Under Secretary Martha Kanter's Remarks at the Association of American Colleges and Universities Annual Meeting

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Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I have been in my job in Washington for a little over six months now, and I've been privileged to get to know many of you and to learn about and recognize in many of our national conversations the extraordinary work of AAC&U. In most of these conversations, we come to a shared vision that the status quo of early learning, K–12 and higher education as we are today won't afford our students the levels of access, quality and achievement they will need to be successful in our democratic society and compete in the global economy.

Last summer, Secretary Duncan gave a series of speeches on the four core reforms that are driving our K–12 agenda. The four assurances, as we call them, were significant enough for 41 of 50 states to change or improve their policies to compete in the Department's Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion fund available to states and school districts. One of the themes he emphasized was the need for quality. The need for creating higher quality academic standards and assessments to increase student achievement and measure their progress. He emphasized our need for better education research and our responsibility to identify the education programs and strategies that work, replicate and scale them, all for the purpose of getting to the President's 2020 goal of having "the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world."

It's clear that we need to think more deeply and, in some cases, very differently about the best ways to educate our students … and that is what I am asking you to do today: to build on the work of AAC&U in leveraging and scaling what you have already accomplished to increase quality in general education, curricular coherence, civic responsibility, student equity, faculty diversity, learning outcomes, assessment, ethics and academic integrity. You play an enormously important role in the three cornerstones of our national education agenda going forward: access, quality and completion.

My own values and philosophy of education were formed years ago in Massachusetts where I started my career in education as a teacher, became a professor and then went into administration. I knew then as I know now that what I taught and how I taught could change the lives of my students, if only I had the best content, used the best research, implemented the best pedagogical approaches and made sure every step along the way that my students were performing at high levels of achievement. The more I expected, the more they accomplished. The more I drew them into the love of learning, the more they wanted to know, the more they explored their own ideas.

Nobody's a perfect professor or a dean or a college president, but most of us aspire to achieve the best for our students that we possibly can.

So why is it today that so many of our students of color, so many from low-income families and so many more across the spectrum have failed to graduate from high school and college. As a college president and now as your under secretary, I have many sleepless nights thinking about how we can overcome the barriers and harness the opportunities for higher education to provide better leadership to connect youths and adults to high- quality programs of study, resources, and networks that will lead students to social and economic advancement in their lives.

Access and completion of college are not going to prevail without quality as the driving force for our work. Our students need to be able to depend on higher education to prepare them for the demands of the 21st century. It's amazing that just in this week, actor Richard Dreyfuss of "Mr. Holland's Opus" fame and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer both told me what we need to do: to give every student a dramatic infusion of what it means to participate in a democratic society, and do everything we possibly can to instill in students the respect and passion for America, its promise and its people that brought most of us in this room to believe we are part of the greatest country in the world. They see a "nation at risk"—they see that sense of civic pride and responsibility disappearing little by little, and they call upon us with a sense of urgency that we all feel.

It is not enough to educate students for a job today, though many I have spoken to think this should be our only purpose. I don't think so. In today's world, we know that our students will have many jobs, and will likely change career paths a number of times, so they have to be equipped for lifelong learning and continuous improvement. They have to demonstrate the outcomes that AAC&U has put forward to the higher education community. And we have to talk about Raising the Bar and other studies that confirm what employers, parents and communities want our students to know and to be able to do. We have to make a far more sophisticated case for liberal learning and document the foundation skills that will allow our students to prepare for multiple jobs and multiple responsibilities with increasing complexities in their lifetime.

Thirty of the fastest growing fields—including health care, IT, bioscience, and medicine— are rapidly changing and require a four-year degree as a minimum to get a decent job. Two-year and four-year degrees and certificates will be critical for the thousands of new and replacement jobs that employers need to fill going forward. Sixty one percent of employers say they can't find qualified candidates for vacant jobs.

The President's goal and why we need to make it happen

  • President Obama has set a goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
  • Secretary Duncan called this the North Star, and we're working aggressively to meet this goal on so many fronts.
  • On Tuesday, President Obama announced his intention to make a major new investment—more than $1.3 billion—in this year's budget to continue the Race to the Top. This support will not only reaffirm the commitment to states engaged in serious reform, it will also expand the Race to the Top competition to include local school districts that are also committed to change.
  • The fiscal 2010 budget has already provided $129 billion in new grants, loans, and other assistance—a 32 percent increase since fiscal 2008. More than 14 million students and their families will use this assistance to pay for college.
  • Over the next decade, the Obama higher education plan proposes to increase Pell Grants—to $5,550 next year—and will index future increases to inflation plus 1 percent. Almost 8 million students will receive Pell Grants in the 2010–11 academic year. The cash value will increase 13 percent.
  • HR 3221, which was passed by the House and will be released by the Senate shortly, is the vehicle to implement the President's higher education and adult workforce agenda. The College Access and Completion Fund along with The American Graduation Initiative will invest approximately $5 billion for higher education to reach the President's 2020 goal of graduating about 10 billion more students over the next ten years.
  • The president's goals are ambitious—but so is the challenge.
  • We cannot create a seamless cradle-to-career pipeline of college-ready students by continuing to do what we are doing now if we only do it just a little bit better.
  • To meet the President's goals we need to increase quality, access and completion simultaneously.
  • We need to take big and bold steps.
  • We need to bring the evidence-based solutions to scale.
  • We need to launch a sophisticated access-quality-completion campaign at every campus and in every state that will bring America to first in the world by 2020.
    • Giving students short-term training to fill today's jobs is not enough—not nearly enough. Jobs are changing.
    • The solar panel example: Solar Panel Installer to Climate Change Scientist.
  • We talk about preparing students for STEM, but they're not going to pass Statistics or Calculus or Freshman Composition, which are gateway courses into STEM fields, without a general education foundation that gives them the critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills to use in whatever field or fields they choose.
    • Daniel Pink advocates for moving from STEM to STEAM (He's added A for the Arts) and we need to help the public understand why the A is so important for the future of our democratic society.
    • 21st-century jobs will require critical thinking and creativity and a narrow field of study won't be enough for students.
  • Frans Johansson says in his book, The Medici Effect, that when and where "different cultures, domains, and disciplines stream together toward a single point," they may "connect, allowing for established concepts to clash and combine, ultimately forming a multitude of new, groundbreaking ideas."
    • One example he uses is of an architect who studied how termites cool their towerlike mounds of dirt and investigated natural ecosystems so he could build an office building without air conditioning in Zimbabwe.
    • Another example is the telecommunications engineer who has been trying to figure out how to route telecom messages through a haphazard routing system. After he meets an ecologist, who studies social insects, and learns more about how ants search for food, he applies it to the routing of telecom message packets, to guide unmanned aerial vehicles searches around the world.

Closing Remarks:

As you can see, we have much to accomplish. With your leadership and support, we have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to reach President Obama's 2020 goal.

As the President said on Tuesday, "Our goal is to put us on a path to raise the quality of American education, to prepare our children to succeed in their lives and their careers, and to secure America's success in the 21st century." We can do this. I look forward to working with you to make this happen. Thank you.