Skip to main content

Every child getting ahead: The role of education, Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

College Board Forum, Chicago, Illinois


I am honored to be here today, representing Harvard at this celebration of the College Board’s half century of working to promote high standards and equal opportunity in American higher education. And I am pleased to share in the recognition of a distinguished Harvard colleague, John Monro, who embodied in his life and work the opportunities and the values I hope to discuss this morning.

Before I say anything else, I want to thank everyone in the room for the work you do every day to make college affordable, available, and successful for millions of young people across the country.

I want to focus my remarks on a matter of central concern to American families and to the future of the nation – restoring education to its proper role as a pathway to equal opportunity and excellence in our society.

This has been an enduring theme in higher education, with great and creative efforts made by many institutions. Earlier this year, we announced a new initiative at Harvard aimed at the students from families of low and moderate income. Under our new program, families with incomes of less than $40,000 will no longer be expected to contribute to the cost of attending Harvard for their children. Families with incomes of less than $60,000 will also see their contributions reduced.

We are proud of this effort at Harvard, but we are aware that the programs of individual institutions with means can never be a substitute for our shared public responsibility to provide adequate funding for Pell grants and other financial aid, and for the state and community college systems that make higher education accessible and affordable for the broad public.

There is something empty about undertaking initiatives that may be right for one institution without attention to their broader impact. Likewise, we fall short if we urge changes in national policy without doing what we can on our own campuses.

In this spirit, I want to address today a problem that is emerging with increasing urgency in this nation.

Higher education and the rise of inequality

The evidence is overwhelming that inequality in our nation is increasing. Median family incomes have risen by 18 percent since 1979 while the income of the top 1 percent of families has risen by 200 percent. Families in the top 1 percent now earn more than all families in the bottom 40 percent combined.

More ominous still, the transmission of inequality from generation to generation may be increasing as well. A child born in the bottom 10 percent of all families by incomes has only a one-third chance of rising above the bottom 20 percent.

More inequality, and more transmission of inequality, mean just this: The American dream is becoming more remote, as the gap between the life prospects of the children of the fortunate and the less fortunate widens.

This is a crucial issue for higher education. Writing a century and a half ago, Horace Mann called education, “beyond all other devices of human origin … the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

Yet education may in fact be adding to the problem, for the linkage between education and economic success has become much stronger, and the differences in access to education across different income groups have increased.

Spaces in our nation’s colleges and universities – and particularly the most selective colleges – are highly prized, but unequally allocated. Consider the facts:

  • In the United States today, a student from the top income quartile is more than six times as likely as a student from the bottom income quartile to graduate with a B.A. within five years of leaving high school.

  • At selective institutions, only 10 percent come from the bottom half of the income scale. In other words, children whose families are in the lower half of the American income distribution are underrepresented by 80 percent.

    To some extent these differences in access reflect differences in preparation and ability. But less than one might suppose. One observer put the fact starkly if undiplomatically – the least bright rich kids are as likely to go to college, and more likely to go to a good college, than the brightest poor kids.

    We need to make sure that we as a nation do everything we can to make sure that adequate financial aid is available to every academically prepared student, and that students know that it will be there. Perception is as important as reality, because perceptions shape the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

    Searching out deserving students

    Nick Lemann’s recent book, “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,” tells the story of how the SAT came about as a means for breaking down the link between wealth and access to college.

    The Harvard that my predecessor, James Bryant Conant, inherited in 1933 was, in Lemann’s words, a preserve for “high-living, raccoon-coated, Prohibition era” party boys from Northeastern prep schools. Conant wanted to transform Harvard into a genuine, national university, drawing the most talented students from all regions of the country who would come to college to learn. To this end he established Harvard’s first national scholarship program.

    To make his program work, Conant needed a mechanism for identifying talented students who could be expected to succeed in college. He found it in the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a revamped version of the Army entrance exam first administered by the College Board on June 23, 1926, to some 8,000 high school students.

    A believer in the Jeffersonian notion of a “natural aristocracy of talent,” Conant hoped that the SAT would be a tool to measure a student’s strengths and aptitude for leadership by rewarding individual talent and abilities rather than wealth.

    In 1937, approximately 2,000 students took the SAT in 150 testing centers around the country. Today, the College Board, working with the Educational Testing Service, administers the SAT to 1.4 million graduating students hoping to enter college each year.

    Indeed the SAT is today in such widespread use that there are relatively small differences in the proportion of students from different income groups taking the test. But there are stark differences in the scores attained. Only 5 percent of students scoring above 1200 are from the bottom income quintile. In the highest range of scores (1550 and above), there were only 175 low-income students based on self-reported data, compared to nearly 2,000 high-income students.

    Making public schools better

    Some have responded to the disturbing correlation between income and SAT scores by attacking the SAT as a measure of merit and academic potential – or by attacking the concept of merit itself.

    This is shooting the messenger. SATs, along with other variables, are predictive of academic performance in college and of subsequent career success. Instead of attacking the test, therefore, we should understand that these patterns in SAT scores reflect disturbing realities in the underlying structure of educational opportunity in this nation that require our urgent attention.

    Nationwide, we are not meeting even minimal standards of educational opportunity and achievement in many of our public schools. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2002), only 10 to 19 percent of fourth-graders, and 8 to 17 percent of eighth-graders, in urban schools can read solidly at grade level. In math the numbers are only slightly better – 21 percent of fourth-graders in urban schools are proficient, and the number falls to 17 percent in eighth grade. Nationally, only 27 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math.

    These standards are not excessively rigorous. Indeed, comparable standards are attained by the vast majority of students in most other industrialized nations.

