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President Lawrence H. Summers’ remarks at ACE: ‘Higher Education and the American Dream’

American Council on Education, 86th Annual Meeting, Miami, Florida


Thank you, David [Ward, President of ACE] for that generous introduction. I am honored to be here today, representing Harvard before this assembly drawn from the most diverse, expansive, and excellent “system” of higher education in the world. I am grateful for the opportunity to address an issue that I believe is central both to our nation and to our colleges and universities — the manifest inadequacy of higher education’s current contribution to equality of opportunity in America and how we can do better.

I will frame my remarks by noting some of the important changes in our national economy over the last generation, and then discuss issues of access in higher education and their relationship to fundamental fairness. I will conclude by highlighting some initiatives we are taking at Harvard to promote access in the context of broader issues of national policy.

Our national economy has been transformed in recent years. Not quite 15 years ago it was a common joke that the Cold War was over, and Europe and Japan had won. Today, the United States is pulling away, and after two decades of stagnation, family incomes have risen significantly as the economy has been transformed by internationalization and information technology.

The gap in income for going to college has risen from 31 percent in 1979 to 66 percent in 1997. Accompanying this change has been substantial increase in inequality. In 1979, the top one percent of the population earned less than half the share received by the bottom 40 percent. The most recent data suggest that today the top one percent earn more than the bottom 40 percent. Or, to put the point differently, in the same period when the median family income was going up 18 percent, the top one percent of all families saw a 200 percent increase in their income.

Sharp increases in inequality and their relation to education are a serious concern. They are even more troubling when one examines changes in intergenerational mobility. Here the evidence is murky because of the difficulty of matching parents and their children over long periods of time. But the evidence suggests that intergenerational mobility in America is no longer increasing and may well be decreasing.

One recent study found that a child born in the bottom 10 percent of families by income has only one chance in three of getting out of the bottom 20 percent. [Thomas Hertz]. Others suggest that Andrew Carnegie’s famous line — “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” needs to be revised to five or six generations. [Alan Krueger, NY Times, November 14, 2002].

More inequality, and more persistence of inequality, mean just this: The gap between the children of different economic backgrounds has sharply increased in this country over the last generation.

Higher education and equal opportunity

Increasing disparity based on parental position has never been anyone’s definition of the American dream.

Going back to the beginning of the Republic, and Jefferson’s view that virtue and talent were sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, the contribution of education — and especially higher education — to equality of opportunity has been a central concern.

Indeed, 64 years ago, at the outset of World War II, one of my predecessors as president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, delivered an address at the University of California entitled “Education for a Classless Society.” In that speech, Conant cites Lincoln for the proposition that we have as a nation the duty “to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” And he offered a manifesto for a more just society achieved through equal opportunity in education.

We in higher education and the nation have done much since the Second World War to promote equality of opportunity. We made genuine progress through the happy accident of the GI Bill. By 1947, one out of every two students in higher education was financed by the Bill, and the proportion of young people going to college had almost doubled.

Many feared that the influx of students from a broad cross-section of America would strain capacity and dilute quality, but in fact the opposite proved true. The veterans were particularly motivated and successful students, and the overall quality of higher education improved with expansion. Furthermore, the rising number of educated people ushered in a period of growth and prosperity unmatched in our history.

The success of the GI Bill, and the success of the students it brought into our nation’s colleges and universities, had far-reaching impact. Harvard and many other universities substantially increased the resources for financial aid, and a number of leading institutions adopted need-based financial aid policies.

State and local governments invested on an unprecedented scale in constructing campuses that made college pervasively available. And with the passage of the Higher Education Act, the federal government made a major commitment to assure, in the words of President Johnson, that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 States and not be turned away because his family is poor.”

The civil rights movement added yet another dimension to equality of opportunity in higher education. In the Harvard classes of 1957 through 1961, there were seven or eight African Americans — today that number is seven to eight percent. And every graduating class in America looks very different today from the way it did decades ago.

This evolution in the composition of our student bodies has not happened by accident, by coincidence, or by the invisible hand. It is the result of conscious choice in the public and private sectors, by people determined to bring us to this point. It reflects a choice that institutions make with an awareness of the profound importance of fairness to all — and with the recognition that what is fair is also effective.

We in higher education can take some satisfaction in the Supreme Court’s reaffirmation, in the Michigan case, of our efforts in this regard. That reaffirmation rested on constitutional law. It also rested on a broad coalition that saw the importance of our efforts.

We have a long way to go to make sure that we deliver, in the experience and academic success of minority students on our campuses, on the promise we make at the door. We have a long way to go to close the gap in academic achievement and standardized test scores separating black and Hispanic students from their white and Asian-American counterparts. And we have a long way to go in bringing to bear on the problems plaguing our public schools sufficient imagination, insight, and relentlessness to begin to make a dent.

The challenge ahead

Today, two-thirds of high school students go into some form of post-secondary education, far more than in most industrialized nations.

No doubt, without this progress in promoting access to higher education in the United States, inequality would be even greater. No doubt, without this progress, there would be an even stronger correlation between the socioeconomic status of parents and their children. But surely, given the changes in the United States over the last generation in inequality and its current magnitude, it behooves us to ask whether we in higher education are doing enough. I believe that we are not.

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 quartile to graduate with a B.A. within five years of leaving high school. And in the most selective colleges and universities, only three percent of students come from the bottom income quartile and only 10 percent come from the bottom half of the income scale. Let me underscore what I just said. Children whose families are in the lower half of the American income distribution are underrepresented by 80 percent.

