Reframing the college debate: One size does not fit all

September 9, 2014

President Janet Napolitano gave the keynote address at the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference, September 9, 2014.

Here are Napolitano's remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you.  It’s great to be here at the TimesCenter.

I’d like to begin this morning with a story about a young man. It happened around sixty years ago—and about two blocks from here.

One day, this young man—who had dabbled in newspaper work before—walked into the offices of The New York Times to apply for a job as a copyboy, as they were called back then. The job interview went well. But then, right before it ended, the interviewer asked the young man where he had gone to college.

The young man said, “I did not attend college, sir.”

The interviewer, a former news editor, said that all copyboys at The New York Times were college graduates.

The young man stood, and rose to his full height. He was very tall.

“It is true”, he said forcefully, “that I am not a college graduate. But I am literate, and articulate, and I dwell in the realm of ideas.”

As any reader of Gay Talese’s masterpiece The Kingdom and the Power has figured out, the young man was McCandlish Phillips. He went on to become, by all accounts, one of the finest reporters and writers ever to grace the front page of The New York Times.

His story is a powerful one—albeit an exceptional one. You might even say that McCandlish Phillips is the exception that proves the rule. It was unusual enough in the 1950s to find a Times reporter who had not attended college. Today, I suspect you would be even more hard-pressed to find one. But it’s important to remember that the Phillips story is just that—a story. An anecdote. And, in the ongoing national dialogue about higher education, there are plenty of anecdotes in the ether—and they tend, unfortunately, to dominate.

Today, we hear constantly about part-time baristas with $200,000 in student loan debts. About students who somehow receive top-notch educations while never leaving the couch—in their pajamas. About professors who teach one class every five years, and lead research projects without any so-called “real world” value.  

These stories should come with a warning label. Anecdotally-based conversations create a context in which stories overwhelm the facts. They give rise to seemingly provocative questions, such as “Is a college degree really worth the investment?”

It sounds smart—even reasonable—to ask, but there is no one correct answer to this question. It all depends on where you set your aperture. Are you asking the question as a rising family trying to figure out how to make it in the world? Are you looking for a way to get Johnny out of the house for four years? Are you looking at investment or ROI in terms of what society invests? Or are you looking at investment in the context of higher education business models?

Beyond these focal points, there are other important distinctions that must be made as we discuss higher education in the United States today. There are nuances and differences that get lost in the easy narrative of $200,000 student loan debt and freshly minted graduates working at Starbucks.

I think one of the great strengths of American higher education today is the variety of institutions that now exist in this country. Community Colleges. Liberal Arts Colleges. Private universities. They possess different missions, serve different populations, and answer to different constituencies.

What I am here to talk about today are public research universities. Whether it’s the University of California—or the Universities of Michigan, Virginia, Texas, you name it—public research universities are a category apart. And I would argue that while there are lots of veins and capillaries in higher education, public research universities are the aorta. They pump the blood of innovation, transformation, and knowledge creation in the modern day American society.

This conference is framed around the idea of schools for tomorrow—what they might look like, and who they might serve. But when we talk about public research universities, we are also talking about societies for tomorrow.

What do I mean by “public research university”? Let’s break down the language.

First, the word “public.”  This means, of course, of the people, for the people, and by the people. A piece of the commonwealth—a public good—with a responsibility to serve society and not profit from it.

Next, the word “research.” This means not just the transmission of knowledge, but the creation of new knowledge. This is an often over-looked yet fundamental characteristic of public research universities. We engage daily in the pursuit of knowledge—and it is that knowledge that other universities and colleges can then teach.

And finally, the word “university.” I think this means not just the educational institution, the bricks and mortar itself, but the educational community—one that transforms its students, its faculty, its staff, and again, ultimately, the society it serves.

Public research universities have two fundamental roles.

The first is to educate, on a vast scale, the next generation. This means providing hundreds of thousands of college students with an excellent yet affordable education. Yes, our country has world-renowned elite private universities. And we need them and we respect them. But “elite” almost always means “small.”

By way of example, the University of California has more than 230,000 students.  Last year, UC Berkeley alone admitted almost 13,000 freshman applicants. Stanford, our neighboring school down the peninsula, admitted a little more than 2,000.

Here are some other numbers to keep in mind. Forty-four percent of all University of California undergraduates are first generation college students. Meaning neither parent went to college.

Forty-two percent of UC undergraduates qualify for Pell grants. In fact, four of our campuses each enroll more Pell grant recipients than all eight Ivy League institutions combined. Or, all ten of the recently named top ten by the New York Times.

Now, it’s true that when it comes to tuition, some UC students pay the sticker price. And it is also true, that as state support has dwindled, that sticker price has gone up. But still, what those students pay for a four-year degree is less than what a student would pay for one year at the sticker price at an elite private university. One for four.

That being said, more than 50% of UC students pay no tuition at all.

Of those who do, the average tuition and fees for a California resident undergraduate is less than $5,000—significantly less than the sticker price.

Forty-five percent of our student body graduates with no student debt whatsoever.

Of those who do graduate with debt, and I wish all undergraduates could get out with no debt, but of those who do, the average amount is a little less $20,000, which is thousands of dollars less than the national average.

For those who want to speak in anecdotes, when it comes to students, I have several I could tell you, too.

