Recent data from the Federal Reserve corroborates ongoing reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing structural inequalities, putting underserved, vulnerable and uneducated people at even greater risk. In an era of demographic change and growing income inequality, we need to rethink how to create affordable access to great education.
Our American system of higher education was designed to appeal to the privileged few. But the ivory tower does not work for the most part. To address our racial, socioeconomic and gender equity disparities, we need to radically rethink who and how we educate. With so much at stake, I think the opportunities for higher education to create the kind of society we aspire to in this country have never been greater.
Public urban research universities, in particular, are well suited to the demands of the moment. Our student bodies already reflect the emerging demographics of the country.
More of our students are the first generation in their families to attend university. There are more people of color. Others come from middle and low income communities. A large percentage work full time while pursuing their academic goals. Many have families of their own and seek graduate degrees and micro-degrees to enhance their careers.
For these “many talents”, public urban research universities are a transformative force. We offer high quality education that matches the reality of their lives, incredible opportunities to engage in research, discovery and creative work, and intellectual clout and networks that last a lifetime.
Our geographic location is also important. The metropolitan mentality is ambitious at the base and eager for challenges; it recognizes that inclusion means possibility, that access is a bargaining chip. A big part of our value for learners is that we provide immediate access to a wide range of industries, entrepreneurial partnerships, various global connections.
Public urban research universities don’t just help close inequitable gaps in opportunity and social capital – they offer multiple pathways to innovation and growth. We are catalysts, partners of the people and communities we serve, strengthening our society and our economy by creating the talents and careers of tomorrow.
And now must be our time to usher in a bold and better era in higher education.
What could it look like? CU Denver offers a model. We recently completed our Strategic Plan 2030, offering a radically inclusive approach designed to make education work for all. Importantly, our plan embodied the spirit of radical inclusion from the start: 3,000 members of our community came together to help create it.
There are a myriad of tactical elements, but the true power of the plan is best expressed in its intended results. Here are a few :
- We will become the first institution in the service of equity in the country. We know that diversity alone is not enough; we must put equity into action, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that racial and social identity no longer predetermines academic performance and career advancement opportunities. We strive to make CU Denver a community where everyone belongs and everyone is successful.
- We will become a university for life, recognizing that more and more learners want and need new ways to access affordable learning throughout their lives and careers, from 17 to 117. CU Denver will ensure that our learners always benefit from the power of discovery – and opportunity. We will provide educational experiences in a way that fits the practical reality of people’s lives.
- As an engine of growth, we will support better living standards and better economic health in our state and region. CU Denver has just been recognized as the # 1 institution for social mobility in Colorado, and # 55 in the country, according to US News & World Report. We have already climbed more than 50 places in the rankings. And we have a lot more work ahead of us.
- We will put our research and our creative force at the service of solving the great challenges of society, starting with the creation of an open innovation district on and around our campus in downtown Denver. Here, the talents and solutions of tomorrow will come together for the good of all.
Higher education institutions have the potential to bring tremendous value to learners and their families, communities and our society. And I believe we have even more to give.
As we reflect on how best to serve our learners and the public good, we cannot respect the status quo, we cannot afford to watch the trends unfold. If your institution has a bold strategic vision, go all out and increase scale and impact. If you’re running a public urban research university, in particular, now is the time.
What the future asks of us – today – could not be more urgent. We must ensure equitable access to lifelong learning. We need to make higher education work for everyone.
A just and prosperous society awaits our response.
Michelle Marks, Ph.D., is Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Denver.