Address to the Association of Community College Trustees

Robert J. Zimmer
Address to the Association of Community College Trustees
Chicago, October 22, 2014

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to be here with you today.  The job that each of you has as a trustee of a community college is a critical one.  Community colleges are an essential component of the fabric of the higher education system in the United States, and I want to express my appreciation for the work you do as trustees to see your individual colleges flourish, and through that contribute to the health of the larger higher educational fabric that is so critical to our nation’s strength and the well-being of its citizens.

We are all here today with what I believe are some shared understandings about higher education.  Education has the capacity to transform the lives of individuals, change the trajectory of families, and contribute to the social, cultural, and economic health of our society.  Without education, individual lives are of circumscribed opportunity, families may linger outside the economic mainstream, and our society can become increasingly fragmented.

The history of the United States is deeply intertwined with its history of education and in particular higher education.  As a nation of immigrant and post-immigrant families, we have seen wave after wave of people coming to the United States and being propelled by the educational opportunities they found.  One successful immigration after another has provided evidence of the importance of education, and our country’s ability to provide this education has enabled us to fulfill the promise that drove immigrants to seek out this country.  These immigrations in turn have fueled and continue to fuel the great energy and drive that have been so characteristic of the United States.  In the same way, the African-American community, a great deal of whose early history in the United States was imposed upon them, has demonstrated the importance of education and higher education to enabling them to have their rightful place in American society. 

In the complex history of higher education in the United States, it is worth spending some time recalling three important moments, each of which took place in the second half of the 19th century or the very first years of the 20th century.  The first was the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the so-called “land-grant universities,” which became the large state universities that we are all so familiar with today.  The goal of the Morrill Act was to provide federal resources, in the form of land that could be granted to the states to be sold for establishing these universities, in order to educate large numbers of citizens for the more technologically advanced age that was seen to be coming—namely the age of industrialization and technologically sophisticated agriculture.  The Morrill Act was one of tremendous foresight, commitment, and impact on enabling the United States to become the greatest industrial power in the world over the next century.  One extraordinary feature of the Morrill Act is that it was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.  In the midst of the greatest crisis the country has ever faced, the political leadership understood the need—and acted upon the need—to invest in young people, the people who would define the country’s future.

The second and third moments, nearer the turn of the century, both involved the genius of one man, William Rainey Harper.  Harper was the founding president of the University of Chicago.  Harper wanted to create a university very different in tone from those on the East Coast—institutions that had their roots as training grounds for elites and clergy.  Rather, Harper sought to create a university that was from the beginning a research university, with education embedded in the context of inquiry at the heart of any research program, and which would have a major impact on the world through its ideas and the work of its students and alumni.  He succeeded beyond plausible expectations.  It was the establishment of the University of Chicago, together with the establishment of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, that represented the origins of the major American private research universities, which we also know well today.

However, William Rainey Harper was not done founding educational institutions.  In 1901, while still president of the University of Chicago, he worked with the superintendent of Joliet Township High School, J. Stanley Brown, to create Joliet Junior College, the first public junior college.  Brown was confronting the difficulties of his most promising students in attending college, as many found the costs daunting.  The new Joliet Junior College provided a low-cost two-year general education that allowed students to live at home, further reducing the total costs.  After those two years, students would have enhanced capacities through greater education as well as the possibilities of transferring to a four year college or university. 

There are two main points I would like to emphasize about the meaning of these three historic moments.  The establishment of the state land-grant universities, the development of the great private research universities with the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins leading the way, and the establishment of a public junior college, what we now refer to as a community college, demonstrated what has become a very advantageous defining feature of the U.S. higher education system.  Namely, this system has great variety built into it—there is a diversity of students, with varying needs, interests, goals, and ambitions, and our system has evolved to reflect this.  It is not one size fits all which would ultimately be constraining and non-responsive to individual needs, but rather a diversity of institutions that enables a better match of student to institution.  Community colleges play a crucial role in educating part of our broad population.  Just as Joliet Junior College was tailored for the particular concerns of students from the region, all colleges and universities have a responsibility to best understand how their particular strengths can help meet the needs of students and the larger society, whether that takes the form of particular training programs or a powerful research environment.  This flexibility and diversity in the American system have led to higher education in the United States being widely recognized as the leading system in the world.

