As headlines about higher education go, this has to be one of the most clever: “Highbrow Robbery: The Colleges Call It Tuition, We Call It Plunder.”

The opening line was: “Everybody seems to agree these days that college costs too much.” The date of the story, from one of my back issues of the excellent Washington Monthly magazine: 1983.

It hurts to write this. We’ve made so little progress on accomplishing the fundamental change that the system requires. It’s true, of course, that a lot actually has changed in the nearly 40 years since that piece was written. But the brutal truth is that the cost of college has outpaced many families’ ability to pay for four consecutive decades.

Meanwhile, the demand for talent continues to rise. This means that more Americans, especially people of color and others who have been systematically excluded from the system, must have access to high-quality programs if they want any reasonable chance for a better life.

I thought about this while preparing to speak at “How to Remake Higher Education,” a virtual event held by New America and Washington Monthly. Our focus was on how colleges, universities, and the government can work to transform our higher education system into one that successfully promotes upward mobility, racial equality, and good citizenship. This is a critical moment, because COVID-19, the surge of unemployment, the George Floyd killing, and a litany of other issues have exposed the inequities that have for too long plagued our country and held it back.

To repair our system for post-high school learning, two steps are critical. First, we must make the system racially just and fair, putting equity first in everything we do. Second, we must foster a cycle of learning, earning, and serving others—building a system in which all three occur continually.

We’ll get there, I’m convinced, but doing so will be the culmination of many smaller victories. I credit Washington Monthly, for example, for its history of assessing and ranking colleges and universities. The Monthly’s rankings, which are just out, are about how well the schools serve the country as a whole, rather than by their wealth, reputation or how they serve the elite.

COVID and racial injustice have been like rocket fuel, propelling disruptive change in higher ed, and these rankings help tell us which schools are most capable of preparing people for the work of the future.

I actually used the Washington Monthly rankings as a kind of jumping-off point for my new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.” We’re living through a time of upheaval and social unrest, with increasing threats to global health, democratic institutions, and the world’s economies. But as the book notes, behind the headlines is another issue that must be quickly addressed: The role of workers is being transformed—and often rendered obsolete—by automation and artificial intelligence.

The Monthly’s rankings help because at a time when post-high school learning matters more than ever, they put a special focus on the types of institutions that are increasingly important to our national success. Schools are cited in categories such as the best colleges for adult students, best for vocational credential programs, best for turning students into citizens, and best for innovative approaches to educating all citizens, especially those who have been disenfranchised. This year’s rankings also honor schools that make sure that majors popular with Black students lead to well-paying jobs—the first time any publication has done so.

All this points in the direction where higher education needs to evolve. We must do a much better job serving today’s students, who are more diverse than ever, many working full- or part-time, often balancing school with raising their own children.

Holding down costs and building better paths to good jobs and careers won’t be easy, and colleges and universities can’t do so without a fundamental commitment to education across society. But really, we have no choice when it comes to preserving our economy and our democracy. And we don’t have another 40 years to get this right.

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