With large majorities of Americans concerned about college costs, student debt, and the still pitiful job market, it certainly seems time for higher education to reinvent itself. And since a diploma and a good job can shape a person's entire future, shouldn't higher education's number one mission be preparing students for promising careers at affordable tuition prices?
That seems reasonable enough on the face of it, but to borrow from the sultry songstress Peggy Lee, is that all there is to higher education? Shouldn't we expect more?
Of course, colleges and universities, community colleges and trade schools can and do pursue multiple missions -- preparing students for careers, expanding opportunity, advancing knowledge, bolstering citizenship and public service, and others. But it is also true that institutions need to make choices about their aspirations and where to invest their time and resources, and those choices can be tough ones when money is tight. What is the right balance between preparing students for good jobs and the other missions higher education could take on?
A lightening quick tour of higher education history suggests that broader civic, social, and economic missions have often taken a front seat, even during economic hard times.
• When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819, he wanted to do more than educate the next generation of professionals and members of the clergy. In Jefferson's own lustrous prose: "This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation."
• Later, federal land grants helped states build colleges nationwide. By teaching agriculture, science, and mechanics (along with traditional studies), these schools improved the prospects of the students who graduated, but the goal was to propel the entire country forward.
• College extension services, launched in 1914, taught farmers modern agricultural techniques and tackled problems like soil conservation and electrification. These services also worked to support "rural democracy" and "develop communities ' capacities for cooperative action." During the Depression, extension home economists helped rural homemakers improve their skills in canning, poultry production, and home nursing, making it easier for farm families to get through the economic crisis.
• After World War II, the GI Bill gave returning soldiers support for up to four years of college, plus money for books, fees, and a "monthly subsistence allowance." That helped individual GI's build good lives for themselves and their families, but it also gave the United States the best-educated work force in the world and boosted our remarkable post-war economy.
So what goals should higher education highlight today? The question is timely because many Americans are skeptical about higher education's present mission, effectiveness, and even its motives. Some critics see higher education as a mature industry that sorely needs new thinking, one that is "ripe for hostile takeovers." Much of the public worries that higher education has forsaken its educational mission and is now "like most businesses," caring mainly "about the bottom line;" 60 percent of Americans think so, and young people who have attended college are even more likely to say this. Within higher education, many fear that it is losing (or abandoning) its role as a repository and guardian of human knowledge, inquiry, and learning.
There is an intense debate about the future of higher education among elite groups, but it rarely spills out of think tanks, foundations, and the pages of the New York Times book review. Maybe it's time for a broader, more inclusive dialogue.
This year, two non-partisan groups -- the National Issues Forums and the American Commonwealth Partnership -- are jumpstarting such a dialogue through a project called Shaping Our Future. It will bring people on campus -- faculty, students, administrators -- together with employers, K-12 educators, and members of the broader public to discuss the future of the nation's colleges and universities. Over 60 campuses, from the Maricopa County Community College system in Arizona to Hofstra University in New York have scheduled forums, and many more are anticipated.
Participants will deliberate questions like these: How important is it for higher education to help the country maintain its lead in science and technology, and what would it take to accomplish that goal? What about insuring that more people have the chance to go to college and graduate? What about reinforcing core values such as integrity, responsibility, citizenship, and public service? What about helping people living in a diverse, evolving nation learn to understand one another better and work together to solve problems?
Is talking about higher education's mission and its connections and interconnections with the broader society really so important? I would argue that it is. Putting questions on the table and inviting people to discuss them is one way our country works toward change. But even more important is what could happen if we don't talk about our choices in higher education.
Colleges and universities could become more detached from the taxpayers and communities that support them. Attempting to cut costs and respond to critics, institutions could end up pursuing short-sighted, top-down changes that aren't well understood by students and faculty and may not be in line with what most Americans intend and want.
Given the paramount role higher education has played -- and will play -- in the American story, not talking seriously about its mission in our collective future could be a miscalculation of the first order.