UNC Inclusion Conference · 29 September 2006

By Shannon Blosser--CampusReportOnline.net--09/29/06

CHAPEL HILL - Last week, 150 higher education and business leaders converged on UNC-Chapel Hill for a conference on two favorite topics of the higher education establishment - access and affordability.

In a conference dubbed as "Politics of Inclusion: Higher Education at a Crossroads," one thing was obvious - the event was highly scripted. Attendance at the conference was by invitation only and mostly included people who agreed with the premise of the conference, that the U.S. needs to improve access to college so as to include a wider cross-section of America's youth. Rather than an examination of that view, it was essentially a pep rally for that view.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser delivered the keynote address to open the conference. Moeser's speech sounded much like the stump speeches of former Senator John Edwards in that he said that there are "two North Carolinas" - one wealthy and well connected, the other poor and desperate - and how higher education can help to improve the lives of low-income families. To reach that goal, Moeser advocated an increase in need-based financial aid and said leaders must push an agenda of access and affordability to political leaders.

"To give credibility to our pulpits, we have to begin at home," Moeser said. "This means allocating the necessary institutional resources. This means saying no to the diversion of need-based financial aid funds to merit-based scholarships just to beef up the rankings. It means convincing university governing boards, state legislators, donors and voters to have the will to broaden access to higher education. And it means molding public opinion to demand from Congress and the president a renewed national commitment to student aid, despite federal budget deficits."

Chancellor Moeser did not mention the research showing that very few college-ready high school grads do not enroll in college due to financial difficulties.

Duke University economics professor Charles Clotfelter discussed tuition increases. He argued that current financial aid programs benefit few people, and contending that middle class and upper income families "reap much of the current total government subsidy." That's undeniably true. College is subsidized to a great extent and the beneficiaries are mostly people who could afford to pay much more of the cost.

Clotfelter continued, "If an agenda of increased access and inclusion is to be advanced, common sense suggests that this will require showing middle class voters and the legislators who represent them that they will benefit for such an agenda."

Even when a "conservative" position was addressed, it was done so in a way to promote the "liberal" vision of higher education and the "American Dream." This was evident in the presentation by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation. He argued that higher education is out of step with both the liberal and conservative views of the American Dream. The "liberal" view suggests that the country is a land of social mobility, while the "conservative" view argues that people succeed or fail on their own efforts. Kahlenberg finds higher education out of touch with both liberals and conservatives and advocates a policy of increasing financial aid targeted at students from poorer families.

Others who spoke at the conference included former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt, who favored a policy of allowing children of illegal immigrants to benefit from the low in-state tuition rate, Martin Krislov, general counsel for the University of Michigan, who argued that affirmative action programs need to be maintained to provide "access to women and socio-economically disadvantaged students," and Gene Nichol, formerly Dean of the UNC Law School and now president of William and Mary who lamented that most student financial aid goes to the wealthy rather than the poor.

The sole dissenting voice at the conference was that of Representative Virginia Foxx, who was asked to participate in a panel discussion on the role of the federal government in assisting poorer families to get their children into college. She surprised the assembly by stating that under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has no role to play in education at all. Later she told the organizers of the conference that it would have been better to have been more inclusive themselves by inviting more people who don't accept the establishment views on higher education.

How much credibility should we give to a conference that wants to talk about inclusion but does so behind closed doors to discuss one side of the argument?

Perhaps the organizers of this conference will host a second event in the coming months and will open the list of presenters to include those who may have different views on the future of higher education. As well, organizers should open the conference to the public at large and not just a select group of leaders who already support the positions and themes of the conference. The public should be allowed to attend, give their opinions, and discuss ideas that surround the future of higher education. They are, in fact, the ones who will ultimately pay for the higher education proposals sought by most of the conference's speakers.

Truth is more likely to come out when ideas face critical analysis and open discussion than when they are sheltered like orchids in a greenhouse.

Shannon Blosser is a staff writer for the John William Pope Center on Higher Education Policy.