The 87th annual conference of the American Council on Education (ACE), held this week in Washington, DC, was the scene for an interesting three days of debate on the state of the “social compact” for higher education.

As an attendee at the conference, I had a chance to interact with numerous college presidents, public policymakers, vendors to the university market and many others with an interest in the important questions of how this compact on higher education will fare in the coming years of our still-young century.

While some U.S. colleges and universities date back a few hundred years, the consensus among the many speakers at the conference seemed to be that the compact on American higher education had its roots in 1862 federal legislation establishing what are known as state land-grant colleges, with the principal thrust of that effort resulting in the beginning stages of a democratization of college attendance.

Prior to the Civil War, several ACE speakers posited, higher education was limited to the children of elite families studying at elite private colleges. Following the Civil War, as public colleges and universities were established through the land-grant system, the sons of middle-class families were suddenly able to attain the chance for a college degree. Poor, female and minority students remained disenfranchised, however, so that the perception of higher education for the masses was still more illusion than reality.

Additional barriers were broken in the post-World War II ear as the G.I. Bill opened up college opportunities for returning soldiers but, for the most part, students served continued to be white males. Later, in the 1960s, a potent combination of The Civil Rights Act and the Higher Education Act finally made the words “social compact” ring true, as schools, government and citizens worked together, sometimes knowingly and other times unwittingly, to forge a higher education system unmatched in the world, not only for its high quality but also for its widespread availability.

And indeed the students have come since the early 1970s, with rates of college attendance doubling. With more students on a college-bound track, and more collegians ultimately attaining a B.A. degree, one might surmise that the social compact has gotten stronger. Has it?

Not according to many of the speakers at the conference, particularly those who hold high-level positions at colleges and universities. From their perch on campus, they look outside their boundaries and see dwindling state support, fewer federal dollars but more federal intrusion and an apathetic electorate, more moved by tax cuts than by the economic development attributable to research and development efforts on college and university campuses.

Elected and appointed officials who spoke at the conference expressed, in general, a rosier view of the state of the social compact, making it abundantly clear to me that the view of the compact is heavily dependent on where one sits.

In general, school officials worry that if taxpayer dollars are not flowing in at greater velocity every year, then something must be wrong with the compact. Legislators and government administrators tried to make the point that taxpayers and future generations are part of the compact too, so that today’s flow of federal and state dollars should not be the only way to judge whether the compact is strong. They emphasized that more taxpayer dollars are going into higher education every year, just maybe not at the rate of growth that the college and university community would like.

No “social compact” on higher education can ever be all things to all people. But it is clear that, after three days of formal and informal debate on this topic, any true compact cannot leave out a group of people who, in years and generations past, have tended to be either an afterthought or totally ignored.

And who is this group of people that can no longer be ignored? You guessed it – current and future college parents. That’s one of the many reasons that College Parents of America was formed, and one of the many reasons, with your support, that we will thrive in the months and years ahead.

The higher education community can’t ignore us. We help pay a substantial portion of the college tab, and we have already produced the largest generation of current and soon-to-be educated college students in history. Politicians can’t ignore us either, as we vote in higher numbers than the population at large and we are watching, in ever greater detail, how college and university issues are treated in the public debate.

We have the right – and the responsibility – to play a strong part in shaping the social compact in higher education as that conversation presses forward. With your help, I will make our case at conferences like ACE’s annual gathering, and in other forums, both public and private. Empowering parents to best support their children on the path to and through college will be our mission, and access to college for all students with ability and desire will be our goal. Thank you for your continuing confidence.

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