I could tell you about the student who served as a combat medic in Afghanistan, and then helped fellow veteran students transition to university life at UC Berkeley.

I could tell you about the student who grew up moving from foster home to foster home, and then founded a student support community for fellow former foster youth at UCLA.

I could tell you about a student who was a high school drop-out, and who is now studying for a Ph.D. aimed at helping Latino men confront life-threatening health challenges at UC Merced.

Unlike McCandlish Phillips, these students are not the exceptions that prove the rule. They are the rule. And I’ve only told you about three of them. I could tell you about tens of thousands more, at the University of California alone, who represent the opportunity to learn—and to serve—that is a central bedrock of public research university.

Now multiply those students across all of the nation’s public research universities and you see one reason why these universities provide the greatest hope the United States has for a robust and vibrant future.

This brings me to the second fundamental role that these institutions serve. And that is the role of conducting basic research.

Basic research is the lifeblood of any institution engaged in the creation of new knowledge. And it requires a culture of inquiry, of trial and error, and of forever looking ahead.

When we talk about basic research, we are not talking about finding a cure for malaria. We are talking about exploring the chemistry and physiology that underlie how mosquitoes smell. In time, this may lead to pathways that allow us to outwit mosquitoes and save millions of lives. But that comes much later.

When we talk about basic research, we are not talking about how to test as many women as possible for the BRCA1 gene. We are talking about figuring out whether or not it is even possible that a single gene on one chromosome can be responsible for breast and ovarian cancer.

And when we talk about basic research, we are not talking about how to feed millions of more people in food insecure regions of the world. We are talking about determining the genetic wiring of rice, trying to decipher what genetic mechanism makes the rice vulnerable if it’s submerged underwater for too long.

Yes, it is the applications from this basic research that lead to finding the cure, say for malaria, or testing an at-risk population, say for breast cancer, or feeding more people with rice that can now withstand monsoon flooding. But without basic research, and the freedom from profit and time pressure to conduct it, these applications would not exist.

This is important, because it is the nation’s public research universities that are increasingly serving as the primary incubators for the basic research upon which our entire economy depends. The trend is moving away from the Bell Labs of old to the Berkeleys of today. For the last few decades, the Association of American Universities has counted more public research universities among its members than private ones. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Basic research is expensive. It is time-consuming. It doesn’t always produce the results we think it will. Sometimes it leads to happy surprises…and sometimes it ends up, unhappily enough, in blind alleys and cul-de-sacs.

This is one of the many reasons that private companies have ceased support for the in-house R&D that led to so many of our country’s innovative ideas and inventions.  Basic research is often the first endeavor to be challenged by cash-strapped state legislatures, or P & L conscious  governing boards.

But basic research is also incredibly important. And it’s not just important for higher education, or for the private sector. It’s important for the future of American society.

Put another way, Nobel Prizes are not awarded because researchers figured out how to make a lot of money, although that’s always nice.

Nobels are awarded because researchers transformed, at some level, our understanding of the human experience, and the scientific world in which we live, and all that goes on in the universe that we call home.

Consider my own university, the University of California, as a case study for basic research. I’ll leave out the anecdotes, because the numbers, again, tell their own story:

UC awards more than 60% of all the Ph.D.s in California.

UC as a whole performs almost one-tenth of all the federally funded academic research in the entire United States. One university, ten percent.

Six UC campuses belong to the AAU. As you know, only nine of our campuses have undergraduates. Nearly a thousand UC faculty belong to the National Academies. And UC is home to 61 Nobel Prizes.

UC is just one public research university system. Multiply those numbers across all of our nation’s public research universities. Again, when you do, you see another reason why these universities possess the greatest hope for our country’s future.

Now, this all sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Nobody is advocating for a dumbed-down society, or for closing the doors on new knowledge. But those who speak generically about higher education without making distinctions about institutional missions fuzzy up the political discourse in what can be a dangerous way.

I can tell you, from my own previous positions, Secretary of Homeland Security, and current position as President of the University of California, that all advanced, societies answer the same two basic questions in the affirmative:

“Do you have a well-educated population?”

And, “Do you have a knowledge-based innovation-based economy?"

Policy makers who do not distinguish public research universities from other institutions of higher education do so at their—and at our—own peril.

That is why I am calling upon our nation’s leaders to double-down on basic research funding, and to direct it to this country’s public research universities. We need a new funding model for these types of institutions—a new funding model that would operate at both the federal level, and the state level.

These are America’s universities. And the nation as a whole will ultimately go the way that its public research universities go.

As the pages of The New York Times make clear on a daily basis, the world is changing. Putin may not yet have gotten the message, but it’s no longer about brawn—it’s about brains. It’s no longer about exploitation—it’s about innovation. And no country is now ceding ground to another or ceding ground to the United States—everyone is in the game.

I think as we go through the day, we need to rethink about the future and reinvest in the idea that the future belongs to the thinkers, the innovators, and the creators of tomorrow. The day is coming—actually, the day is here—when it is no longer enough to out-produce or out-harvest the world.

We need to out think the world.

We must dwell, and we must prepare our students, large numbers of our students, ever more diverse numbers of our students. We must dwell and prepare them, as McCandlish Phillips put so well, to operate and exist in the realm of ideas.

Thank you.