How Colleges Can Help Close the Mobility Gap

A Defining Challenge of Our Time

Monday, February 3, 2014
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President Obama made the fight against income inequality and social stratification the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. He again pledged to devote the remaining three years of his presidency to addressing these social ills, which he has called “the defining challenge of our times.” Research confirms the importance of President Obama’s intentions: Americans, living in the quintessential land of opportunity, have considerably less economic mobility than citizens in Canada and most of Europe.

Nancy Leffert, President, Antioch University Santa Barbara
Click to enlarge photo

Nancy Leffert, President, Antioch University Santa Barbara

Higher education is still our best tool for breaking through to the middle class. Even in today’s difficult economic conditions, college graduates can expect to earn almost twice as much as high school graduates — about $365,000 more over their lifetime. Moreover, a college education provides for the development of essential critical thinking, analytic skills, and mental flexibility that cut across all work environments, now and in preparation for the future. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently asserted, “Twenty-first century workers need the knowledge, flexibility, and ingenuity to thrive in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.”

Universities must get more creative and proactive to assure underserved students access to the middle class. We need to keep tuition rates down and find ways not to pass along increasing costs of doing business to our students. We also need to reach out more effectively to our graduates for support because alumni giving has declined significantly. And we need to put pressure on lawmakers to increase financial aid.

In addition, colleges and universities must deliberately address how a student with few resources can actually make it through their institutions. I believe we can do this by initiating new programs that encourage community college students to imagine and achieve a prosperous future. At our university, for example, we have developed pathways for community college students that offer them provisional admission not only for completion of an undergraduate degree but also for a professional graduate degree. This provisional acceptance and small subsidy provide a clear and accessible road map from community college to career.

We have also developed admission agreements with local community colleges to accept more coursework from them (at lower cost), which makes the BA degree more affordable. We believe institutions of higher learning should make every effort to shorten the traditional four-year experience by offering ever more college credit at the high school level and other creative efforts. Finally, we must do everything possible to offer flexibility around how and when classes are offered. More students than ever work while they are going to school. Are we doing everything we can to make college part of their lives rather than expecting college to be their life?

At an Antioch graduation, all one has to do is look at the faces of relatives in the audience as a “first-in-her-family-to-go-to-college” walks down the aisle with her graduating class. Her whole family is walking with her. Their pride in this young woman who undoubtedly overcame difficult obstacles to reach her goal causes their faces to radiate pride. In that moment I am proud, too, knowing that we have done everything possible to create her pathway to the middle class.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

This is the most ridiculous article I have ever read from a college administrator.

The way up is through capitalism - full stop. Capitalism, private property rights, small federal government and high amounts of personal liberty have always - and will always - lead to all boats being lifted, not just the top %.

Lib-dems like the woman who wrote this advocate for more centralized control of the economy, massively expanded government intervention and control of markets and other programs that drive up crony capitalism, squash innovation, demotivate people and eventually lead to massive increases in corruption in order to get anything done.

By the way, if you just get your professors into the classroom 20% more than they are now (instead of TAs teaching), the cost of a college education would drop about 40%. Focus on that please. Focus on something that works - and leave all the absurd double-speak blather off the Indy.

realitycheck88 (anonymous profile)
February 3, 2014 at 9:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As a former student of Antioch University, I strongly recommend looking elsewhere for your educational pursuits. This article is a thinly vieled advertisement to drum up new business. Antioch charges EXTREMELY overpriced tuition. They will urge you to take out student loans to pay for it.


The focus of the University is financial. Don't believe the progressive, social justice lip service. If they really cared they would not use a "for profit" business model to run their enterprise. When a former Antioch president was caught selling degrees to foreign students, the staff decided to create a union to force the administration to comply with the ethics they preached. Many employees were fired and the Board of Directors crushed the union. Many employees quit.

There are a few good teachers at Antioch, but many professors have little or no experience in their fields. Many teachers are part-time so the college doesn't have to pay a real salary with benefits. Beware.

sb_student (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 11:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I wonder whether educators would consider a system where students could take the responsibility for acquiring the knowledge themselves at their own pace, and then just pay for the privilege of taking exams at a credited organization. There is so much information available on the internet, that some (!) think that many should educate themselves that way, and not worry about degrees. However, there is no certification to indicate the knowledge acquired.

My post degree education has been constant but interrupted because often work demands (and ongoing work-related education) halt that process for a while, often up to a year. However, there are quite a few fields where I would like to obtain certification as evidence of that knowledge-acquisition.

But that may make universities less profitable, although it could make a huge difference in the technical skills of the workforce, knowing that they can get certificates/degrees that could help their paycheck without emptying their bank accounts. So what would it be - education or profits.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 11:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Most of our nation's Founders were autodidacts. Yet they created a remarkable document of enduring wisdom and governance amongst their self-taught selves. It is interesting to review the shared tomes which formed their common "education", which I surmise rarely see the light of day in contemporary general education reading lists. The "classics".

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at noon (Suggest removal)

Once the federal government put "free" student loan money on the table, no end of schemes emerged that were happy to get their hands on it. Check out the roots of the new online universities and then look at their balance sheets.

Something about the Peter Principle in operation here, which alone is a single, cheap paperback book, worth an entire MBA degree.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 12:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This discussion is necessary: why has the cost of education gone up so dramatically in the past decades.

Who is getting that money, how much and for what purpose. Wasting time crying about the high cost of education or the size of student loans but not delving into why these costs have skyrocketed is a waste of everyone's time.

Maybe we are seeing the true costs of education; maybe we are not. We need to educate ourselves where education dollars are going; not just concentrate on "high-priced administrators" because collectively, they account for a relatively small part of the total education dollar.

