Former Ohio State president Kirwan uses Patterson Lecture to discuss education crisis

Kirwan sees problems in higher education threatening economy, opportunity

By: Chris Booker

Published on May 03, 2018

“We are reaching a point of crisis in American education.”

William “Brit” Kirwan, former president of The Ohio State University and current chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, delivered the 15th annual James F. Patterson Land-Grant University Lecture at the Ohio Union Wednesday. Kirwan’s lecture was focused on what he sees as America’s looming education crisis and the role land-grant universities, like Ohio State, can play in finding solutions.

“Simply put, as a nation we are not educating enough people at a level of quality to sustain our economy and to provide the equality of opportunity that is such a fundamental aspect of the American ethos,” he said. “I firmly believe this is the greatest long-term problem facing our nation.”

Kirwan said three issues are at the center of the crisis: the declining quality of K-12 education, a dire need for colleges and universities to serve more people from lower-income families and more students of color, and the rising cost of attaining a college degree.

He said the crisis not only challenges the vitality of the U.S. economy but the founding ethos of the United States as the land of opportunity.

Kirwan pointed to a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce that found the U.S. economy will grow 25 million new jobs by 2020, and 65 percent will require a two- or four-year degree. At current graduation levels, the study projects the U.S. will fall short by 10 million workers with a post-secondary degree.

He said that trend comes as industrialized countries around the world are increasing college graduation rates. The heart of the U.S.’s world-leading economy over the last 50 to 60 years has been a highly educated workforce, Kirwan said.

“Clearly we are on the verge of losing that competitive advantage, which places our nation at risk, especially in an economy dependent upon brain power and well-educated, highly skilled workers,” he said.

Kirwan said higher education needs to address a question of economic equality. He said that currently, achieving the American Dream requires a college degree.

“Perhaps the most basic element of our national identity is the proposition that the economic strata of a person’s birth does not determine his or her station at the end of life,” he said.

Kirwan said universities must increase access to underserved communities to help reduce this inequality. He said this responsibility is at the heart of the land-grant mission.

“I want to commend Michael Drake and The Ohio State University for keeping faith with the land-grant values of this institution and for leadership in this area,” he said.

Kirwan, who was Ohio State’s president from July 1, 1998, to June 30, 2002, noted the university’s new strategic plan places an emphasis on access and affordability. Ohio State is also a founding member of the American Talent Initiative, a collection of colleges and universities committed to enrolling and graduating an additional 50,000 moderate- to lower-income students by 2025.

Kirwan said universities also need to address the rising cost of higher education through data and innovation. Expanding early college opportunities and seamless transfer from two-year to four-year schools will help, he said, but only go so far.

He said higher quality does not always require higher costs: In most business sectors, technology has helped bring down costs without hurting quality. He pointed to successful online courses that are allowing more students to enroll in classes at a lower cost.

“What’s very encouraging to me is the innovative thinking about course delivery some universities are engaging in to make high-quality degrees available to more students at a reduced cost,” Kirwan said.

While he is very concerned about the growing education crisis, Kirwan said he is an “incorrigible optimist” and was encouraged to see land-grant universities like Ohio State have recognized the problem and are working to find solutions.

The Patterson Lecture, hosted by the Office of Outreach and Engagement, brings to campus annually a prominent figure to speak to the range of challenges facing land-grant institutions in the 21st century and beyond. The lecture challenges the university and community audience to continue to use their knowledge and resources and work together to solve world issues.

University Engagement Recognition Awards

Ohio State presented its annual University Engagement Recognition Awards before the Patterson Lecture. The awards honor faculty, staff, students and community partners for outstanding achievement in meaningful partnerships that produce engaged scholarship and community impact.

The LiFEsports Initiative won the Distinguished Community Engagement Award. A partnership with Ohio State and community partners, the initiative is the second largest of its kind in the country, with over 650 local youths served each year.

The Distinguished International Engagement Award was awarded to the Greif Neonatal Survival Program. The Ohio State program has contributed to the global reduction in neonatal deaths through intensive and targeted training of local health care workers in Haiti and East Africa since 2013.

A full list of award winners is available at the Office of Outreach and Engagement website.

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Chris Booker
614-292-7276 | Email

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