When confronted with the question, “How should higher education approach issues of quality/access and diversity in the academy?”, the obvious response is, “Very carefully.” To answer this question effectively, the three core concepts need to be broken down as individual conditions: quality in the academy, access to the academy and diversity in the academy. All three issues are at the forefront of research and theory, as well as policy and practice. All three issues are complicated. Finally, all three issues will continue to challenge higher education deep into the 21st century. These are not new issues, either. A 1987 JHE article, “Educational Quality, Access and Tuition Policy at State Universities” by Joseph J. Seneca and Michael K. Taussig, addresses these issues clearly. The authors state: “Educational quality and access may conflict when state universities formulate tuition policies … higher tuition will discourage applications by students from low-income and minority families …” (Seneca & Taussig, 1987). This statement clearly sets up the three issues in direct opposition, with two key questions: First, if access is increased to benefit diversity, does this impact quality? Second, if access is decreased due to high tuition costs and diversity wilts, does that impact quality? The answers to these questions determine how higher education can and/or should approach these issues in the academy.

Higher education needs to approach these issues with through a federal policy commitment to increased and sustained funding for the 21st century. It is an investment in the human capital the nation already possesses, for enabling higher levels of higher education access will also fuel increased diversity, quality of education and a revived national economy. Like revolutionary education policies of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is time for the nation to step up.

Quality

Thomas J. Tierney is the CEO of the Bridgespan Group, and from his outsider perspective on higher education, he knows there is work to be done in the 21st century. In May 2006, he wrote the following: “…our country faces a new economic reality, which must significantly change what we expect from higher education” (Hunt & Tierney, 2006). In light of the current financial crisis, Tierney’s prophetic words ring truer than ever. Things must change in what society expects from higher education, and this includes the quality of education in the academy:

I do not, let me emphasize, question the quality or effectiveness of many individual institutions. By virtually any criteria, many of our colleges and universities measure up to any foreign counterpart. In the aggregate, however, and measured by the civic and economic needs of society, American higher education is underperforming. (Hunt & Tierney, 2006)

Very few academicians would argue that quality is fine at its current level; what professional organizations don’t want to get better if they can? Higher education should, therefore, approach the issue of quality in the academy with the intent to improve it.

Tierney’s co-author, James B. Hunt, Jr., is the former, four-term governor of North Carolina, and he proposes an interesting question for policymakers to consider. He references the land grant acts of the 19th century and the GI Bill of the 20th century as major education initiatives in this country: what will be that initiative for this century? What will be the groundbreaking policy for the present situation? There is too much literature and research on quality assessments and improvements to cover in such a small space as this. Therefore, the response to the original inquiry becomes somewhat circular: more funding and more access. If higher education has better funding, then the affordability and access becomes broader. When affordability and access are broader, quality inherently will increase with higher enrollments. Nations like China and India will have a distinct numbers advantage, in the sense they have a larger pool of subjects from which to determine/draw quality. Likewise, the United States needs to expand its pool of potential quality through extended funding and access to interested parties. The country can only reach that level through increased and sustained funding, via federal policy.

Access

This is becoming a primary challenge for higher education in the 21st century. Current access levels must be maintain, at the minimum – and increased whenever possible. Francis L. Lawrence noted in his book, Leadership in Higher Education, “This is a problem too large and too important to the future of the nation for individual institutions, private or public, to solve on their own” (Lawrence, 2006). Overriding policy development and implementation is needed to address this issue. Anyone who wants to pursue a higher education degree and who has the capability and desire – whether already established or in mere potential forms – should have access to higher education’s resources, support and opportunities.

The question regarding who gets the access is irrelevant when it comes to demographic labels. In today’s economy, however, the issue of access often boils down to who can afford it. Nannerl O. Keohane, a former president at Duke and Wellesley, states succinctly, “… if the world’s universities continue to be disproportionately accessible to people from advantaged backgrounds who can pay their way, we will have failed to meet our responsibilities for social justice and equity, and even more sobering, will have made more likely an international struggle of the haves and have-nots of the most devastating sort” (Lawrence, 2006). Those with talent will always have access, as will those with funds. The truest issue of access involves the average individual who neither exceptional wealth nor exceptional intellect. The most American of all ideals – that all are created equal – is threatened by the current status of access to higher education.

Higher education is not a right; yet, it should not be a privilege, either. It should be an opportunity, for those who wish to pursue it. Not everyone needs to go to college; after all, the snide belief that “the world needs ditch-diggers, too” is based in truth, however crass the expression. Without vocational skills, societal infrastructure would collapse. But for those who want to follow their American dream – whatever that may be – the opportunity should be provided for them to pursue it. Higher education should never be “handed” out; like American citizenship, it is advanced. You have to want it in order to achieve it. And for those who want it, there should always be access and opportunity.

Diversity

As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, the need for more representative diversity in higher education increases. Diversity programs have been implemented and removed over the past 30 years, and the issue is still prominent. In the previous two sections, the pattern emerges: funding will cure many ills currently plaguing higher education. And there is no time like the present to get this possibility moving forward. In a September 26, 2008, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a statistical database (representing the most recent numbers [2006]) demonstrated the diversity issue for the 21st century:

Students from minority groups have made progress in college enrollment, but big challenges remain. An increasing number of minority students are attending college, both in overall numbers and as a percentage of total enrollments. The percentage of students from any minority group doubled from 1976 to 2005, rising from 15 percent to 31 percent.

