By Dan Greenstein
This month, millions of students are arriving on college and university campuses or logging on to their laptops and tablets, eager to begin or continue a journey toward a certificate or degree. For nearly half of them, that journey will end with debt and short of the certificate or degree that would boost their earnings, sustain their families, and contribute more to their communities. Those who do not make it to graduation are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. As a nation, we can – and must – do better for higher education to fulfill its promise as the foremost route to life-changing opportunity.
Despite its deserved reputation as the great equalizer, the bridge to a better life that is higher education remains too narrow, too hard to navigate, and carries a toll too high for many Americans. Unless we dramatically improve student success in higher education, our nation will not produce enough of the skilled workers needed to ensure our global competitiveness and national security and to reduce, not drive, inequality. We are currently on track to produce 11 million fewer career-relevant certificates and degrees than our economy will require by 2025, and to distribute them in ways that reproduces privilege.
Higher education in 2025 will either be a bridge to opportunity for millions more Americans and an engine of our nation’s economic development, or a barrier to opportunity, driving a wedge between the haves and the have nots, and constraining our growth. The choices we make today – as policymakers, educators, innovators, and advocates – will set a course for one of those paths. After nearly a decade of investing and learning, we at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believe in four solutions that will bring more students to and across that bridge:
These solutions are powerful. But their impacts on the future of higher education will only be felt if they are implemented now by colleges and universities willing to transform themselves in the interest of their students and our country. The work will require bold and creative leadership and a willingness to innovate at every level. It also will require new types of providers that are able to meet students’ needs with agility and innovation, as well as state and federal policies that provide strong incentives for student access and success.
The world in 2025 holds great promise for higher education. But we must act now if it is to be a bridge to opportunity and not a barrier.
Dan Greenstein is the director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.