Speech on Undergraduate Education at Miss Porter’s School

These remarks were given at an October 12, 2018 event for the parents, trustees, and STEM Advisory Board of Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, CT. The remarks introduced keynote speaker Dr. Ashley Finley of the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Good evening Trustees, members of the STEM Advisory Board, and parents. I want to thank Kate Windsor for inviting me here this evening and for her recognition and active use of a recent report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America. And I want to thank my wife, Cynthia Greenleaf, a proud “Ancient” and member of the STEM Advisory Board for ALSO inviting me to be here this evening.

I greatly admire Miss Porter’s for the high-quality education it provides to young women, helping them to develop into future leaders for our country and the world. Your mission to educate your students to become informed, bold, resourceful and ethical global citizens is one that our current national and global situation surely needs. I am especially impressed with your recent curricular enhancements which challenge students to work collaboratively, make connections across disciplines and contexts, and apply what they learn to real-world issues. I also think it is important that all juniors spend time living abroad in immersion experiences to gain an understanding of another culture.

Kate Windsor recently wrote these inspiring words: “When young women have the opportunity to explore all aspects of their personalities, to have access to real-life career experiences, and to engage with the global community, they develop insights into themselves, their relationships, and the world. When coupled with ambitious goal setting, hard work, and resilience, all honed over their four years, their options are limitless.”

To Kate Windsor and the Trustees, thank you for your leadership.

I would like to share with you some history of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences before introducing our guest speaker. The Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and 61 other scholar-patriots who understood that a new republic would require new institutions able to gather knowledge and advance learning in service to the public good. As described in the Charter, the Academy is a forum for leading scholars, scientists, jurists, business leaders, government officials, and others to work together to “cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

Today, the Academy includes over 5,000 elected Fellows and 600 International Honorary Members, all leaders in their respective fields. The breadth of the Academy’s membership is distinctive among learned societies. Representing every discipline and profession, the members are researchers, writers, and thinkers who shape the intellectual life of the nation and the world. They are also individuals in positions of influence, able to affect change directly by pursuing social, economic, and cultural policies based on open inquiry and sound evidence.

Not surprisingly, there are connections between Porter’s and the Academy. Sarah Porter’s brother, Noah, president of Yale College, was a member of the Academy. Much more recently, Ancient Agnes Gund, President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art is a member of the Academy.

The Academy’s current work focuses on five areas: Science, Engineering, and Technology; Global Security and International Affairs; The Humanities, Arts, and Culture; American Institutions, Society, and the Public Good; and Education and the Development of Knowledge.

Examples of our current activity include a project exploring how individuals develop trust or mistrust of science and evidence; a commission on the role the arts can play in a diverse twenty-first-century democracy; a study of the nation’s needs in foreign language education; a commission identifying the values, behaviors, and skills required for effective citizenship and civic participation; a project addressing the national imperative for better legal services for low-income Americans; and a study developing a new framework for governing relations among the world’s nine nuclear weapon states.  As you can see, our topics reflect the diversity of our membership and address issues important to our country, indeed to the wider world.

Now a few words about the Academy’s recent Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.  The Commission was charged with examining the state of American undergraduate education, projecting the nation’s short-term and long-term educational needs, and offering recommendations to strengthen all aspects of undergraduate education. It is co-chaired by Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College and The Spencer Foundation and by Roger Ferguson, President of TIAA.

Its 26 members include leaders from higher education, philanthropy, business, and government.  The Commission’s key finding is that what was once a challenge of quantity in American undergraduate education, of enrolling as many students as possible, is increasingly a challenge of educational quality – of making sure that all students receive the education they need to succeed, that they are able to complete the studies they begin, and that they can do all this affordably.

Let me provide highlights from the Commission’s three major areas of recommendation—completion, affordability, and quality.

Today almost 90% of all high school graduates in the United States pursue higher education as young adults. They believe that higher education is the path to a brighter future for themselves and their families—and they are right. College graduates report greater job security, higher earnings, more rewarding work experiences, better health, more time with their families. And they are more active as volunteers and voters. These are all desirable outcomes for individuals, families, communities, and the nation.

But undergraduate institutions have had far greater success enrolling students than graduating them. By one measure, only about 60% of students who begin a bachelor’s degree complete one. That figure drops to 30% for students who begin certificates or associate’s degrees. And of those who enroll but do not graduate, many are unable to pay student loan debt and find themselves worse off financially than when they started.

The Commission’s work offers a series of recommendations to increase completion rates and make student debt more manageable. For example, we recommend that colleges with low completion rates look to places like Florida State University which uses data to identify when individual students start to fail or miss classes and proactively intervenes by providing students with extra academic support and counseling. Or the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs which helps low-income students complete their associate’s degrees by offering a highly structured academic program; providing financial supports such as free transit passes; and ensuring that students develop meaningful relationships with faculty advisors.  In both these cases, the completion rates for these students far surpass the average.

On the topic of increasing affordability, the report directs its recommendations to the federal and state governments as well as to college and university leaders. One recommendation that especially stands out to me is for the federal government to create one single and simple income-driven repayment plan in which students are automatically enrolled and loan payments are collected through the income tax system. Essentially, such a program links an individual’s monthly college loan payment to their income level and family size – making the payments an affordable percentage of income. Adopting a single plan would allow more students to more easily pay back their loans in a manageable way.

The Commission argues that too little attention is paid to ensuring that students are learning and mastering the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will help them succeed in the twenty-first-century.  The report advances a broad learning agenda for college students:

All college graduates—regardless of their major or the credential they will earn—need their programs of study to impart a forward-looking combination of academic knowledge and practical skills so they are prepared for both economic success and civic engagement. Today, the long-standing debate over the value of a liberal arts education versus a more applied postsecondary program presents a false choice. College educators need to adjust their program curricula and learning expectations accordingly. And students need to see the ability to work and learn with others, and to disagree and debate respectfully, as skills essential for a high quality of life and a future of economic success and effective democratic citizenship.

Our Commission report highlights the exceptional work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, demonstrating and promoting the value of a liberal education and fully articulating what college graduates should know and be able to do. AAC&U’s recently-published strategic plan, We ASPIRE, reclaims higher education’s civic mission of educating for democracy. President Lynn Pasquerella affirms “higher education is inextricably linked to our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy—work that seems more urgent than ever, given the prevailing rhetoric, which decouples higher education from the American dream.”  I could not agree more.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Dr. Ashley Finley who will be speaking with us after our dinner.  Dr. Finley is the senior advisor to the president and secretary to the board at AAC&U and was previously the senior director of assessment and research.  In this role, Dr. Finley was the national evaluator for the Bringing Theory to Practice Project which focused on college student engagement in learning, civic development, and psychological well-being.

Dr. Finley has also served as the associate vice president of academic affairs & dean of the Dominican Experience at the Dominican University of California and as assistant professor of sociology at Dickinson College, where she taught courses in quantitative methods, social inequality, and gender in Latin America. She has authored and co-authored many articles and book chapters on assessment and student learning including Civic Learning and TeachingAssessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices; and Well-Being: An Essential Outcome for Higher Education.

Dr. Finley, thank you for your leadership and we look forward to hearing from you this evening.

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