    There is an additional dimension that is particularly important at this point in our history. We can all agree that no child should be left behind, but let us also agree that every child can get ahead. All children, whatever their backgrounds and whatever their schools, must have the opportunity to fulfill their full potential. Equal opportunity must mean equal opportunity for excellence. The imperative of equality must never mean the toleration of mediocrity.

    This is not a matter of elitism, but rather of great importance. If the United States is to be a major player in the new global world we must give our students – all of them – the best education of which they are capable. Here again the data are not encouraging:

  • While basic research and scientific publications were dominated by American scientists from the 1960s through the mid-1990s, the last 10 years show a marked decline.

  • According to the National Science Foundation, the number of new U.S. doctorates in the sciences peaked in 1998 and then fell by 5 percent the following year, representing a loss of 1,300 new scientists.

  • In the mid-1990s, Europe surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of scientific literature. Of the students earning doctorates in engineering in American universities, only 39 percent of them are American.

    What we as individuals can achieve depends on what is asked of us. Young people can meet the highest expectations if they are challenged and given the tools to succeed. Grade inflation in many parts of our educational system shows our tendency to confuse the declaration of success with its achievement. As we strive to assure equality, we must lift up those who have been left behind, but we must also ensure that we give all students the challenge and support to get ahead.

    Mayor Daley and Chicago’s school leader, Arne Duncan, are, with the help of the Gates Foundation, providing the kind of leadership we need to address these issues.

    Later this morning, I will be visiting the Walter Payton College Preparatory School, a public high school here in Chicago committed to providing students with a strong education in languages and technology so that they are prepared to go to college and to become leaders in an increasingly global world. Payton is an exam school, and there are 40 qualified applicants for every spot. One third of admitted students come from low-income backgrounds. Payton students follow a rigorous and diverse curriculum and perform in the top 5 percent academically in the city.

    The stakes are high for a venture like Walter Payton. Fixing our public schools is a vast national project and rightly the subject of considerable debate. We in higher education have an important role to play – whether by generating research that teaches us how different children learn, by encouraging our most talented students to pursue careers in teaching, by working with schools on basic questions of management and effectiveness, or by ensuring that students receive the information, counseling, and support they need to make an effective transition from high school to college.

    In an elitist age, the Duke of Wellington famously observed that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Today, the battle for America’s future will be won or lost in America’s public schools.

    Admissions and outreach

    There is substantial inequality in the experiences that American young people have before they reach the age of 18. If higher education is to mitigate rather than exacerbate this inequality, we need to consider carefully the processes by which students are matched – or not matched – with colleges.

    We should make the college admissions process more transparent and welcoming for all students. At Harvard I am working with Bill Fitzsimmons, our Dean of Admissions, and Sally Donahue, our Director of Financial Aid, to take a hard look at how the college admissions process can be an obstacle for students and families, especially those of modest means. We are concerned about the distorting effects of the college application process itself – how stressful it is, and how much time students and their families devote to it, at the expense of real learning, time with family and friends, and the pursuit of true passions and interests. And we are asking our undergraduates to take the lead in reaching out to economically disadvantaged high school students from across the country to make clear that Harvard is open and available to them.

    There are three systemic issues that need to be addressed. First, we need to reduce the distorting impact of the vast industry of test prep courses, essay writing consultants, and private college counselors that has sprung up to help students with means navigate and even manipulate the college admissions process, thereby magnifying the underlying inequalities in educational opportunity and academic preparation.

    With fees for test preparation courses ranging from $800 to $4,000, and private counselors charging as much as $30,000 for their services, I would venture a guess that the classrooms of Stanley Kaplan and the Princeton Review are among the least economically diverse in America.

    One solution is to make the admissions process itself less susceptible to manipulation. The College Board has taken a strong step recently in making changes to the SAT itself. The new test is designed be less coachable and to capture more accurately what students learn in school. It also promises to demonstrate more clearly the kinds of skills students need to succeed, such as writing.

    Another is to make sure that test prep courses and other services are available on a more equitable basis. I recently visited with an enterprising young Harvard graduate, Eugenie Lang, who decided to take on this problem. She has founded “Let’s Get Ready,” a non-profit organization that offers intensive SAT and college preparation courses to low-income students and uses college students as volunteer coaches to help them understand and navigate the college application process. On a much larger scale, the College Board has launched “Springboard” – a major web-based initiative that provides study guides for teachers and students in grades 6 through 12 to ensure that students are exposed to high expectations and rigorous pathways to college.

    Second, we need to make sure that all children facing one of the most important decisions in their young lives receive the information, counseling, and support they need to make sound choices. The disappearing high school guidance counselor is a national disgrace. The average student to college counselor ratio in our nation’s high schools is 500 to 1, and in California it is 1,000 to 1. There are many schools with no counselor at all.

    Finally, we need to make sure that our campuses are equally welcoming to all students, regardless of background. Just last week, I met with a group of Harvard undergraduates who are helping us as part of our low-income initiative to find talented students from across the country and make sure they get connected to the college admissions process. These students placed thousands of phone calls and e-mails over the summer to students who showed strong academic promise but might not imagine that Harvard could be a real possibility for them.

    Most of the students working in our outreach program came from low- and moderate-income backgrounds themselves. It troubled me to hear their stories about how inhospitable some of our campuses can be to students of limited financial means. They impressed on me the importance of maintaining financial aid funds for students who need a winter coat because they are new to the Northeast, for especially expensive course materials, and for tickets to cultural events on campus. I have asked our financial aid office to make funds available to enable all our students to avail themselves of internships, research opportunities, club sports, and other social activities that are easily available to their more affluent classmates.


    Tomorrow’s election is likely to demonstrate that we are, in important respects, a divided nation. But we all should be able to agree on the importance of assuring that all children can get ahead as far as their ability and ambition will take them. The College Board and its member institutions have been at the forefront of this battle for over a century. We have surely come a long way, but we have a long way to go.