If we were to start today to provide high quality early education to every disadvantaged child and then follow that through with effective education through the elementary and secondary years, letting success build on success, we could in twenty years provide a much firmer grounding for equal college opportunity than we have now. But of course we can’t wait twenty years. Young people are graduating from our shockingly unequal pre-college education system every year, and we must address their needs today. For example, about half of all students entering college are assigned to remediation, which is very often unsuccessful. And college completion rates, which are disappointing overall, are particularly low for students from disadvantaged groups. We need to invest in creating better opportunities for these students. Hence a dilemma: do we invest in meeting the needs of the current college generation, or do we invest in earlier education to build a better future? The correct answer is to do both at once. But do we have the political will, the economic capacity, and the educational know-how to make this happen at scale? Much depends on how we answer that question.
Michael S. McPherson is the fifth President of the Spencer Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2003 he served as President of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota for seven years. A nationally known economist whose expertise focuses on the interplay between education and economics, McPherson spent the 22 years prior to his Macalester presidency as professor of economics, chairman of the Economics Department, and dean of faculty at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He holds a B.A. in Mathematics, an M.A. in Economics, and a Ph.D. in Economics, all from the University of Chicago.
McPherson, who is co-author and editor of several books, including Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities;College Access: Opportunity or Privilege?;Keeping College Affordable;Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy; and was founding co-editor of the journal Economics and Philosophy. He has served as a trustee of the College Board, the American Council on Education, Wesleyan University, and the DentaQuest Foundation. He was a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is currently a trustee of McNally Smith College of Music and President of the Board of Overseers of TIAA-CREF.