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Deep Dive with Laura Arnold

Podcast: Leaving the Ladder Down: Harvard President Reflects on Humble Beginnings that Fueled His Passion for Access

Dr. Larry Bacow lives at the intersection of donor interests and controversies surrounding free speech, affirmative action, and even tenure. But his focus remains on reaching more students. In this episode, Laura Arnold talks with the Harvard President about a host of topics, ranging from college affordability to immigration policy to freedom of speech.

Image: Lawrence Bacow is introduced as Harvard University's 29th President in February 2018 in Cambridge, Mass. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

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His mother was the only person in her family to survive Auschwitz. His father was brought to America to escape pogroms. Growing up in a factory town in Michigan, Larry Bacow didn’t know a single person with a Ph.D. until he attended college. Those experiences made him a passionate advocate for access to higher education, as he went on to earn degrees from MIT and Harvard. 

Now, utilizing his unparalleled platform as president of Harvard University, he is a presence on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress and the administration to improve conditions so talented young people can go to college regardless of their parents’ circumstances.

“Most of us, if we’re lucky, never forget where we came from,” Dr. Bacow said. “I think I was exceedingly fortunate in that I’ve been privileged to live the American dream. I went to MIT as an undergrad, the first kid from high school to go there. My life was profoundly shaped by that experience.”

Serving as the president of Harvard University puts Dr. Bacow at the nerve center of donor interests and controversies surrounding free speech, affirmative action, and even a movement to rethink lifetime tenure. But he remains focused on answering a simple question that directly impacts access for many: Why is a college education — not just at an Ivy League school — out of reach for so many families?

“There’s been a lack of productivity growth in higher education. We are teaching the same way we’ve always taught — chalk and talk, or sage on the stage.” Dr. Bacow told Laura Arnold in the latest episode of “Deep Dive.”

“In any other area, when you compete, you assume consumer cares about the price.”

But, Dr. Bacow says, competition in higher education actually drives up the cost.

In the United States, the amount of federal student loan debt teeters around $1.5 trillion dollars. Dr. Bacow says technology will help universities reach more people, but he doesn’t view it as a silver bullet. Universities partnering and reducing competition, on the other hand, would deliver immediate results. After all, the value and demand for degrees is unlikely to change in a knowledge economy.

Scholars, he said, believe the greatest value in a degree from a reputable institution is its “signaling effect.” 

A report authored by the Harvard Business School reviewed 26 million job openings and found many jobs that required a degree were currently occupied by a person without one. The logical conclusion: Employers are demanding degrees that are not necessary. Not exactly, says Dr. Bacow. 

“Somebody who is capable of completing a degree at a demanding place has demonstrated a certain amount of grit and determination and a capacity to actually stick with something, which is highly valued by employers as well,” he says. “What great institutions teach their students is not a body of knowledge, but they teach them how to think. Because the half-life of what we learn today is actually quite short given how rapidly knowledge is evolving.”

How to listen

Listen in the player above or on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app.

About the host

Laura Arnold is the Co-Founder and Co-Chair of Arnold Ventures, founded in 2010, and an attorney and former oil company executive. Read more about her here.