These differences cannot be fully accounted for by native ability or academic preparation. Indeed, a student from the highest income quartile and the lowest aptitude quartile is as likely to be enrolled in college as a student from the lowest income quartile and the highest aptitude quartile.

Why do these gaps in attendance and graduation persist? In part, because some students simply cannot afford to go to college. At all but the most well-endowed institutions, many students face high tuition and inadequate financial aid.

In part, because many students never consider applying to certain colleges or universities because they believe them to be out of reach. This past fall we held focus groups at Harvard with students with family incomes under $50,000. We learned that these students often work to make up the parental contribution because they do not want to subject their parents to additional financial stress.

There are also issues that are specific to highly selective institutions. The evidence is overwhelming that binding early decision programs of the kind that some colleges and universities use penalize students in need of financial aid by precluding them from comparing offers in choosing a college. Students fortunate enough to be able to be channeled toward prep courses for the SATs surely show up more favorably at any given level of ability than other students. I would venture a guess that the classrooms of Stanley Kaplan and the Princeton Review are among the least diverse in America.

Many very talented students from low and middle-income families cannot compete with their more affluent peers in the apparent level of cultural or athletic extra-curricular pursuits reflected in their college applications. Whatever the reasons, the degree of inequality in access to higher education is a problem that must be addressed:

  • It is more urgent than ever before because the economic impact of going to college in general, and going to a more selective college in particular, has never been greater, and some research suggests that this impact may be greatest for the poorest students.

  • It is more urgent than ever before because one in five American children now has a foreign-born parent, and the children of immigrants are twice as likely to be poor.

  • It is more urgent than ever before because our nation’s competitiveness depends ever more on the quality of those who graduate from our nation’s universities and colleges. And only by assuring access to everyone can we maximize the quality of our nation’s college graduates.

  • And it is more urgent than ever before because excellence in education depends on diversity. If our college graduates are to learn all they can from each other, we must assure that they come from a truly wide range of backgrounds.

    These are not just abstractions. I think of a young woman at Harvard who came from a refugee camp on the border between Cambodia and Laos when she was two, and whose parents worked in an L.A. laundry. In the summer before last, she went back to that refugee camp to help.

    I think of a young man who came to Harvard last year from Hialeah High School, right near here. He came to this country when he was twelve not speaking a word of English, and came in third in the Florida debate championships just a few years later.

    These stories are multiplied many times over. They could be multiplied many times more if we as a nation were fully redeeming our commitment to equality of educational opportunity.

    A new initiative at Harvard

    In this spirit, we are announcing at Harvard a new initiative to encourage talented students from families of low and moderate income to attend Harvard College. The program has four major components:

    1) Financial aid: Beginning next year, parents in families with incomes of less than $40,000 will no longer be expected to contribute to the cost of attending Harvard for their children. In addition, Harvard will reduce the contributions expected of families with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000;

    2) Recruiting: The College Admissions Office has intensified its efforts to reach out to talented students across the nation who might not think of Harvard as an option and make sure that they understand Harvard’s long-standing commitment to enrolling students from a wide range of backgrounds and regardless of financial circumstances;

    3) Admissions: Harvard is reemphasizing, in the context of its highly personalized process of admissions, the policy of taking note of applicants who have achieved a great deal despite limited resources at home or in their local schools and communities;

    4) Pipeline: Harvard recently announced the establishment of the Crimson Summer Academy, an intensive summer program for academically talented high school students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds in the greater Boston area. Each student will participate for three successive summers, beginning after ninth grade, receiving encouragement and preparation to attend a challenging four-year college or university.

    We want to send the strongest possible message that Harvard is open to talented students from all economic backgrounds. Too often, outstanding students from families of modest means do not believe that college is an option for them — much less an Ivy League university. Our doors have long been open to talented students regardless of financial need, but many students simply do not know or believe this. We are determined to change both the perception and the reality.

    We have also taken steps at the graduate level to assure that students who wish to pursue careers in public service are not deterred because of finances. Last year we established a $14 million Presidential Scholars program to fund top master’s and doctoral students choosing careers in fields such as education, public health, and government service.

    Harvard is fortunate to have the resources to undertake these programs. But as one institution, we are a very small piece of the puzzle.

    The Higher Education Act is on the table for reauthorization this spring, and there is clearly much work to be done. The trends I have described today are not unrelated to the fact that we have allowed the purchasing power of the Pell Grant to decline for the last thirty years by 11 percent in real terms, relative to overall price increases at private institutions of 150 percent; that we have moved from grants to loans as the primary vehicle for federal financial aid; and that state legislatures have slashed operating support for universities, sending tuitions higher, while diverting scarce grant resources to merit aid.

    It is not the work of one bill, or one administration, to restore higher education to its full force as an engine of equal opportunity. Plainly there are many new priorities on our national plate — homeland security, the war in Iraq, nation building, to name a few.

    But we need to understand, as we did after World War II, that education is not a discretionary expense; it is a necessary investment in the future of the next generation and, thus, in the future of the nation. We need to support programs that work with children from a very early age to make sure that they set their sights high and have the preparation to succeed in college and meet challenging goals. We need to reverse the questionable allocation of national resources that results in greater, not lesser, inequality.

    In short, we need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, and education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem. Let us make sure that the American dream is a possible dream for every child in the nation.