Postsecondary education is becoming increasingly important to the U.S. and its
citizens, both individual and corporate. Our nation needs a citizenry that can participate
fully and positively in a democratic society. And the problems our society must deal
with are increasingly complex; witness the recent debates on international trade,
global warming, censorship of materials distributed via the Internet. At the same
time, instant communication with policymakers and opinion leaders, and the proliferating
use of ballot initiatives as the vehicle for policymaking, have empowered the general
citizenry as never before. The average citizen now has an opportunity for influence
that, in previous generations, was the preserve of only a chosen (and typically wealthy)
few. Whether or not citizens exercise this new influence, or do so in an informed
way, is another matter. When such citizen influence is exercised, the nation is better
served if it occurs with a real understanding of--not just feelings about--basic
issues. Such understanding is unlikely to be accessible to those who lack the ability
to effectively collect, judge and analyze information in order to form reasoned conclusions.
As social and political issues become ever more complex, the premium placed on citizen
competence will increase apace.
Employers too are seeking higher levels of education in the workforce. The economy
is increasingly global, with companies both acquiring goods and services in foreign
countries and selling their products internationally. To be successful, U.S. firms
must increasingly find markets or productive niches that have specific kinds of competitive
advantage. Increasingly these niches are in information - and technology-intensive
arenas, and the resulting enterprises must rely on intellectual rather than physical
strength for their success. Moreover, even the most routine tasks in the future economy
are likely to require the significant use of technology. Partly as a consequence,
it is more and more difficult for citizens to find jobs that yield a comfortable
middle-class standard of living absent the skills associated with education beyond
high school.As the U.S. economy becomes increasingly focused on processing and creatively
using information, the education of its workforce becomes a key ingredient in the
economic well-being of the nation.
While many citizens have not yet recognized or accepted the growing link between
their own education and their quality of life, a rapidly growing number each year
are doing so. As a result, they are pressing to acquire new knowledge and skills
through the services of a broadening array of educational providers. Parents, moreover,
worry increasingly about their children's access (physical and economic) to the kinds
of educational opportunities--and the credentials that go with them--that they perceive
as gateways to security and personal fulfillment. Without higher levels of knowledge
and skills, in short, it will be increasingly difficult to move beyond concerns about
survival to the pursuit of higher-order objectives.
From all sides, therefore, the pressure for individuals to learn more, and to
do so more frequently, is growing. Educators have talked about the importance of
"life-long learning" for decades. Finally, this reality is becoming widely
recognized and accepted by key segments of public opinion. With increasing recognition
of ongoing learning as a national imperative, however, the client base for higher
education is expanding and becoming more complex; moreover, this process is occurring
differently for individual citizens, employers, and society in general. The needs
and perspectives of each of these three groups must therefore be explicitly considered
in the policies for postsecondary education established by state and federal governments.
With regard to individual clients of postsecondary education--including current and
potential clients--attention to three distinct policy issues is essential. First,
those individuals who would not normally engage in college-level work after attending
high school are emerging as a group whose educational needs must be addressed by
postsecondary education. Policy studies in state after state reveal that the largest
unmet educational needs--and the largest barrier to local and statewide economic
development--are in the area of basic skills education. Large numbers of adults in
every state remain, for all intents and purposes, functionally illiterate. Neither
higher education nor public policy has fully embraced the need to respond effectively
to this clientele. This task is considered "beneath" postsecondary educators
and remains a frustration for policymakers who believe, perhaps justifiably, that
this level of education should have been acquired through (already paid for) secondary
school attendance. Basic skills education for adults must be addressed, however,
and doing so will result in considerable diversification in the client base for postsecondary
The future client base for postsecondary education is also growing more diverse
as ethnic and cultural diversification accelerates in the population to be served.
The U.S. has been, and continues to be, a nation of immigrants. This means that students
come to college with widely differing background experiences, cultures and educational
needs. They also come with a variety of skin colors as well as levels of competence
in the use of English. The difficulties of dealing with this complex diversity do
not obviate the necessity of doing so, despite recent rulings on affirmative action.
A final complexity in the client base arises from the age distribution of individuals
seeking some form of postsecondary education. We are well beyond the time when most
individuals took their higher education "shots" in intensive doses, all
at once, at 18 to 21 years of age. Now, many people don't begin postsecondary education
until later in life. Even those who earn degrees as young adults, moreover, are faced
with the necessity of returning for educational "booster shots" on a periodic
basis. The older the student, the more diverse their experiences. The more varied
their needs and priorities, the more complex the task of responding to those needs.
