One Good Question with Susanna Williams: Is Higher Ed the Equalizer We Think?

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College / Education Equity / Equity / One Good Question / Post-Secondary Education / Uncategorized

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Higher education has seen wholesale disinvestment since 2008.  The majority of students in our country attend public universities, and 26% attend community colleges.   Liberal arts & research institutions serve a very small population of US students, and their funding challenges are unique.  As the economy has recovered, the funding has not returned to state-funded higher education.  Part of this is a function of discretionary spending at the state level because very little funding comes from federal government.  Most states have mandated spending that has to be accounted for, but higher education is one of the few discretionary lines, so states tend to turn to the public universities and say «  charge more tuition. »  At the same time as tuition is increasing, we’re getting the message that the full pathway to life is through college attainment.  Universities are then seeking outside students—foreign nationals and out-of state students who will pay the sticker price for tuition as opposed to the in-state rates.  So there are fewer seats available for lower-income applicants.

Employers then use the college name as a basis for hiring. So community college students are at a disadvantage on the hiring market, unless they are health care assistants, and the hospital has a relationship with their specific college program.  Connections become pathways to employment and prosperity.   When we do not fund quality education, yet hold people’s lives accountable as though they have received that education, we’re actually saying that we don’t believe that education is something that everyone in our country should have equal access to. And we’re ok with some people being poor and we’re ok with some people not having access to opportunity.

How did the funding become discretionary ? Higher education and public policy hasn’t caught up with modern times.  When state constitutions were written, basic education was just K-12 through the 1970s.  At that time, you could get a great manufacturing job or vocational training and make solid money. Then the world changed. The only thing slower to change than education is government.  There is a strong case for community colleges to be a part of basic education and should be included as K-14 education.  The State of Washington’s constitution’s first prioirity is to fully fund basic education, but they’re not meeting basic expectations.  Look at funding formulas driven by property taxes and tax code and no one wants to tackle the tax code.  It’s not sexy and doesn’t win you elections.

Who’s actually having this conversation ?  I’m not sure people are connecting the dots.  The only way it’s happening is through lawsuits over K-12 education.  State legislatures have been held in contempt of court because they haven’t figured it out.   That’s another conversation that we don’t want to have.  What is it that families do ?   We need to be asking what does it actually cost to educate a child who does not grow up with the benefit of house with books, afterschool curriculum, print-rich nursery school environment?  What does a middle class child have as ancillary benefits ?  What are the habits that their families inculcate and the culture that they grow up in ? How can we provide those standards for all children ?

In our analog/digital divide, higher ed institutions are working feverishly to incorporate new tech tools and communication paradigms into their pedagogy and engagement.  Do the tools really matter for this generation?  How should post-secondary institutions position themselves for responsive/inclusive engagement?

With respect to the founding of higher education in Europe, the primary function was to train priests.  Higher education today retains the vestiges of that holy process.  It is serious and magical and spiritual, and you can’t touch that or dirty that with technology and money is the worst kind of profanity.  People keep calling for the end of college.  Colorado had a major freakout about MOOCS, which challenges the delivery of higher education.  I think there’s a big disruption coming.  Competency-based education is going to shift the paradigm and project based learning will change instructional practice.  Badges of proficiency will change that option.  When we remove the Carnegie credit hour and let students show what they can do, then we no longer need to have institutions as arbitors of confidence.

We say that institution and pedigree matters, yet people still hire based on who they know and how comfortable they feel with that person.  Take the example of The Wire and the network of the dealers on the street.  That show demonstrates that networks are equally powerful in dark economy and formal economy. Our challenge is to figure out how to teach and give networks to other people.  If you win the lottery and leave East Flatbush, and make it to the Ivy’s, there’s no guarantee that you will be able to access the network of the Ivy League.  Again, this assumes that access and equity are goals of education.   There’s a big divide in education philosophy between those who are warriors for justice through education and those who are gatekeeprs to keep marginalized people out of power structures.  I forget that others use education as a sorting tool.

Susanna WilliamsSusanna’s One Good Question :

How do we effectively move people to opportunity in our country, if we don’t agree that everyone should have opportunity?

Founder & CEO of BridgEd Strategies, is a lifelong educator and communications specialist with over 15 years of experience as a teacher, administrator, and strategic leader in K-12, higher education, and the philanthropic sector as well as political campaigns. Susanna led marketing, communications, and government relations at Renton Technical College, while also serving as the executive director of the Renton Technical College Foundation. She joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success team in 2012 after connecting with the director through a blind message on LinkedIn. Active on Twitter since 2009, Susanna is a strong advocate for the power of social media and the power of networks. A 2011 German Marshall Memorial Fellow, Susanna received a Masters in Education from Bank Street College of Education and a Bachelors in Politics from Earlham College. She lives in her home borough of Brooklyn, New York.


The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: 7 books, 2 talks, 1 TV show and Al Pacino – what One Good Question folks are reading – One Good Question

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