At campus event, University of Pennsylvania prof. talks diversity in higher education

BY VANESSA NUNEZ
Daily staff reporter
Published February 3, 2010

In front of a group of about 50 students, faculty and staff, Laura Perna, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a talk yesterday on the challenges facing higher education in America.

Speaking in the Rackham assembly hall, Perna said her research is focused on understanding the way in which public policies and social norms affect higher education opportunities for women, minority groups and individuals of low socioeconomic status.

Highlighting Michigan’s need to increase educational performance in areas like Detroit, Perna said universities play an important role in improvement efforts and promoting higher education.

“Increasing post-secondary educational attainment is important given the changing economy and global competiveness,” Perna said.

Citing a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Perna said an estimated 30 million jobs will require secondary education by 2018.

“Unless we increase our current levels of production, the demand for college educated workers will exceed the supply,” Perna said.

Perna echoed sentiments made by President Barack Obama, who has said he hopes America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

To meet the president’s goal, Perna said each state will have to, on average, increase its annual number of awarded college degrees by eight percent. Michigan will have to increase its annual output of higher education students by 8.4 percent.

“Performance has improved in this state, but it is still below the levels of top states,” Perna said.

Perna added that the educational gap in Detroit is notable with 32 percent of black students graduating from high school compared to a 45-percent graduation rate for their white peers. College enrollment has followed suit with fewer black students enrolling in college, she said.

“We have a lot of information out there about college, but I think the challenge is more the fact that these gaps exist despite the availability of information,” she said. “We have to turn that information into knowledge and make that knowledge usable, understandable and relevant.”

Affordability, Perna said, is an underlying issue that students face when thinking about college. She said there is an ongoing trend of tuition becoming too expensive, placing a burden on the families of students.

In Detroit, 42 percent of families with children live below the poverty line while a quarter of children live in families with unemployed parents.

“Financial aid is most important in students’ decisions to enroll in college,” Perna said. “It influences the resources they have available to pay for college.”

Looking beyond the financial issues plaguing higher education, Perna said university outreach programs are essential. She said there are few comprehensive programs, which address academic preparation, financial standing and parental involvement.

“Higher education institutions, particularly research institutions, are the strategic agent for the effect and democratic transformation of society’s school system,” Perna said.

Gloria Thomas, director of the Center for the Education of Women in Pennsylvania, who was involved in the discussion in Rackham, said she agrees that universities play an important role in promoting higher education.

“A lot of institutions do their own individual initiatives and outreach efforts," Thomas said. "But there is a real need to address these issues, particularly for Detroit and the state of Michigan in a real collaborative effort."