In the face of a stubborn gap between the rich and poor in America, colleges must open the door to higher education "wider than it has ever been opened" to prevent even more people — and the country — from falling behind, Eduardo J. Padron, president of Miami Dade College, said at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education here on Sunday.
Mr. Padron, who leads the country’s largest community college, urged the leaders of both private and public institutions to promote access over what he called a "disturbing trend of increased selectivity." Education is the key to the nation’s recovery, he said, and the country will be less stable if more students don’t go on to college.
"We will see a class system like no other, with the fortunate few becoming world citizens, well connected as never before to the economic, educational. and cultural opportunities, while those for whom the door to education closes will be excluded as never before," Mr. Padrón, an economist by training, said during the meeting’s opening keynote address, called the Robert H. Atwell Lecture.
The theme of the meeting is "Meeting the Challenges Together," which focuses on achieving President Obama’s goal of higher-education attainment, facing the financial challenges on students and institutions, and maintaining mission in the midst of major change.
Along with having economic benefits, Mr. Padrón said, exposing more students to the kind of learning and reasoning taught in college could help break down some of the partisan discourse that has the country stuck over how to address complex problems such as health care, education, and immigration.
"We need to court a much broader swath of the community and ensure they take up the challenge of being citizens of a new order," Mr. Padrón said.
He acknowledged that the challenge to increase the number of people with some higher education is daunting. The country’s public-school pipeline has broken down, he said, especially for low-income and minority students, and many students aren’t prepared for college. At Miami Dade, almost three-quarters of the students show up unprepared in reading, mathematics, or English.
Mr. Padrón suggested more colleges establish partnerships with public-school systems to help prepare more students for higher education, and he urged colleges to focus not just on the best high-school students in poor communities. The real challenge for educators, he said, will be reaching those students who seem "destined for the underbelly of society."
"The price we will pay in our nation if we do not embrace this broader notion of access is impossible to calculate," he said.