There are limited ways to spend money in "education". Finite categories, but unlimited allocations within those sub-categories. Let' see how it all shakes out, so you can plan for future educational costs in the most effective manner.

Open a college and you have to pay at least as a minimum for these basic items:

1. Buildings and facilities costs
2. Maintenance, repairs and improvements
3. Equipment and servicing equipment
4. Academic staff
5. Clerical support staff
6. Financial and accounting staff
7. Custodial staff
8. Administrative staff
9. Academic support staff

How do these collective expenses to run a college match revenues generated from all sources: tax payers, grants, gifts, students, auxiliary revenue-producing activities.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 12:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It is NOT true, foo, that "most of our nation's Founders were autodidacts"! Alexander Hamilton likely was, and Franklin. But the others, esp. the Virginians, came from landed gentry and the slave-holding class: they would have had tutors, pedagogues, and other assistance in an era, OBVIOUSLY, without public education. Ayn Randian "foo" hates public education, always whines about the cost, and this autodidact angle is another laughable effort to press for privatizing public education. See, those darned autodidacts wrote the Constitution so they din't need no 'larnin.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 3:47 p.m. (Suggest removal)

There were 13 colonies. Read "John Adams" for insights into the few books he found most valuable when crafting the US constitution.

I also realized when it was too late to edit I should have said "many" and not use the term "most. You are also quite right, "education" took many forms in the early days of our Founders, from formal to informal.

Public education is a sacred duty of our nation. I strongly support accountable universal public education. So on this note, don't just make up things, Davy.

What I do question is whether public education needs all the expensive whistles and bells it feels are so necessary today, and instead should get back to the basics which were good enough for the good minds that founded our Nation and built an enduring institution.

I strongly question the massive numbers of regulations that clog both the Education Code and the classroom that continue to keep California public education near the bottom out of 50 states, while paying its teachers near the top. You got that one right.

But I never question the essential value of good, accountable public education that serves our students in the best way possible.

I look forward to the give and take arguments raised in the current lawsuit that students themselves have put forth, challenging certain specific sections of the Calif Education Code as detrimental to their right to an accountable public education.

You can learn more about this lawsuit on the website StudentsMatter.

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 5:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Vergara vs. the State of California is the pending case now in trial brought by 9 students against certain sections of the California Education Code:

From the StudentsMatter website:

Californians shouldn't have to choose: we can create an education system that gives every child a passionate, motivating and effective teacher and gives effective teachers the respect and rewarding careers they deserve.

A statewide lawsuit filed by nine brave kids, Vergara v. California challenges the laws that handcuff schools from giving every student an equal opportunity to learn from effective teachers.

- See more at:

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 5:24 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Good resource to bookmark to help understand where the public education dollar goes: Transparent California

foofighter (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 5:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

wow, there "there were 13 colonies"!! -- you're a deep file, old foo, how would we have ever known there were 13?
Writing how you "support accountable universal public education" -- perusing your earlier pap you subtract everything with your "accountable" word. Wolf in sheep's clothing: you are indeed an enemy of public education. I challenge all readers to check out foo's many knocks on public ed, it's all there in the Indy files. You always talk about how highly paid Calif. teachers are even after ETR, DD, & many others have shown you that living costs in Calif. are...uh, rather higher than in most states. But you simply paste on, because you do hate public ed, go on, admit it. Inane, fella, and boring.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
February 4, 2014 at 6:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

For more information on at least two autodidacts in early colonial America, I submit this link :

But an even better look at early education, Ron Chernow, Yale University professor and historian, provides the reader with more names within that category but not all. It's said that a complete list of the autodidact in early American development would read like a "Who's Who" in upper education in colonial days.

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 5, 2014 at 12:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"The focus of the University is financial." Well, yeah, at least partially so. This is the real world, after all. And there's almost no aspect of living in an imperfect world where the financial is not a consideration. It's interesting that once upon a time, with a procedure called Advanced Placement, a student could go through even well-endowed Stanford in two and a half years. But even the most well endowed (and I'm talking money, of course) realized that requiring a four year completion would help prevent the unexpected shortfalls Advanced Placement created by APs. So the financial is a real concern here, there, and everywhere. Things don't run, after all, on hot air and noble intentions, do they?

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 5, 2014 at 1:15 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Professor Chernow's work is entitled, "Alexander Hamilton." Apologies for the omission.

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 5, 2014 at 1:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

read the Jim Baumer link, interesting. One definition of autodidact includes "mostly" on their own, so some certainly got "instruction" and/or inspiration, but not at official schools or universities. Hamilton, Tom Paine, Ben Franklin are famous autodidacts. Remember, however, in early Am. history very very few got into higher ed. or even high school, so in order to push on academically one had to be fiendishly committed to books and life of the mind [e.g. Lincoln], or very committed with subtantial family resources behind. When we read about Jefferson he hired lots of tutors, attended I think William and Mary, he was no autodidact, but he was a very committed scholar, writer, and obviously statesman.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
February 5, 2014 at 2:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Indeed, that was a most challenging period in education, DrDan. And "fiendishly" dedicated just about sums it up. Did history play us a dirty trick with the untimely death of Alexander Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804? Of all the Big Men, the West Indies born Hamilton was a standout with his unusual background -- a Renaissance man of the highest order -- and influence over significant steps in nation building during colonial times (Chernow was masterful in his three dimensional development of Hamilton). For that influence, I believe -- and obviously this has to be my opinion -- his legacy may have trumped that of Thomas Jefferson. But we'll never know, will we? (Yes, I do digress from the topic at hand!)

salsipuedes (anonymous profile)
February 5, 2014 at 3:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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