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Society, not government, must solve higher education woes

Editorial in the September 25, 2006, issue of the Austin American-Statesman.

This week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings will release the final report of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

The report, which has been a year in the making, calls for some sweeping changes in American higher education.

Some of the recommendations in the report - such as simplifying the forms required of families to obtain financial aid for college and providing additional resources for students who want to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - are commendable. Others, such as creating a new national database to track student progress, cause considerable concern for college presidents. At Southwestern University, we could offer full tuition to five students for the cost that would be associated with hiring staff to comply with the proposed new reporting requirements.

Earlier this month, Southwestern University’s Board of Visitors spent an entire day discussing the draft of the Spellings Commission report. We listened to business people, parents, faculty members and students give their reaction to the report.

The overwhelming consensus of the group - which I share - is that the major problems facing higher education in this country are societal problems that no government agency can solve.

For example, one area the report focuses heavily on is access to higher education, particularly for the country’s growing minority population. However, the report fails to acknowledge that many students - particularly those from minority communities - need stronger preparation to enter college. Some require as much as 18 months of remedial work before they can even begin college-level work. This prolongs their time to graduation, which puts even further financial strain on these students and their families.

A much better approach to solving problems such as these is for local communities and private entities to make a commitment to helping those who need extra support to obtain a college degree.

For example, since 1988, Southwestern University has hosted a program called Operation Achievement that brings local at-risk middle school students to campus once a week for tutoring. Southwestern students serve as mentors for the students and help broaden their horizons. One night each month there is a special program for parents, who play a critical role in encouraging children to pursue higher education.

Southwestern also sponsors an Upward Bound program, which helps prepare high school students who do not have a parent who has graduated from college. This fall we had three graduates of this program enroll at Southwestern - all on full scholarships.

This fall, Southwestern also has taken its first student from the Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, a private United Methodist high school that is dedicated to improving the future of Hispanic students living along the Texas-Mexico border. First United Methodist Church in Georgetown is paying for his room, board and books, and Southwestern is paying for his tuition.

For more than 20 years, Southwestern has opened its doors during the summer to several hundred of the country’s top Hispanic high school students so they can participate in the Texas Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session (LDZ) sponsored by the National Hispanic Institute. Participating in this program has not only sparked a desire to attend college among these students, but it also has encouraged them to become future leaders in their community.

Working in partnership with the Texas Methodist Foundation, Southwestern University created the Bishop Ernest T. Dixon Jr. Scholarship program, which helps high-achieving African-American, Hispanic and Native American students attend the university. Many of these students have not only successfully completed undergraduate degrees, but have gone on to graduate school at prestigious institutions such as Emory, Harvard, The George Washington University and the University of Chicago.

Southwestern University doesn’t participate in programs like these because it has to. We do this because we want to, and because they meet the core purpose and core values that we as an institution have adopted.

We as a society need to be asking what our core values are - and then putting our time and money into programs that will address the fulfillment of these values.

Is there a core value more important than making sure all our children get a good education?

Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.