Obama's take on Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a Q&A with Barack Obama (it's an email transcript).

For those interested in these issues, go and read the whole thing. Most of the discussions of higher education stick to the the rising costs of tutition with some discussion of the problems surrounding the student loan industry (they do go together, after all).

What I was most interested in was his response to a question about affirmative action in college admissions decisions. Here are excerpts of his answer:

Diversity enriches education. As America grows more diverse, it is essential that students be exposed to diversity in all its forms and learn how to effectively communicate, collaborate, and compete with people of all backgrounds.

Some measures traditionally used to determine college admissions—such as college entrance exam scores—might not necessarily be the best predictors of college success, placing some very talented students at a disadvantage.
[Here he gives an example based on a project by Deborah Bial] ...

When properly structured, affirmative action programs can open up opportunities to qualified minorities—and can do so without diminishing opportunities for white students. Given the dearth of black and Latino Ph.D. candidates in mathematics and the sciences, for example, a scholarship program for minorities interested in getting advanced degrees in these fields won’t keep white students out of such programs but can broaden the pool of talent that we need to prosper in the new economy.

We shouldn’t ignore that race continues to matter: To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socioeconomic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience—and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right.

The very question suggests this is an either/or thing—either you want to increase opportunities for racial minorities or you want to increase opportunities for poor students of all races. I reject this. We can—and should—do both.


I like the insistence that race- and class-conscious admissions do not create a binary situation -- and that we can't pretend that race doesn't matter in this country. What I like even more is the emphasis on the role of higher education in a broader community of citizens -- Obama focuses on the need for a "broad pool of talent" rather than on one individual's achievement as the measure of success and competitiveness in the new global economy.

I think what I liked most was that the discussion didn't simply focus on cost and accountability (and what Obama says about accountability has little to do with the instruction already happening and more to do with the way that Universities spend their money).

edit. I fixed the title. The irony of my inability to spell the industry I'm in. Bah. Need more coffee

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