’ve been here long enough to know that at different points over the last 25 years we have had moments of success in recruiting to our community women and men who continue to this day to make extraordinary contributions to this community. We know how to do this. Success involves promoting relationships with colleagues at PhD-granting institutions so they can encourage their best students to consider careers at Georgetown. It means working with faculty and department chairs to identify opportunities to advance this critical institutional priority. And it requires ensuring that our community is a place that enables people to develop their talents and abilities to the maximum of their potential. When someone is making a decision about their career and look to Georgetown, they need to be able to see that they will have the opportunity to fulfill their promise and potential right here at this University.

I deeply appreciate the work in this area that is being done by the leaders of all three campuses, Stuart Bondurant at the Medical Center, Alex Aleinikoff at the Law Center, and especially Jim O’Donnell, who oversees the deans and department chairs of the main campus. In his recent town hall conversation, Provost O’Donnell emphasized the importance of this priority for the main campus. Associate Provost Marjory Blumenthal is taking a leadership role in working with the faculty to develop and implement strategies that will make a difference.

The recruiting of minority faculty is the topic of a national conference that Georgetown will host with ACE on this campus on June 6-7. Our keynote speakers will include Dr. Ricardo Romo, President of the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Dr. Tomas Arciniega, who was the first Hispanic to be appointed as president of a major university 21 years ago. The conference will focus broad attention on the issue of minority recruitment. We hope that the academic, philanthropic, and legislative leaders who will gather here will create a national agenda to find creative solutions to this challenge. We also recognize we have our own immediate agenda here.

Another focus for us is more effective recruitment of students of color, and women, for our graduate programs. As with faculty recruitment, I have been here long enough to know we have been able to demonstrate leadership in this area. To be successful once again will entail financial costs, but this has never been the constraint. It is also a matter of will. And we will find the resources.

That brings us to a point that must always be front and center at Georgetown University in our work together: How do we ensure that we provide an academic experience that is deeply formative for every student? If any university can provide a framework that addresses Dr. Steele’s stereotype threat, it should be us. Building a trusting community so our students can flourish goes to the heart of what it means for us to be a Jesuit university.

Our values are clear: That students are truly challenged to develop themselves academically. That they feel confident and trusted to meet that challenge with their very best effort. That our community is welcoming. That we take seriously our opportunity to learn from one another about the diversity of our cultures and communities. We believe that every student at Georgetown will benefit from and educational experience that allows them to interact with, learn from and be friends with students from a wide variety of backgrounds. This requires focused attention to the experience of minority students — attention that can be galvanized by impressive University resources like the Center for Minority and Educational Affairs and the Diversity Action Council — but it truly requires the engagement of all schools, all deans, all programs, and all faculty.

We must be sure that our residence halls and our student programs are designed to address the needs of a multicultural student body. We also must make sure that faculty have an opportunity to think together and with students about the nature of the academic experience for some minority students. This is part of what it takes to build a trusting community.

Last spring, students rallied in protest when disturbing incidents both on and off campus targeted African American students. Under the leadership of Todd Olson, Vice President for Student Affairs, we have taken specific steps to provide a clear avenue for reporting incidents of bias and hate and to raise sensitivity and awareness of issues affecting minority students. There can be no question that we condemn in the strongest possible terms racial, ethnic, or religious bigotry, sexism, homophobia, or any form of discrimination. A working group on diversity in the curriculum was established by Provost O’Donnell and is exploring ways to assure that our academic conversation is as inclusive as our community. This too is what it takes to build a trusting community.

I know these and other issues are of paramount concern to Ms. Kilkenny, to the Diversity Action Council co-chaired by Michael Smith and Erika Cohen Derr, and to Associate Provost Blumenthal who is providing oversight in this important area. I deeply appreciate the dedication they bring to this work.

The legacy of racism that is deeply rooted in American history has left us with challenges that permeate our culture. We must address these challenges in the ways I have just described. At the same time, we need to recognize some important realities about issues of access to higher education. Let me share some statistics:

82% of high school graduates in the top income quartile enroll in college, but only 54% of those in the lowest quartile.

Within five years of entering college, more than 40% of students from the top income quartile graduate with a bachelor’s degree, compared to 6% from the lowest quartile.

Why are the enrollment and graduation rates so low for low-income students? The answers, of course, are many and complex, but it’s worth noting that only 28% of low-income students take college-preparatory classes, compared to 49% of middle income students and 65% of high income students.

On many levels, American education is failing America’s children. Dr. Bowen lays out the challenge in his new book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. It was written with two of his colleagues, Martin A. Kurzweil and Eugene M. Tobin, and was a project of the Mellon Foundation. Dr. Bowen writes, “…this is the major threat to the continuing excellence of American higher education,” these, “…are the barriers to educational advancement associated with socioeconomic status and race: there is a large group of disadvantaged Americans who are unable to achieve their full potential.”

This book was published last week. (I had the privilege of seeing pieces of it over the course of the last 12 months.) It has encouraged a number of my colleagues at other institutions to ensure that we start wrestling with this piece of the puzzle.

If we are to put more qualified students on the path to college, America’s higher education community must step up to the plate. One needs look no further than the city of Washington, to see the appalling shortcomings of our public schools, where more than 60% of students are eligible for free or low-cost lunches. Fewer than 25% of students in grades 5 through 11 score at or above proficiency levels on standardized reading and math tests. About half graduate from high school, one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation.

We know how to provide support to D.C. students. Over the last 15 years we have modeled one extraordinary program. By its numbers, it’s modest, by its success in inarguable. 92% of the 100-plus District students who have participated in Georgetown’s Institute for College Preparation, or ICP, have gone on to college, including four who now attend Georgetown.

