Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell delivered his final speech as a senior member of the Obama administration on Thursday morning at Northeastern University, saying that innovation in higher education is critical to the success of the nation’s democracy.
“Our colleges and universities must strive each day to embody the highest aspirations of this country,” Mitchell told nearly 100 education stakeholders who filled the Alumni Center for the hourlong event, which was organized by the New England Council. “They must be a bulwark for liberty and equality, diversity and inclusiveness, freedom and opportunity,” he added. “If we retreat from those responsibilities, we risk the viability of our democracy.”
Since his appointment in 2014, Mitchell has overseen a score of policies, programs, and activities related to postsecondary education and federal student aid. To spur education, economic growth, and social prosperity, he’s led the charge to implement President Obama’s goal to develop “the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.”
Throughout his talk, he underscored the importance of expanding educational opportunities for all Americans. He focused in particular on educating non-traditional students, whom he described as “todays new normal.” “To reach the president’s goal,” he said, “we need to open the doors of higher education to students usually excluded from college.”
For Mitchell, college education is crucial to closing the nation’s income inequality gap. According to new data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, the average college graduate earned 56 percent more than the typical high school graduate in 2015, the largest such gap in EPIs figures since 1973. What’s more, high school graduates are less likely than their college-educated peers to be married, own a home, and contribute to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
“The stakes have never been higher for post-secondary education,” Mitchell explained. “Our collective commitment to college access and affordability must remain strong if we want to sustain the health of our democracy.”
Mitchell noted that Northeastern has served as a leader in higher education innovation, pointing in particular to its partnership with General Electric Co. in a new federal education innovation program. Known as EQUIP, the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships program aims to increase students’ access to innovative postsecondary education while spurring novel collaborations designed to arm more Americans with the skills required to excel in the 21st century.
“Our partnership with Northeastern makes this feel like home,” said Mitchell, who first visited the university in 2014 for a roundtable on higher education. “It’s a privilege to be here.”
Level, Northeastern’s bootcamp designed to equip professionals with in-demand data analytics skills, is mentioned in the Office of Educational Technology’s supplement to the National Technology Plan, which Mitchell announced on Thursday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And Northeastern’s ALIGN program—which offers eight master’s degrees in cutting-edge industries to working professionals who do not have the experience to match the needs of these fields—is another example of the university’s innovative approach to lifelong learning. Launched in spring 2014, ALIGN is the nation’s only experiential graduate degree program for students who want to switch careers and need both an advanced degree and the real-world experience to do so.
Noting the program’s success in her opening remarks, Philomena Mantella, senior vice president and CEO of Northeastern’s Professional Advancement Network, said: “Northeastern is all about innovation. We believe higher education has the obligation to continue to innovate while removing the chasm between work and learning.”
In the Q&A, moderator Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, asked Mitchell to name the top priority for postsecondary education stakeholders. In response, Mitchell channeled Northeastern, noting the importance of designing flexible learning programs for non-traditional students.
“We’re doing everything we can at the institutional level to break the tyranny of time and space to create programs that are more tailored to where students are and what their obligations are,” he said.
Later, one audience member asked Mitchell to assess the current state of the nation’s higher education system. “We are educating more Americans across a broad spectrum of backgrounds and abilities than ever before,” he said. But, he added, “we’ve been slow to connect higher education outcomes with the changing dynamics of the economy.”
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