School & District Management Commentary

Say Something!

By James E. Ryan — January 22, 2008 6 min read

Several weeks ago, three of the country’s most respected institutions of higher learning, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, announced that they were embarking on a nationwide campaign to recruit more poor students. Around the same time, The Chronicle of Higher Education released a report documenting the rising salaries of college presidents. In it, higher education experts explained that the increases reflected the fact that college presidents have become like corporate leaders.

At first blush, these two stories might not seem related, but they very much are. Both point to the fact that college presidents have become intensely focused on what happens at their own institutions, often to the exclusion of broader issues affecting education, and sometimes at the expense of elementary and high schools.


Consider the efforts to recruit poor students. Harvard, Princeton, and U.Va. are reacting to a troubling pattern: The percentage of low-income students at elite colleges and universities is quite low. Precise figures are hard to come by, but a 2004 report indicated that at the most selective colleges, only 3 percent of the students were from the poorest sector of society, and only 10 percent from the bottom half. Perhaps even more troubling, the percentage of low-income students on some campuses has declined over the last decade. Ten years ago at the University of Virginia, for example, more than 10 percent of the students came from low-income households; today, less than 7 percent do. Many college campuses are becoming the province of the economic elite, where the very essence of the American Dream—that a child from a modest home can, by dint of hard work, climb as far as talent will take him or her—seems to be fading from view.

These leaders are pretty much invisible in the public sphere and, most jarringly, in the debates and discussions about K-12 education.

The effort by these three institutions to recruit more poor students is laudable, but it’s also like treating the symptom rather than the disease. The real problem is not that there are bus loads of qualified poor students every year who just decide to give Harvard a pass. It’s that there are far too few poor students who are even remotely prepared to attend Harvard. Stepping up the recruitment of poor students might create a more diverse campus and therefore benefit colleges and universities, as well as the lucky few poor students who attend them. But why don’t college presidents also talk publicly about the fact that so few poor students seem prepared to attend college, let alone an elite university? Better still, why not talk about what to do about that fact?

The failure of college and university presidents to speak out on this issue is symptomatic of a broader problem: These leaders are pretty much invisible in the public sphere and, most jarringly, in the debates and discussions about K-12 education. To be sure, college presidents are busy people, with complicated institutions to guide and plenty of problems of their own. But they are also leaders in the larger enterprise of education, and they are in an unparalleled position to make a valuable contribution to the discussion of what should happen to students before they graduate from high school. Perhaps instead of just focusing on the bottom line, they should be thinking more about the broader picture.

The list of crucially important issues facing precollegiate public education is nearly endless. Should the No Child Left Behind Act be continued, modified, or scrapped? Why is there still a test-score gap between black and white students, and between poor and middle-class ones? How can the supply of good teachers be increased? Should elementary and high schools care about racial and ethnic diversity?

On these and other issues, college and university presidents have had relatively little to say. All too often, they seem primarily concerned with stocking their own campuses with students who have managed to excel in public schools as they exist today. It’s time for them to get more involved in shaping the public schools of tomorrow.

In addition to the problems facing poor students, consider two more examples: the No Child Left Behind Act and racial and ethnic diversity. The federal No Child Left Behind law has schools across the country testing, retesting, and then testing some more. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what college and university leaders think about the battery of standardized tests students must endure in order to graduate? After all, these tests are supposed to be preparing students to enter college.

Yet university leaders have been largely silent on this issue. Harvard’s new president, Drew Faust, recently gave a stirring inaugural address in which she warned of the dangers to liberal arts education if the standardized-testing craze crept onto campus, requiring colleges to satisfy bean counters by quantifying the knowledge and values imparted to students. Exactly right. But what about the dangers to a well-rounded high school education from such a heavy emphasis on standardized testing?

Many college campuses are becoming the province of the economic elite, where the very essence of the American Dream seems to be fading from view.

Speaking of a well-rounded education, what about racial and ethnic diversity in public schools? Colleges and universities banded together in 2003 to defend their affirmative action policies when two cases, both involving the University of Michigan, were before the U.S. Supreme Court. They emphasized the important educational benefits of diversity, and they essentially won. But colleges and universities did relatively little to help out high schools trying, in more recent Supreme Court cases (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education), to defend their ability to do something similar—namely, take race into account in an effort to put together a diverse student body.

It gets worse. In some states, where affirmative action is illegal as a matter of state law, public colleges and universities have relied on so-called “percent plans.” Under these, a certain percentage of top students from every high school in the state are automatically admitted to public colleges and universities. These plans are an end run around affirmative action, because they produce a diverse student body without taking race explicitly into account. But notice that they only work because high schools are so segregated. Far from working to combat racial segregation in high schools, these plans depend on it. They rely on racially segregated high schools to produce racially diverse college campuses.

Suppose, instead, that the president of a prestigious college or university announced that all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, would receive a boost in the admissions process if they attended an integrated high school and could write an essay about their experience. Imagine what that would do to change incentives among white, middle-class, and affluent parents who might now shy away from integrated schools. This would not be a panacea, obviously, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.

College and university presidents ought to care deeply about issues like these. After all, high schools are in a sense their farm teams. Instead of just taking the supply of well-prepared students as a given, they ought to be working harder to increase that supply. They should see their task not only as improving already strong institutions, but as improving education more generally. At the very least, it’s time they said something—preferably something memorable, something wise, and maybe even something inspiring—about public education.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Say Something!


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