December 28, 2015
Economic Forecast 2016 - Education

Roth: Higher-ed's role in narrowing the inequality gap

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University

Higher-ed's role in narrowing the inequality gap

A major issue facing higher education is inequality. Colleges and universities at one time were the major vehicle for social mobility in America. A college education was thought to be key to a better life. Today the "college premium" is greater than ever in purely economic terms. In other words, the benefits of going to college over looking for work with only a high school diploma have never been greater.

However, economic anxiety on college campuses remains very high. The economy has produced enormous gains for the richest Americans and not so much for the rest. Students worry that if they don't "make it big" they won't make it at all.

In fact, colleges and universities can play an important role in changing this economic trajectory. With robust financial aid programs, schools can offer low- and middle-income families paths of learning that will produce economic changes for them and, when they are very productive, for those around them. When higher education produces innovators, we will be producing engines for the economic development of a new middle class.

Another issue is the push for a narrow, vocational education. This is surely going to be counter-productive. The best way to produce innovators, I firmly believe, is to offer a broad, contextual education – a liberal education. A college education should prepare one to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one's university years.

In my book "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters" I describe an American tradition of pragmatic liberal education that connects "thriving" with empowerment after graduation. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn't even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction. This is the opposite of trying to figure out how to conform to the world as it is. That's a losing proposition, not least because the world is changing so rapidly; tomorrow it won't be how it is today. When you flourish, you find ways of shaping change, not just ways of coping with it. Those who get the most out of college are often anti-conformist innovators aiming to find out who they are and what kind of work they will find most meaningful.

Controlling costs amid greater demands

Another issue facing higher education is cost. Higher education is labor intensive, and it is highly regulated – these are two important cost drivers. Professors are far from over paid, given the years of specialized education that they have completed and the time commitments of teaching – if you want to do it well.

Regulation of research and of campus life has created enormous cost burdens. I think this is the biggest driver in the growth of administrative positions.

But the most important driver overall is the demand from students themselves. They want college to fulfill many functions, from being the last years of freedom to explore before they join to workforce, to career training, to a broad contextual education.

Many want to prepare for research while others see the campus as a springboard for internships at corporations and not-for-profits. At highly selective schools like Wesleyan, families are basically telling us that we should spare no expense at providing everything that the student dreams college should be.

The "spare no expense" attitude is translated into economic demand and helps drive the amenities race.

What major initiatives will Wesleyan be implementing in 2016?

In the first half of 2016 Wesleyan's endowment centered fundraising campaign will come to an end. As of now, we have raised more than $415 million. We want to bring this to a close with real momentum. Throughout 2016 we will also be launching a new program in design and engineering. This will provide Wesleyan students with opportunities to connect sciences, social sciences and the humanities in a program that will teach them about our interventions in the physical and virtual worlds.

Wesleyan is more committed than ever to President Victor Butterfield's vision of a university in which professors are expected to advance their fields through research, publication and performance, and in which teaching regularly stimulates this productivity. We are also committed to maintaining a robust financial aid program that ensures that talented students will be able to afford a Wesleyan education.

We believe that all students benefit from being part of a learning community whose members – coming from different geographical regions and belonging to different socio-economic, racial, and ethnic groups – approach the world from a variety of perspectives.

We are committed to maintaining a beautiful and productive campus that is a stimulating home for students while they pursue their degrees and a cherished locus of learning after they have graduated. We are committed to providing the infrastructure for a learning community that extends from classroom to library, from residence hall to athletic field.

[See what others are saying on HBJ's Economic Forecast 2016 page]

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