"EQUAL OPPORTUNITY PROGRESS IN VIRGINIA"

Testimony by Dr. William B. Allen, Director
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

To The Commission on Access and
Diversity in Higher Education

 

General Assembly Building
House Room C
Richmond, Virginia

August 28, 1998

        Good morning, Delegate Jones and members of the Commission.

        I thank you for inviting me to meet with you today, and I look forward to working with you. Your mission is a vital one for the Commonwealth. From the briefings I have received from Mike Mullen (Deputy Director), Bob Belle (Associate Director for Student Affairs), Cora Salzberg (Senior Coordinator for Pre-Collegiate Programs) and others at SCHEV, it is clear to me that this mission demands vision, energy and dedication.

        Your overarching purpose to ensure equal educational opportunities for all Virginians is one that we must embrace and achieve for the good of individual Virginians and for the good of the Commonwealth. Education is the chief means we have to cultivate the well being, growth in intellect and character, and empowerment of individuals, which we value and need in our democratic society. In several talks that I have given recently (which you can read, if you like, on SCHEV's website), I have described education as a gift that the past gives to the future. Insofar as we have the ability to give this gift, we have a moral duty to do so. The work of the Commission and the work of the Council of Higher Education are grounded in this civic and moral responsibility.

        I mention this context to convey how firmly I share your commitment to make access to educational opportunities equally available to all Virginians and the seriousness with which I view this responsibility. There are some people who suggest that our commitment to access and our commitment to excellence are in tension. But, as Carolynn Reid-Wallace (member of the recent Boyer Commission on undergraduate learning) writes, "These people are wrong. Access and excellence are in no way antithetical - they represent two noble goals that are both worthy of our best efforts." My vision for higher education in Virginia refuses to compromise either of these goals in favor of the other.

        My vision for higher education is inspired by the land-grant vision to assure the sufficient intellect full opportunity to flower into genius by dint of effort and careful cultivation. It is our responsibility - as educators, policy-makers, legislators, and concerned citizens - to put the large ambition before our youth, including minority youths. We must ask them, directly, to rise to the highest challenges. To do less is to shrink from our civic and moral responsibility to offer the gift of education in its finest form.

        Virginia has taken important steps recently to re-articulate our shared commitment to excellence. The adoption of the new Standards of Learning in elementary and secondary education and the increase in the number of credits required for high school graduation move us in this direction. Higher education in Virginia is also taking steps in this direction. For example, several colleges and universities have raised their admissions standards. Through our in-progress study of the general education programs at Virginia's public and private colleges and universities, the Council of Higher Education intends to raise our awareness of standards as we aim for excellence in higher education.

        The Commonwealth has also taken steps that assert our commitment to access. One of the key factors determining access to higher education is cost. In charging the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education to ensure that quality and affordable cost are compatible goals, Governor Gilmore is saying - in effect - that access and excellence must be compatible goals. Likewise, the Legislative Joint Subcommittee on Higher Education Finance assures constant attention to access and excellence, while underscoring affordability.

        We must not only assert our commitment to access and excellence in higher education; we must also assess our progress in fulfilling both commitments. I am challenging SCHEV and Virginia's colleges and universities, which have achieved national recognition in the area of academic program assessment, to break new ground again. We will seek more meaningful ways to assess the value that the gift of education adds to the lives of those who receive it. And let us be very clear about this: I aim to persuade Council members that measures such as graduation rates are useful only insofar as they convey an understanding of the value the student gains on the way to graduation day. Because that will vary with differences in background and preparation, the value will be highest where the need is greatest. That makes this an issue of access and excellence at the same time.

