Exactly 150 years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which launched the great and enduring public university system in America. Even during the most wrenching conflict in our history, Lincoln was thinking of the future. This week, in the midst of a taut presidential election, we look to the future of higher education in America. Both candidates weigh in: we have essays from President Obama and Governor Romney. In our special report, we examine the challenges facing higher education. Only 3% of the students at the top 146 colleges come from families in the bottom fourth of household income. Fewer than 6 in 10 undergraduates are finishing four-year degrees within six years. Student-loan debt has topped $900 billion. And states are disinvesting in public colleges and universities at a time when employers need workers with a college education more than ever.
Higher education has been the great engine of American prosperity, innovation and social mobility, and we weaken it at our own peril. We must find a way to do better.
To analyze the problem is not sufficient; we must find answers. To do that, Time, along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is hosting a daylong conference today at the Time Warner Center with more than 100 leaders in education to discuss solutions to the critical problems of cost, access and quality in higher education. The Gates Foundation has been doing important work addressing all these issues, but the driving force behind this conference is the president of Carnegie, Vartan Gregorian, who is not simply a great educator but also a visionary American leader working to make our future as bright as our past. In the coming weeks and months, we will report on the ideas, policies and solutions that we generate.
Follow our coverage of the summit on Time.com and on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkCollege.
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