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Business Officer Magazine

Allies in Ensuring Access to Higher Education

President Obama has laid down the gauntlet: By 2020, America must produce a higher proportion of college graduates than any other country. John Walda, NACUBO president and CEO, offers his own call to arms, urging that higher education and Department of Education leaders join forces to achieve the administration's vision.

By John Walda

Shrinking endowments. Soaring tuition discounts. Struggling families. All are signs of our times, with the past 18 months comprising one of the most challenging periods in our economic history.

As higher education leaders, we've encountered obstacles as seemingly insurmountable as any faced in a generation or more. Public institutions contend with diminishing state and local support, while demand surges from both traditional and adult learners. Private institutions watch endowments decrease in value, as faltering family income creates tuition ceilings. And, public or private, all institutions must respond to the fact that student demographic changes signal the need for greater resources rather than fewer.

Fortunately, we have strong allies. For example, community college veteran Martha J. Kanter now serves as under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Her decades of service in higher education position her well for her task of overseeing policies, programs, and activities related to postsecondary education, vocational and adult education, and federal student aid. I had the opportunity to interview Under Secretary Kanter (see “Insights” in this issue) and was encouraged by her passion for the new role.

Tiered Efforts

Kanter and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan understand full well their charge. Little more than a year ago—days after the enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—President Obama explained it this way in a joint session of Congress: “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity, it is a prerequisite. ... That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education—from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.”

This tracks with President Obama's goal for America to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. To advance that overarching goal, we need to improve access to college and improve student achievement, including degree attainment and learning outcomes. University leaders, foundations, the president of the United States, and the Department of Education—all help to define that collective mission.

NACUBO's stated mission, “To advance the economic viability and business practices of higher education institutions in fulfillment of their academic missions,” confirms our aim to provide our members with the information and tools that prepare them to do their part to educate, discover, and serve. As business officers we play a critical role in helping to define the campus environment, ensuring that the institution has adequate teaching and learning tools, maintaining efficient (and transparent) operations, and operating with the most up-to-date financial tools.

Resources Back Rhetoric

President Obama supported his words about increasing college access and participation by all Americans with an ambitious slate of proposed federal policies and programs. The ARRA alone provided approximately $100 billion to the Department of Education, a large portion of which the department swiftly delivered to states in response to drastic budget shortfalls.

Since that time, Secretary Duncan, along with Kanter, has been striving for reform throughout the K–12 and higher education continuum. Kanter brings a unique perspective to the mix: She is the first community college leader to serve as under secretary of education. From 2003 to 2009, she served as chancellor of California's Foothill–De Anza Community College District, one of the largest in the nation, serving more than 45,000 students with a total budget of approximately $400 million. Earlier, Kanter served as a director, dean, and subsequently vice chancellor for policy and research for the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office in Sacramento, returning in 1990 to San Jose City College as vice president of instruction and student services.

The challenges that she'll help tackle—college readiness, college access, and degree completion—are not the administration's alone. They hold great consequence for our nation. Perhaps more than ever, now is the time for the leaders of the higher education community and the Department of Education to work closely together in making President Obama's vision—and our own—a reality.

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO.


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