The second point I want to draw from this history has to do with the University of Chicago itself.  Helping to found the nation’s first public junior college while president of what was already becoming one of the leading research universities in the world was reflective of Harper’s approach to the University’s engagement with the City of Chicago and the surrounding community.  In 1894, two years after classes opened for the first time at the University of Chicago, he said: “This University is here to help the people of Chicago, and especially those in position to receive the more definite character of aid we are able to render.  We are here to assist teachers, students, businessmen and women, and particularly those whom circumstances have deprived of educational opportunities once eagerly sought.”

This perspective and commitment articulated by Harper, focusing on how to provide education to people of many backgrounds and circumstances, continues to resonate with the University of Chicago today, just as it drives the community college sector he played such an important role in establishing.  While this commitment of the University of Chicago is multi-faceted, I would like to take a few minutes to describe briefly two particular aspects of our work toward ensuring that education is available for all.  The first aspect concerns our new financial aid policies for our students.  The second concerns our work with pre-K–12 education and helping all students enhance their possibilities for higher education.

Let me begin by discussing our thinking and our actions regarding accessibility and financial aid.  It is impossible to think about the University of Chicago fulfilling its highest aspirations without our students being from a broad-based and diverse set of backgrounds.  The University’s history reflects this. 

The University has, unlike many other leading research universities, always been open to women as well as men.  The first doctorate earned by a black woman in the United States was awarded in 1921 at the University of Chicago.  We were among the first major non-historically black universities to tenure a black faculty member.  Asian American scholars in the 1920s were essential to the University’s landmark development of the social sciences.  At a time when other elite institutions systematically discriminated against Jews, the University of Chicago refused to set quotas.  We have long been a magnet for students from Mexico and South America, and are now a magnet for students from Asia. 

Diversity of economic backgrounds has also been essential.  We have long been need-blind in admissions.  This means we admit students independent of their financial situation, based only on merit, and then create a financial aid package that enables them to attend.  Within the past month, we have made a major new expansion of this effort, called UChicago No Barriers.  This means that our financial aid packages now have no loan expectations—all loan expectations are now replaced 100% by scholarship grants—and we expect all our students to graduate debt free.  There is no term time work expectation, so students can fully participate with students from more privileged economic backgrounds in all of the opportunities at the University.  There is no application fee if you are applying for financial aid.  We have dramatically simplified the process for applying for aid.  For those from the families with the lowest family income, we have guaranteed a paid internship for the summer after the first year, as these students may not have the connections and networks to find meaningful summer work.  For a student receiving financial aid, any increase in tuition from year to year is taken care of by increased grants.  And there is more.  We analyzed what would prevent talented students from applying to the University and attending if they were admitted.  And we have tried to eliminate every one of these barriers.  UChicago No Barriers will apply to all students with financial need, which is at least half of our undergraduate students. 

This of course represents a wonderful opportunity for these students, but the University of Chicago is one institution.  We are also committed to trying to find ways for many more students to be prepared to attend any college and succeed in college.  Some of this is through over 100 workshops we organize around the country with students, parents, and high school counselors aimed at better educating all of them about the opportunities that exist across the country for them. 

Our largest effort for pre-K–12 students is captured in our Urban Education Institute, or “UEI.” 

UEI’s goal is to dramatically improve school education in urban areas around the country through evidence-based research, training, analysis of policy options, and systematic action-oriented dissemination of our findings.  We operate four charter schools on the South Side of Chicago in which students are admitted by lottery.  Almost all the students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Within UEI, the Consortium on Chicago School Research collects data on schooling in Chicago and conducts research to inform practice, policy, and the public about public school performance in Chicago.  Alongside that, UEI conducts teacher-training programs and disseminates important findings on best practices regarding school systems and schools as well as curricula.