        Our colleges and universities must ask themselves what increment of value they add to the self-understanding, career prospects, and even lifetime earnings of their students. It is not enough to rely on simplistic statistics such as college graduation rates that measure nothing but nominal progress without attention to the pacing. I have asked Dr. Belle and others on the SCHEV staff to begin to explore new ways to understand graduation rates. For example, we understand that high school grade point average and test scores are strong predictors of success in college. We are looking now for other factors that affect student success. What is the impact of family income on student success? Do those students who take accelerated courses in high school really outperform other students in college? How does the performance of students who are the first in their families to attend college compare with that of other students? We need to understand how all of these factors - and others - influence student performance.

        As we seek new ways to evaluate and communicate the value that higher education adds to the lives of our students, we should be mindful that the purpose of education is not just to prepare one for work but also to prepare one for life. A central purpose for education in the United States is the development of the educated citizen body, able and willing to take up the work of self-government. To achieve this purpose, we seek to develop individuals who are both skeptical and humane thinkers, able to see with clarity their own circumstances and understandings and those of others.

        A true education - the best education - aims to liberate us from prejudice.

        A true education - the best education - recognizes the value and necessity of diligent effort and demonstrated merit as the means to that liberation.

        The aim to liberate youths from prejudice is an important but little-discussed relationship between anti-discrimination efforts and the mission of higher education. Both aim at freeing individuals and society from the invidious disease of prejudice.

        Just as higher education has an obligation to assess our progress toward our goals to liberate students from prejudice, to develop their intellect and character, and to prepare them to lead productive lives, so too must society assess our progress in liberating our laws and institutions from prejudice. This Commission provides a valuable service to the Commonwealth in evaluating our progress toward access and diversity in the arena of higher education and recommending steps to accelerate that progress.

        It may be worthwhile to review, briefly, SCHEV's relationship to the Commission in carrying out your mission and SCHEV's past role in implementing the Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity in State-Supported Institutions of Higher Education. I do not intend to recite a long list of specifics, especially since at this point in time many members of the Commission will be more familiar than I am with the specifics. Rather, I want to review SCHEV's historical role and relationship by way of inviting an ongoing commitment to both.

        Since1974, SCHEV has assisted in implementing aspects of the Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity in State-Supported Institutions of Higher Education under the direction of the Secretary of Education. The reach of the formal programs we administer in the Plan is quite extensive. For example, in nine years, the SCHEV Pre-Collegiate Program staff has made presentations to over 700,000 students and their parents. These programs, which are designed to eliminate the disparity between the black and white college-going rates of Virginia's high school graduates, provide information to students and their parents about what colleges require of students enrolled on their campuses and about the academic and non-academic experiences that will prepare students to enter and succeed in college.

        In addition to administering formal programs such as the Better Information Project and the Student Transition Program, the SCHEV staff is a resource to assist colleges and universities in sponsoring both formal and informal programs on their campuses, in support of the Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity. To mention just two recent examples, Dr. Belle spoke at a major conference on affirmative action held at Northern Virginia Community College this spring and at a conference on equal access and diversity held at Virginia Tech earlier in the year.

        The SCHEV staff works in a variety of ways with Norfolk State University and Virginia State University, the two publicly supported HBCUs in Virginia, to ensure that these institutions are full participants in the Virginia system of higher education. In this capacity, the staff is guided by the vision of the Boards and the Presidents of these universities. Our role is a supporting one. For example, Dr. Moore has led an effort at VSU to raise admissions standards and to attract private funds to provide levels of financial aid that can compete with the packages available to the best students at other institutions. Where we can, the SCHEV staff supports such initiatives. Several SCHEV staff - with expertise in academic and student affairs, finance, and other areas - have been working closely with Dr. McDemmond as she leads NSU through its current fiscal difficulties. We will continue to make support of Virginia's HBCUs a top priority. I also believe we should not point out problems without also offering options for solutions, and I have instructed the staff to take this posture as they work with institutions.

