President's Blog

Access to excellence: Higher education’s innovation imperative

Speech to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, October 30, 2018

The history of higher education in America has been one of ever-expanding access. The progress has been extraordinary, but it hasn’t been easy. It has been driven by a few major policy, financial and institutional innovations that had a dramatic impact in opening the doors of opportunity to more and more people.

The work isn’t done yet though. Millions of people are still left behind at a time when human talent is the most critical resource to compete economically and to sustain a thriving democracy. We are long due for a new wave of innovation to increase access. And we have the tools to do it.

Before the Civil War, American universities produced less than 10,000 graduates a year (which is about how many graduates George Mason or Virginia Tech produce today by themselves). That adds up to about 240 graduates per million people in the country at the time. In 1862, during the Civil War, Congress passed the first Morrill Act, which allowed states to fund new colleges through the sale of federal land. In 1890, the second Morrill Act was passed to better serve people of color at a time of racial oppression and segregation. Over the following four decades, universities multiplied and the number of graduates exploded to 120,000 per year, or about 1,000 per million people (four times the antebellum rate).

In 1944, the G.I. Bill of Rights paid for millions of World War II veterans to go to college. By the early 1950s, the production of bachelor’s degree earners had almost quadrupled in absolute terms compared to the 1930’s and almost tripled in per capita terms.

The 1965 Higher Education Act created the modern federal financial aid system — including student loans and Pell Grants. Together with the growth of community colleges, the new funding plan helped elevate the number of graduates to more than 1.6 million — or more than 5,200 per million people.

Today the odds that an American will graduate from college are about 22 times higher than when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act (and are infinitely higher for women and people of color).

Yet the work is far from done. There are an estimated 40 million adults and working professionals who dropped out, stopped out, or decided college wasn’t a good option for them. Differences across ethnic groups persist whether in terms of access, graduation rates or employment success. College access continues to correlate disturbingly well with family income. And a combination of state disinvestment and escalation of costs has driven in-state tuition to double in constant dollars over the past two decades.

Meanwhile, the value of a college degree has continued to grow and has become all but required to gain access to a good job paying middle-class wages and providing decent health and retirement benefits. Our economy has shifted from manufacturing and resource extraction to services and innovation, thus creating a growing demand for skilled and formally educated workers. And because the average person now is likely to have more than 11 jobs by age 48, even one degree will not be enough for most people to support their careers.

Thus the need for innovation. I am not talking about a new electronic gadget or app, even though advanced information technology will be part of the new solutions. I am referring to institutional, policy and financial innovations that can push and hold the doors of education wide open for the millions who still can’t get in.

At Mason we are trying to do just that. As the largest and fastest-growing public university in Virginia and one of our four top-tier research universities, we are committed to providing access to excellence. We measure our success not just by the accolades our faculty receive — though we are proud of our Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners and our Carnegie and MacArthur Fellows — or by how high we are ranked. And we love being listed among the top 300 universities in the world by the Shanghai Rankings. But our true measure of success is how many people we manage to serve, to give access to the world-class education expected of a leading research university.

That’s why we’re proud that our enrollment has been growing by about 1,000 students per year and has accounted for almost half of all public university growth in the Commonwealth over the last decade. We are proud that 40 percent of our students are the first generation in their families to attend college, that 30 percent qualify for need-based Pell Grants, and that we have virtually no disparities of outcomes among ethnic or income groups. We indeed enjoy being listed by U.S. News & World Report among the top 140 national universities, but we take greater pride in being among the top 25 most diverse.

Yet, as much as we work on providing access, we are painfully aware of the many who don’t make it and are therefore focusing our innovation efforts in determining how to remove persistent barriers.

One important example is the work we’re doing on community college transfer. George Mason University is the largest recipient of community college transfer students in Virginia, but we are not satisfied that only 20 percent of students who start at a community college will achieve their dream of a four-year college degree — even though 80 percent start their journey aspiring to that goal. At Mason, we’re doing better than the national average, but that’s not enough. That’s why we have launched ADVANCE, a new partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, which Governor Northam and several elected officials and business and community leaders helped us celebrate Oct. 29 on the Mason campus.

ADVANCE is helping us widen the circle of higher education, not by inventing anything new, but by applying well documented best practices advocated by organizations like Lumina Foundation, the Aspen Institute, and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University: aligning curriculum pathways, providing personalized success coaching, financial aid advising and other resources to students, and publicly expressing the commitment to effective transfer by both institutions, beginning with their two presidents, Northern Virginia Community College President Scott Ralls and myself.

Now in its first semester, the ADVANCE program has 129 students across 21 majors. We’ll add another couple hundred students in the spring semester and add 30 or so majors by next fall. We project that we will scale up to 6,500 students by 2030. Information technology will help us do this more effectively and efficiently, but the innovation here is not about technology. It’s about the disciplined execution of solutions available to all institutions, at scale. We take no pride of ownership and are happy to serve as a case study to any of our sister institutions who would want to follow suit. And I encourage SCHEV to help us think whether new institutional arrangements may help deal more effectively with these pervasive issues that undermine transfer success.

Another area of much-needed innovation is the education of working adults. Millions of working adults haven’t been able to complete their degree not for lack of talent or determination, but because the structure of the traditional universities makes it virtually impossible for individuals who do not fit the traditional mold. If you’re a young parent, have a job and bills to pay, or serve overseas in the military, you cannot afford to suspend your life obligations, pack up and move to Charlottesville or Williamsburg, and enroll full time to finish your degree. Traditional universities were not designed for you. Semester structures, residential requirements, work hours of administrative offices are all stacked against you. Not to mention distance. Or the fact that, to be brutally honest, they (we) don’t care about you all that much. Yet we know you and your family, our community and our economy would benefit if you completed your education.

We have solutions for working adults. They involve online, flexible schedules, 24/7 services, different types of support, and, ideally, lower cost. They require better marketing tools to convince the would-be students that we haven’t given up on them and neither should they. For-profit universities saw this need, and because traditional universities cared little about it, the for-profits jumped on the opportunity. Over time, abundant federal student loans and the profit motive turned out to be a problematic combination, and a mix of consumer protection regulation and bad press ended up hitting these for-profits hard — even those who were doing things right. Some of them have found creative ways out of their existential predicament by transferring their academic assets to non-profit or public schools while transforming themselves into business services providers. Such is the case of Kaplan University, now a business services vendor of a rebranded Purdue University Global, under the purview of Purdue University, until now a public research university serving mostly traditional students.

Closer to home, Mason is leading with Old Dominion University the Online Virginia Network, a statewide platform to reach out to working adults and match them with the best available opportunities to complete their degree. This is a good start and one we’re committed to grow as we find ways to serve the 500,000 to 1 million adults in Virginia with some college credit and no degree. But we need to do more. We need to find ways to dramatically grow the options available to this population and find ways around the many policies, structures and practices that make it very difficult for these “non-traditional” students – an increasingly obsolete term – to get the job done. At Mason, we are currently exploring our options, but we won’t be able to do it alone. We are going to need the Commonwealth administration, the General Assembly and our regulator, SCHEV, to innovate with us. It won’t be easy or risk-free, but it will make a transformative difference.

Artificial intelligence, deep learning and predictive analytics, adaptive learning, and virtual and augmented reality are exciting new technological frontiers with potentially exciting applications in education. But the really important innovations, the ones that will help us widen the circle of opportunity, will be in how higher education is structured, funded and delivered.

About 1 percent of traditional college-age Americans before the Civil War went to college. We have pushed that number past 40 percent. The way I see it, we are not even halfway there yet.