Tom Bullock, our Assistant to the President for D.C. Educational Outreach, developed ICP as Schiff Scholars in 1989. Through ICP, we invest considerable resources in a new class of District seventh graders, typically selected every six years. Those youngsters and their parents embark on a long-term relationship with Georgetown. Throughout middle and high school, the students attend Saturday enrichment classes on this campus, taught by faculty volunteers and students. They turn to University mentors for guidance and work alongside our students on community service projects. Of this year’s 30 ICP seniors, all but one has already been accepted to college, and one student will be attending Georgetown in the fall.

It is my deepest hope that we can increase the number of classes of students that can participate in this program. As successful as this program is, a community like Georgetown needs to recognize the sheer scale of the challenge and our corresponding sense of responsibility. This is one way for us to model the approach. Because the needs are so significant, we also need to be able to teach others how to adopt this approach.

For more than a quarter of a century, we have been a strong, active force for literacy in Washington. The successes for the city and for Georgetown have been notable. Hundreds of our own students are involved in programs like D.C. Reads, a literacy tutoring program, and the D.C. Schools Project, which trains our students to teach English and other subjects to immigrant students and ESL tutoring for their families. And for more than 30 years, Georgetown students have tutored children in the Sursum Corda housing community in Northwest Washington.

But tutoring and literacy programs are only one aspect of our efforts to improve public education in the District. Faculty members are involved in developing curricula that serve the goal of college preparation. Government Professor Doug Reed is doing significant research on the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act. GPPI Professor Patrick Wolf is evaluating the effects of the federal government’s school choice demonstration project in the District.

This week, in fact, is Education Awareness Week at Georgetown, an opportunity to showcase a number of education outreach programs. On Friday, Mr. Bullock will convene representatives of local colleges and universities on campus to consider how to use higher education resources in Washington to support systemic reform of our public schools. Mr. Bullock has been tireless in this work with this consortium and I am deeply grateful.

We have much to offer the schools and the neighborhoods of Washington, and much to gain by nurturing the educational aspirations of the city’s children. We must accept our responsibilities. But the scope of the challenges related to access to education demands a national response and a mobilization of the national will.

There are many ways to think about this. Let me offer a provocative perspective. For our own national competitiveness in a rapidly globalizing world, we as a nation need to be better at educating more and more of our people. You can think about it as an issue of social justice. But think about it in this moment as an issue of ensuring that our nation has the ability to be part of a global economy. A huge proportion of our population is being left behind. We need to develop more of the human capital o four nation.

In his new book, The World is Flat, A Brief History of the 21st Century, Tom Friedman contends that we are on the precipice of a national crisis. For Mr. Friedman, we are just beginning to see the impact of globalization as technology and geo-economics reshape our lives. In recent years, American enterprise has invested heavily in communication technologies — broadband connectivity, wireless communications, cheap computers, e-mail, software, and search engines. That investment is coalescing into a single seamless platform. As a result, intellectual work can now be delivered from more and more places on the planet.

On the new level playing field — the “flat” world of Friedman’s thesis — jobs go where there is talent, ambition, and opportunity. The demand for technology talent is clear: over the decade ending in 2008, jobs requiring science, engineering and technical training will increase at a rate four times faster than overall job growth. Yet American students are losing interest. Between 1998 and 2002, the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees U.S. institutions awarded to U.S. citizens dropped by almost 12%.

Nations with expanding economies and populations are not only reaping the benefits of the interconnected world, they are educating their own talent. China now has more college students than any country in the world. They’re growing their student population faster than us, and they are focusing that talent on the drivers of the international economy, math, science, or engineering, where two-thirds of Chinese students earn their degrees, compared to about one-third of American students.

As a nation, we need to be developing more of our human capital, more of our young people. We need more scientists, more engineers, more mathematicians; we need more people who are going to serve in this global economy. And that means we need to invest in strategies to expand the number and nature of our college students. It’s not simply that we’re in competition with China and the rest of the world. Rather, it’s that in order to flourish as a nation, we need our people to be able to work in collaboration with highly educated, sophisticated, well-trained citizens from around the world.

I’ve indicated that Georgetown needs to do its part and we will need to raise funds in our next campaign to support the expansion of educational opportunities for talented low-income and minority students. But this also requires a national agenda. Here’s why:

In terms of federal support, we have had a predictable framework between the federal government and the higher education community for the last 60 years, from the GI bill through the War on Poverty to the present day, we have had a fairly stable framework that defines the nature of responsibility — the nature of the relationship between the federal government and the higher education community. But it seems to me that the social compact that has supported this framework is now fraying.

On the one hand, higher education developed its missions to allow for: 1) the expansion of the college student population to provide greater access to more people in America, 2) the development of research and scientific breakthroughs critical for our nation and 3) the strengthening of our economy and democracy.

In turn, the federal government provided critical financial support to these goals while allowing colleges and universities a maximum of internal autonomy and supporting an incredible diversity of institutions around the country.

We need to work together to articulate a new framework for the coming generation that addresses a nation’s fundamental responsibility to its future. Globalization and the increasing diversity of the country and the world provide an even more defining challenge today than perhaps the Soviet launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, which caused the federal government to rethink and intensify its investment in higher education. The demands of this moment are of a similar magnitude.

So, on the whole, my point is that the expansion of educational opportunity is fundamentally in our institutional, local, and national interest. We at Georgetown need to act on our collective will to become a still more diverse and inclusive institution. At the same time, we must work for reform at every level of education. Developing our human talent is vital to the full realization of our nation. Georgetown has our role to play. This is the unfinished piece of the American project. As the United States finds itself in this increasingly globalizing context, I believe it’s a critical part of a global agenda, for both our nation, and for an institution like Georgetown.

Thank you. I’m grateful to all of you for being here today. I would be pleased to take your questions.