One recent finding, leading to a program that is being widely adopted, is called “on track.”  UEI analysis has revealed that success in ninth grade is an excellent predictor of whether students will graduate from high school.  This has led to an emphasis in Chicago public schools of active intervention with students in the ninth grade.  This “on-track” initiative, now being disseminated well beyond Chicago, has already helped raise the CPS graduation rate in recent years from 54 percent to 69 percent.  This year 84 percent of Chicago Public School ninth grade students were on track to graduate and we anticipate this being reflected in yet higher CPS graduation results in three years time.  This is a concrete discovery, leading to paths for intervention that are changing students’ prospects and lives.

Both of these initiatives, our UChicago No Barriers for accessibility and support for our own students, and UEI’s work aimed at a national impact for urban school children, reflect the history of the University of Chicago, and they might well be considered as the present day manifestation of the same spirit that led William Rainey Harper to work with J. Stanley Brown to create Joliet Junior College in 1901.

The need blind admissions policies I have described, admitting students without regard to need and providing a financial aid package to enable them to attend, is a policy of about 35 higher education institutions in the country, about half of these 35 being leading research universities, such as the University of Chicago, the Ivies, MIT, and Stanford, and the other half being leading private four year colleges such as Swarthmore, Amherst, Pomona, and others.   While we believe we are now the leader in access programs for domestic students with UChicago No Barriers, every one of these 35 institutions is deeply committed to access and economic diversity.  How they are able to afford this is simple—it is due to the alumni who have had the benefit of their experience and want to give back so that others may have this experience independent of financial circumstances.  It is a remarkable story of individual philanthropy, a story that is uniquely American. 

While this story is indeed wonderful, 35 is only a small fraction of the higher education institutions in the U.S.  In fact, while many of these institutions have a very high profile, together these 35 institutions educate only about 1.2% of those students in the nation who receive higher education.  About 75% of our higher education students nationwide are educated by publicly supported institutions, such as community colleges and the state land-grant universities that I mentioned earlier.  And what is happening to support for these institutions that are so critical to the opportunities and well-being of such a large percent of our citizens, and therefore so critical to the health of our society?  Over the past dozen years, public support for public higher education, whether community colleges or state universities, has on average decreased in real terms by 30%. 

While one can assign responsibility for this decrease on state legislatures and others with direct responsibility for funding decisions, ultimately it reflects a lack of willingness of the American public to prioritize public higher education as a public good.  This is quite an extraordinary situation and to my mind a very disturbing one.  The Morrill Act was signed into law by Lincoln in 1862 during a period of extreme stress on the country and its finances.  Yet with everything going on at that time, the Congress and the President, and therefore ultimately the American public, made a statement through action of the importance of investing in our young people.  All times are stressful and today is no exception.   But budgeting is another word for priority setting, and we seem to be in a situation in which the public as a whole, as expressed through their elected officials, is willing to see a decreased investment in our young people so that other priorities can be funded.  To me, this is a huge shift in the country with impact on the opportunities our young people will have.  And it happens at a time when other countries are continuing to invest, and in some cases increasing their investment.  If we are going to continue to benefit from being a nation in which those from around the world see the potential for their future, if we are going to be competitive as a society, if we are going to allow our citizens to fulfill their potential, this issue must be addressed.

You are all trustees of important institutions—institutions that together with state universities, liberal arts colleges, private research universities, and now some for-profit colleges form the fabric of higher education in the U.S. and the backbone for the future of our young people and hence the future of our country.  It is a critical task.  Our country’s success will only be accomplished if one by one we push our common mission forward.  The advocacy for your school, the help and support you provide the president of your school, your engagement on the school’s behalf, and depending on your personal circumstances possible philanthropic investment are all necessary to enable your institution to flourish.  All of us are involved in a great common project—for individuals, our regions, and for our country.  I express to every one of you my admiration for your commitment and wish every one of you success in these efforts.