Is there seat at post-election table for US higher education?

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts speculated recently about whether there was enough soap in America to wash off the mud splattered by the dirty, depressing, and uninspired efforts by both presidential candidates to win votes.

A week ago, we answered the question of who will lead us over the next four years.

With this answer will also come a deeper dive into how the Supreme Court will function, which party will control the US House of Representatives and the Senate, and whether there is a path to common ground between the executive and legislative branches.

At the center of the debate will be the fundamental issue of how weakened and ill-defined political ideologies relate to one another. Gridlock is not the fault of a single individual but arises from an inability or unwillingness to seek consensus on issues on which two or more parties can agree. Will the moderates and progressives among the Democrats be able to develop a negotiated common ground? What is the future of the Republican Party? Indeed will the Republican Party as we know it historically continue to exist or is a fractious civil war now underway within it?

Higher Education has Sustained Collateral Damage

For the rest of us – including those working in higher education – there has been considerable collateral damage. Higher education joins a litany of other once sacrosanct, bedrock institutions upon which the promise of America is anchored. America’s colleges and universities produced educated citizens and a trained workforce. A college degree was a powerful symbol of access and choice creating mobility and translating an individual’s potential into a practical reality.

It’s one of the best aspects of American life.

Higher education was also a safety valve that created a pathway traveled by millions of Americans responding to shifting technology, demographics, and labor patterns. It moved the workforce into proximate parity with the shifting demands of an increasingly post-industrial labor force. It was a sacrifice that millions of American families made because the cost/benefit analysis was simple, clear, and direct.

In short, higher education was about aspirations – the promise of an individual made possible by a commitment from America. It always worked best for that “next” generation, especially when its mission broadened with the creation of community and technical colleges for those seeking workforce training but not a four-year degree. It has not been a steady, uninterrupted development, however, and higher education also hit some major bumps in the road.

Assault on Reputation of Higher Education

Perhaps the biggest crisis now facing American higher education is the assault on its reputation. The ideologues attack American colleges and universities as bastions of liberal entitlement. Consumers are in open revolt against high sticker price – confused as the cost of attendance – with the cost/benefit analysis producing less obvious benefits and families unwilling to make the level of sacrifice required. Politicians rely on anecdote and polling to develop plans – good and bad – often to regulate higher education institutions in the absence of new discretionary money.

It’s a mess that tarnishes the reputation of American colleges and universities.

It would be so much easier if higher education could collectively make the case for why American institutions like colleges and universities still function well within the American and global economies. Sadly, the approach must be more nuanced, aggressive in design, and play out over the long term, especially in light of the de-industrialization of large swaths of America.

It’s not enough to save the auto industry if the people, towns, and infrastructure don’t share in and demonstrate the success. It’s about feeling the pain of these regions while also re-shaping the potential that already exists.

Is There a Seat at the Table for American Higher Education?

It’s how the pieces fit together that make it possible to finish the puzzle. American higher education must have a seat at the table to contribute to rebuild the American economy. These must be based on a coordinated strategy rather than a scattered, laundry list of political tactics fed by state and federal tax dollars.

Higher education can still claim its bully pulpit to insist that we cannot create economic incentives without the proper context and a careful linkage to its educational infrastructure.

The facts are that America’s colleges and universities are educational enterprises. But they are also places of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial leadership. And perhaps most important in the 21st century, they are sustainable economic engines fueling the rekindling of local and regional economies.

It’s time to understand that the best way for higher education to reclaim its moral authority is to demonstrate by word and action what role it can play in local, regional and national partnerships linked together with clear purpose and design.

This article was first published on the Edvance Foundation blog.

 

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