        The SCHEV staff also serves as a resource for this Commission by providing you with information, acting as a liaison between the Commission and the institutions, identifying expert speakers who can address the Commission on topics of interest, and assisting with such endeavors as last year's highly successful Conference on Education in Virginia: Access, Diversity and the Law. I believe that you share my appreciation that Dr. Belle, Dr. Salzberg, and Dr. Mullen served ably in their capacity as SCHEV liaisons to the Commission. SCHEV staff will continue to support the work of the Commission, even as some of the specific staff assignments change in conjunction with a recent staff reorganization within SCHEV. I should note here that Fran Bradford in her capacity as Coordinator for Legislative Affairs will be the SCHEV staff person with the primary responsibility for covering all General Assembly committees and commissions.

        In recent days we have seen reports from the Southern Education Foundation and American College Testing Service that attest modest progress but lingering problems for minority youths. In days to come we will see still other reports from The College Board and other national organizations speaking with similar import and offering slightly differing views. When these reports are all readily available and I have had fair opportunity to review them, I look forward to return and engage you in a colloquy regarding their significance. But I am prepared to say right now, from long experience and study, that we must put an end to the navel-watching aspect of this business.

        All the attention paid to how one racial group fares compared to another, or how black people from one region or background fare compared to another misses the single, most vital point deeply buried in these studies. That point is that we know how to improve student performance - namely by enriching the curriculum they study. Until the testing experts come before you and speak explicitly about the stark differences in curricula followed by differing students, they are merely holding a mirror to your fears rather than giving you a window on a world in which improvement is demonstrably possible. I repeat: we can enrich the pipeline and improve the results, if we only will muster the courage to do so.

        For, you may be assured, even a black student who fails calculus will turn in a better performance on standardized tests than he would when never taking calculus at all. And that little thread can unravel the entire mystery of persistent black underperformance in American education.

        Since much progress has been made toward the goals embodied in the Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity, what remains to be done? I see three main avenues in which we should direct our efforts:

        First, we must bring the HBCUs in Virginia, both public and private, into full participation in Virginia's system of higher education.

        The nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities - including those in Virginia - are among the most worthwhile examples we know of how fruitful education can be. Their founding constituted a cultural renaissance unparalleled in the history of the United States, as - in the short period of thirty years following the Civil War - we went from virtually none to more than one hundred and twenty HBCUs. This growth was driven by the pent-up energies and love for learning of former slaves. That growth flourished until it was cut off at the knees by Jim Crow laws.

        While Jim Crow laws have been abolished, continuing effects may persist in some areas. Where those effects prevent NSU or VSU from full participation in Virginia's system of higher education, this Commission and the Council must direct our efforts to eliminate those effects.

        Second, we must assure access for all Virginians to all institutions.

        As I mentioned earlier, cost is a primary factor in determining our success toward the goal of access to higher education. In addition to the steps that the General Assembly and Governor Gilmore are taking to ensure that the costs remain (or, one might even say become) affordable, the Commonwealth must honor its commitment to financial aid. The other primary factor determining access to higher education is the readiness of high school graduates for college level work. Through programs such as the Better Information Project (administered through SCHEV) and Project Discovery (funded through the Department of Education) and steps such as the new Standards of Learning, Virginia must continue its effort to increase the number of high school graduates who are in the pipeline for postsecondary education. SCHEV and DOE must collaborate in putting into action our understanding of the continuum of education - K to 16.

        And third, we must secure standards of accomplishment as the tool of choice for progressive social development.

        I want to go beyond my earlier statement that access and excellence are compatible goals and assert that excellence is the goal we should set for ourselves and for our offspring in all aspects of our lives - not only in education. Human ambition at its best aims for the completest accomplishment, even while recognizing human fallibility. Setting excellence as our shared goal for accomplishments in all walks of life is the surest path we know toward progressive social development.

        Taking up this standard of excellence as my own and setting it as the standard for the staff at the Council, I pledge to sustain full faith efforts to assure equal opportunity in Virginia's institutions of higher education. I will welcome your counsel and feedback as we go about that work.

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