In 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Yancey, a Virginia legislator, on the topic of a newly-proposed college in their state. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization,” wrote the President, now retired at Monticello, “It expects what never was and never will be.”
Jefferson had set the compass. He had great confidence in the people, trusting in their inherent virtue. All they needed, in his view, was enlightenment through learning. And a democratic society was charged to provide the resources for learning if liberty was to endure.
At first glance, American higher education appears today at a peak of productivity. Enrollment increased between 2001 and 2011 by 32%, to 21 million students. More women and minorities are attending college and even older, working adults have risen in large numbers. Community colleges have become a critical route of access, now host to 45% of America's undergraduates.
But all is not well, and it should be stated emphatically. Our 15 year-olds trail their counterparts in 30 other countries in math; 22 countries in science; 19 countries in reading; and ten countries in problem solving. A widening economic and racial stratification has also reached into higher education. Today 71% of college students from the upper quadrant of incomes achieve a bachelor's degree by the age of 24, while only one in ten do so from the lowest income quadrant and just 15% from the next quadrant.
This isn’t the higher education system that Thomas Jefferson envisioned. Ours is a system that has always been a delicate marriage of the entrepreneurial and the egalitarian. Out of balance, we are estranged, uneasy and very stubborn. Right now we are at a tipping point, staring into the greatest chasm between rich and poor since the 1920s. Education and fiscal policy reflect this stratification.
Jefferson might well have railed at the condition of public education today, but community colleges would have brought a nod of affirmation. They are uniquely American institutions, fulfilling both the entrepreneurial and egalitarian elements of the national equation. Community colleges have successfully recalibrated liberal learning to the demands of a work environment in rapid and often chaotic evolution. They are attuned locally and their doors are open to the low- and middle-income students who cannot afford the skyrocketing costs at both public and private institutions.
In his chapter, Dr. Padron elaborates upon the successful program implemented at Miami Dade College and that would have made Jefferson proud.
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