11/10/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

US Colleges and Universities Earn a Poor Grade for Civic Engagement

Midterm elections are complete and cross-party bickering continues. A few less D's and a handful more R's will soon occupy the halls of Congress. Citizens, young and old, report their frustrations with our nation's elected leaders. Hope and change, just a few years ago was the rally cry of a political party is now fodder for mocking the president. Public distrust of the U.S. Congress is at an all-time low. At the same time, scholars urge colleges and universities to invest in educating for civic knowledge, civic values and civic skills in order to produce graduates who can confront controversy with civility. Often the 21st-century university scrambles to process more students in the most efficient means possible in order to assuage concerns of the rising price tag of a college degree. What we need, maybe now more than ever, are colleges with the guts to commit to teaching civic values and skills.

Civic engagement is often described by individual or collective action conducted with a systematic approach. By design, the intended outcome is to address issues of social concern. Grounded in democratic governance, it is a means by which balanced and measured decision-making for the public good determines the policies by which decisions are made or reform is enacted when it does not meet the common good. Sounds like a dream fulfilled in this period of political paralysis. Would we not like our college graduates to have the experience and skill set to work toward the common good? Sadly, to date college and universities are, by-and-large, falling short of this aspiration.

Over the past few decades hundreds of best colleges and universities in the United States have established centers for some form of community or civic engagement. The centers exists in physical and web space serving as a connecting point for students and faculty that might be most inclined to become civically engaged. In most cases the center politics for scarce funds, using the language of the institution's founding purpose to call upon funders, internal and external, to answer the call to action. The center, while a slight strain on existing resources, also brings with it the appeal of something true to core mission while not altering the existing structure of the university. It does not require the institution to change its operating system. This model is proliferated across colleges and universities and in most cases lauded for its outreach. Yet, the handout mentality too often earns front-page coverage on web and print media.

Quantifiable are meals served, children tutored and houses built. It's the easy way for colleges to "do civic engagement." Volunteerism resonates with service-oriented donors, prospective students and families. I am not saying this is a bad thing. It is not however intentionally teaching civic values and skills. In this era of rapidly-eroding financial support for public higher education and tuition increases that outpace inflation, the prospects for attainment of an education that teaches with civic engagement in the bullseye of the educational framework is increasingly difficult to attain. The benefits are not immediate. Instead they are evidenced when graduates respond to controversy with civility, with the objective to work toward common good over their lifespan in communities across the U.S. and around the world.

Public opinion of the mission of higher education is increasingly perceived as a market-driven institution existing for the economic benefit of the individual, the upward mobility of a social class and in turn further sedimentation of the class hierarchy. Colleges and universities should linger in the hard work of community development, where engagement means, over the long --term graduating students who, by their example, help to fix the system that created our national conundrum. Our nation is in desperate need of effective, deliberate economic and political discussions that produce shared understandings. Colleges should have the guts and the freedom to teach for this very democratic value.

The history of higher education in the first part of the 21st century is partially written and for the most part, it does not read well for civic engagement. It is largely deplete of the democratic virtues our nation is so desperate to recapture. Imagine if a college was so bold as to remain wholly dedicated to its civic mission -- to really prepare students to be dedicated civic leaders, equipped with skill set to engage in thoughtful dialogue across differences, with compromise the shared goal and solutions the standard. How could higher education be most thoughtful about getting closer to this aim for the benefit of the next generation of engaged citizens and public servants? Might we be granted the freedom to teach for civic engagement by replacing the pressure to increase the number of graduates by the cheapest means feasible with the expectation to produce citizen leaders.