Nevertheless, another measure of educational opportunity–the percentage of all college-age people who attend college–still varies substantially by race. This reflects in part that the academic preparation and family incomes of many minority students lag behind whites’. In 2006, 41 percent of white people age 18 to 24 were enrolled in colleges and universities. But only 32 percent of young black adults and 24 percent of Hispanic people of those ages were enrolled” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2008).

This information reveals two realities: diversity is on the rice in higher education, and that rise still doesn’t represent the rise in societal diversity. But it also shows that even the “white majority” isn’t pursuing higher education opportunity at an advanced rate.

Some may question why diversity is important, and there is a simple answer. As the U.S. becomes part of a growing global community, awareness and understanding of those who are “different” from the American “norm” will only increase the capability and productivity of the nation. For example, in a recent study at Amherst College:

On the whole, important learning did take place, but some students gained much more than others from living in a diverse community. Some students got to know those of different races and classes well; others did not. Thirty percent of the students reported changes in the way they saw people of both different races and classes, and an additional 32 percent reported having learned something about people of either other races or other classes. Of the remaining 38 percent, just over half felt that they had gained something from the classroom comments of peers who differed from them in race and class. (Aries, 2008)

While this is hardly definitive, it is a representative result of interaction with diverse members of a community. Higher education and the individuals involved in the academy benefit from diversity; maybe not everyone, but enough people to make a difference. This example is also from an “elite” college, where diversity may not be a priority for some students. Everyone benefits from expanded perspectives and knowledge, and diversity brings those factors to play.

Diversity is currently lagging, however, because the economy affects higher education enrollments today like it never has in the past. According to a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, “In economic storms past, the nation’s college campuses often served as a lifeboat. Young people studied while waiting out hiring lulls, and the unemployed went back to learn new skills. Not this time. Declining house values, investment market meltdowns, credit tightening, government budget shortfalls, and rising joblessness are causing unprecedented turbulence for the nation’s colleges and students” (Clark, 2008). This will impact diversity even more, based on the funding principles explored in the previous sections. At a time when the country can ill-afford to cut funding to higher education, the short-term policy solutions will choose to do just that – thus making diversity gains recede silently in the background while the country attempts to regain its economic footing.

Recommendations

In response to the question, “How should higher education approach issues of quality/access and diversity in the academy?”, many answers exist. But perhaps the best solution lies in a political mantra being slanderously expressed in today’s political arena. In a 1991 article, “Socialist Education?”, Joel Samoff points out that under socialism, “Access to educate expanded rapidly. Schooling became more important than clan, kinship, region, ethnicity, race, religion, and connections in employment and recruitment to positions of authority. An essentially egalitarian society became imaginable” (Samoff, 1991). In one sense, this is Utopia: everyone would enjoy equality in social, political and economic realms. This was certainly not a popular idea in 1991, to suggest socialism had the education model right (whether its intention were pure or not), as the Iron Curtain collapsed and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. But can it be popular now, in a time period where capitalism and its tenets are struggling to thrive? In truth, the idea behind a K-12 education provided by the government to its citizens is, in essence, egalitarian. A K-12 education is a right. A higher education has always been a privilege. Without changing those traditional parameters, higher education access can be improved through a change in philosophical label: higher education should be an attainable opportunity for all who seek it.

For many prospective higher education students, access comes down to cost affordability. If costs cannot be lowered, then aid must increase in the forms of grants to the gifted and loans to the motivated. Like many government programs from the 20th century, higher education funding can be written into new, establish policy for the 21st century. In fact, it must be if these questions of quality, access and diversity are to be answered with positive affirmation. Financial hardship should not be a deterrent to higher education quality, access and diversity. In order to maintain these characteristics, higher education financing must always be maintained and grown. It literally should be come a Social Security-like institution in America. This will not be agreeable to everyone, but it is an absolute necessity to keep higher education as a priority in this nation.

Conclusion

Funding and access need to improve for quality and diversity to rise as well. It is a basic economic principle: to make more money, you need to spend more money. The same logic applies to these modern challenges for higher education: to improve the self-serving interests of quality, access and diversity, the nation needs to commit more financial support to higher education. This will drive the economy up while improving the higher education system itself through broader access and inherent quality increases associated with broader access.

As Hunt noted, the 19th and 20th centuries provided landmark policy decisions which changed the higher education landscape forever, positively building toward the future. The Morrill Act and the G.I. Bill open the doors of higher education to a broad cross-section of society, and the results were clear in the latter half of each century: the U.S. rose to international prominence in economic, political and social arenas. For the 21st century, the landmark policy decision needs to be about funding. Providing stable and increasing funding to higher education will build quality, increase access and improve diversity across all institutions in the U.S.

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Aries, Elizabeth. (2008). At an Elite College, Race Influences Views of Diversity. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 55(5). Retrieved March 19, 2017, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i05/05b04701.htm.

Clark, Kim. (2008, November 3-10). The Economy Affects Higher Ed. U.S. News & World Report, 145(10), 66.

Hunt, James B., Jr. & Tierney, Thomas J. (2006). “American Higher Education: How Does It Measure Up For the 21st Century?” The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education; National Center Report #06-2.

Lawrence, Francis L. (2006). Leadership in Higher Education: Views from the Presidency. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Samoff, Joel. (1991). “Socialist Education?” Comparative Education Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Special Issue on the Education and Socialist Revolution. (Feb., 1991), pp. 1-22.

Seneca, Joseph J. & Taussig, Michael K. (1987). “Educational Quality, Access and Tuition Policy at State Universities”. The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan. – Feb., 1987), 25-37.

Unknown. (2008). Race and Ethnicity of Students, by Institution: About These Data. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 55(5). Retrieved March 19, 2017, from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i05/aboutdata.htm.

 

 

 

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