Eye of the Hawk Lecture: How colleges can keep American Dream alive

Universities must help disadvantaged students graduate, lest those students be left worse off by their college experience, author and professor Tressie McMillan Cottom says

Tressie McMillan Cottom, author and senior research professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, delivered the UND Eye of the Hawk Lecture on March 11. Image: Screenshot from the Eye of the Hawk lecture

Higher education in the U.S. historically has served as a pillar of the American Dream. Prosperity likely will come to those who work hard, go to school and graduate, generations of Americans have been told.

For many groups, though, the dimming prospects of making it through college have become a crisis.

This is what Tressie McMillan Cottom, a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill associate professor and senior faculty researcher as well as an acclaimed author, imparted during the latest Eye of the Hawk lecture, which took place online last Thursday. Hosted by the College of Arts & Sciences, the event was produced by the UND Task Force on the Future of Education, a group with the goal of educating the University community about big issues facing higher education today.

A video of McMillan Cottam’s Eye of the Hawk lecture can be watched here.

“There are several forces working to shape higher education, including societal values assigned to educational credentials, the expanding technological limits on our abilities to teach and changes to our collective foundational knowledge,” said A&S Dean Brad Rundquist in intrducing McMillan Cottom. “That’s in addition to demographic, political, economic, and cultural pressures, all operating on different scales.”

Sociology Professor Daphne Pedersen, who serves on the Task Force, moderated the event.

Acknowledging the gargantuan task of trying to predict – and shape – higher education in the years to come, McMillan Cottom prefaced her remarks by saying, “I believe deeply, honestly and sincerely, that there is not a more vital and intersectional topic in U.S. public life right now than this one: the future of higher education.”

Progressive idea of higher education

Having extensively researched and written about higher education, McMillan Cottom laid out how the progressive idea of higher education, formed in the second half of the 20th century as a means to personal prosperity, has fallen flat in the new millennium.

Tressie McMillan Cottom

“You can go into non-English speaking conclaves in this country, you can go to some of the poorest communities, you can go to rural communities, and they all got the message: go to college,” McMillan Cottom said.

However, the shrinking share of states’ investment in public education – a trend that helped grow student-loan programs in the past 20-30 years – has dimmed the promise of higher ed for many Americans, she said.

“People start to question the value of their education, they start to question the sacrifices they made to get that education, they start to wonder if their student loan debt balance that won’t decline no matter how many payments they make, was worth it,” McMillan Cottom said. “We have to admit to ourselves, if we’re being honest, that for the first time since the massive expansion of the greatest system of higher education in the world – and I do believe that – that for many women, people of color, and poor families, going to college can make your life worse. That’s never been true before.”

At the same time, the increase in for-profit institutions – a trend that McMillan Cottom writes about in her book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy – took advantage of scores of Americans by promising them a quick path to a better job. The schools collected the money but offered sub-par education in return, coursework that did not translate into professional opportunities, McMillan Cottom said.

For-profits are good at a couple of activities, though: branding and enrolling students, McMillan Cottom said. Meanwhile, some public universities have torn a page from the almanac of their for-profit counterparts, starting online programs and certificates to attract non-traditional students, she said. Universities often see their tuition dollars as a fill-in for budgetary gaps left by diminished taxpayer funds.

While offering programs that cater to underserved populations is admirable, universities can inadvertently fail to help their students unless they also offer systems that boost retention and graduation rates, McMillan Cottom said.

“If you already know that you are, for example, going to try to serve under-resourced women, then you know they’re going to have to take time off,” she said. “If you don’t have a plan for what it looks like for them to take the semester off and return without a significant bureaucratic hurdle, then you may have figured out an enrollment plan. But you have not figured out a plan for success that is culturally relevant.”

There is, however, a silver lining in the higher-education system, McMillan Cottom said. Community colleges have been successful in preparing students to join the workforce as well as to transfer to four-year institutions.

“The community college system in the United States is not only the workhorse of economic and social mobility, it is unique to the United States’ system of higher education,” McMillan Cottom said. “Without it, we wouldn’t even be talking about the American Dream. And it is a model for what we know how to build when we invest, invest, invest, invest.”

The road ahead

“We should have learned that when we do not invest in institutions, they fall into vices of disinvestment,” she said. “That undermines their quality, which then depresses student demand for them, and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle..

“We know that we have to invest not only in students – as important as student aid programs are – but also in the institutions that receive those students.”

McMillan Cottom also talked about the latest COVID-related stimulus bill, which allocates nearly $40 billion to higher education. Historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities as well as other minority-serving institutions will get roughly $3 billion.

“We have to invest in institutions that receive our neediest students,” McMillan Cottom said.

The Biden White House is more supportive of higher-education spending than past administrations, she added. That means higher-education practitioners should seize the new opportunities.

“I would argue that there’s still so much more we could do,” McMillan Cottom said. “We’re not going to bootstrap our way out of 30 years of disinvestment. This has got to be a sustained effort.

“If we don’t invest, if we don’t pay attention to quality, people will still want to go to college. If we don’t get out ahead of the message of ‘go to college’ with high quality options for people to do so, what we are doing is recreating the trap for far a more unequal society.”