Public support for higher education is eroding. State funding has dropped to new lows, and schools are struggling to make their case for investing in college as a public good.
All that begs the question: Just what is the mission of higher education? Is it to educate students for careers? Or does it have a larger obligation to improve the community? If its purpose is also to serve, how can it do this best?
A series of forums will be held around the country within the next year to discuss the role of higher education in strengthening the economy, culture, and civic participation. “Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want” kicked off Tuesday with an event at the National Press Club hosted by the lead project partners, the American Commonwealth Partnership and the National Issues Forums Institute.
The forums will be held in at least 300 communities, bringing together leaders from business, government, K-12 education, and colleges to debate choices for the future direction of higher education.
The gatherings will toss out three approaches for debate about the focus of higher education:
1. To be competitive in a tough global marketplace and recapture the lead in science and technology.
2. To work together to strengthen the values of responsibility, integrity, and respect to repair an ailing society.
3. To ensure that everyone gets a fair chance at getting a degree, without going into massive debt.
Many of the panelists Tuesday suggested all three options were critical to higher education, but the concept of presenting the ideas as choices is expected to generate in-depth discussions at the forums. The resulting conversations will be chronicled in a report by the Kettering Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research foundation, at the end of the series.
Harry Boyte, national coordinator of the American Commonwealth Partnership, said that colleges need to develop a deeper understanding of what citizen education means and address the enormous challenge of closing the gap between government and citizens. Boyte called on the work of higher education institutions to be woven into communities and to revitalize civic engagement.
At the Press Club, Martha Kanter, U.S. undersecretary of education, applauded the 60 higher education institutions committed to hosting the forums, but encouraged the thousands of others in the United States to join in the effort. “We are seeing the polarization and siloing—a focus on what’s good for me, not what’s good for us,” she said. “Never has higher education and K-12 education mattered more.”
Improving completion rates in higher education requires working together to upgrade the pipeline—from kindergarten preparation to increased high school graduation rates, said Kanter. “Education of K-12, higher education, and early learning is critically important if we’re going to have the next generation be citizens of the future,” she said. “We need to embed those values in every class we teach and in every community.”
Kanter discussed the administration’s Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action, which includes nine steps to take to improve students’ citizenship skills. Among them: greater investment in the college/work program, loan terms that favor students who go into public professions, and tools for states to measure the civic health of a community.
The panel highlighted Syracuse University as a model for partnering with the surrounding community—nonprofits, local governments, artists, environmentalists, and others—on improvement projects.
“What we do in Syracuse matters fundamentally to our region,” said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the university. That means having scholars from the campus go into the neighborhoods to lend their expertise in collaboration with local leaders. Added Scott Peters, co-director of the outreach initiative at Syracuse called Imagine America: “We cannot be good colleges unless we are deeply engaged in our communities.”
Students also want to be active change agents in the greater society, said Kaylesh Ramu, a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Rather than “sit around and play government,” the student-government group at the university works hard to make sure student voices are heard on state issues in Annapolis and in nearby community projects, she said. “We are starting to have a culture change and understand that we all bring about what is UMBC,” said Ramu.
A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.