Employers act as clients for postsecondary education in two major ways, with distinct
implications for policy. First, employers draw from an entry-level workforce educated,
to a greater or lesser degree, by current educational providers: K -12 schools at
minimum, and often one or more postsecondary education providers as well. In this
role as indirect client, employers are increasingly seeking mass "products"
of the education system who are:
- more highly educated than previously was the case. In this regard employers
certainly want individuals who have higher levels of technical competence. But perhaps
more importantly, they are also looking for potential workers with high-level proficiency
in more general higher-order skills, including communication, computation, problem
solving, and critical thinking.
- certified as to these proficiencies. Not only do employers demand the
kinds of skills noted, but they also require proficiency to a certain standard--consistent
in application, transferable from one situation to another, and (if possible) attested
to by an objective third party. This particular expectation is just starting to emerge
in the employment community, but promises (or threatens, from the perspectives of
many) to become much more widespread in the future.
Employers also come to higher education as direct clients of postsecondary education,
seeking ready access to continuing education opportunities for their current employees.
This demand can sometimes be met by "off-the-shelf" courses and programs.
In every likelihood, however, this demand will be met in increasingly idiosyncratic
ways--tailored not only with respect to content, but to form, time and place of delivery.
Continuing education services will likely be sought "at the last minute"
or "just in time," as are other products and services acquired by these
It has already been noted that society at large needs citizens who are educated sufficiently
to: sort through information about complex issues drawn from numerous sources; adequately
assess the biases associated with this information; and use it to make informed decisions
or judgments. This is a generic need of society: a population with the skills required
to ground an effectively functioning democracy.
In addition to this generic need, society has historically looked to higher education
for other important services. Among them are research in areas important to the national
interest such as national defense, the elimination of threats to health, and understanding
the earth on which we live. Since at least the second world war, these have been
viewed as national priorities. Because higher education is rapidly becoming
a central feature of economic competitiveness, however, it also has a growing role
in local or regional economic development. Here the focus can be placed
on either direct contributions (e.g., providing education in directly relevant
areas) or on indirect contributions (e.g., by contributing to the general
quality of life in the region). This move toward a more local or regional definition
of "societal need" is a logical extension of the current pattern of political
devolution of authority on numerous issues.
The cumulative effects of recognizing the importance of postsecondary education across
these three key constituencies--as well as the increasing diversity and complexity
of the client bases--have become impossible for policymakers to ignore. Together
these forces are determining both the kind and character of policies needed in coming
decades. In order to respond effectively to these forces, policymakers will need
to adopt a decisively different approach to formulating policy regarding postsecondary
education. Specifically, they will need to:
- adopt a broader definition of higher education. The definition referring
to providers of "higher education" must at minimum encompass those institutions
normally designated by the label "postsecondary education." More significantly,
it must recognize the capacity and contributions of a growing sector of providers
that would normally be left out of any current definition of "postsecondary
institutions," including corporate training providers, libraries, publishers,
and courseware developers. When referring to "learners," moreover, all
postsecondary-age citizens must be included within the definition regardless of whether
they have experienced traditional kinds of academic preparation for college-level
work. Specifically, it must include those who need basic literacy training, those
participating in English language programs, and those engaging in related developmental
skills programs designed to make them viable workers and citizens. These expanded
definitions of providers and learners--falling outside the narrower definition of
higher education but within the broader definition of postsecondary
education--should occupy an increasingly central role in future public policy discussions.
- recognize explicitly that higher education will have to "go to"
many of its clients rather than expecting clients to "come to" them.
Increasingly, clients will include place-bound adults, residents of defined geographic
areas with specific educational needs that must be dealt with on a regional basis,
and established industries (and individual employers) with continuing on-site or
local education needs for their employees. These clients require educational approaches
that fit a client-centered delivery mode rather than a pattern of attendance or service
dictated by educational providers. As a result, the traditional concept of "geographic
service area" will have to be reinterpreted in future policy. At present, this
concept emphasizes assigning "exclusive" rights to a given institution
to provide educational programs within a given area. In the future, the concept should
refer not to the rights of institutions, but to the needs of the citizens in the
geographic area, needs that should be met using the capacities of whatever providers
- recognize explicitly that higher education must use appropriate technologies
to more effectively "go to" the learner. Because technologies like
broadcast or satellite-distributed television, the Internet, or CD-ROM-based instruction
respect no geographic boundaries, policies that assume the primacy of such boundaries
(including state lines) will have to be reconsidered. At the same time, the impact
of such technologies on the nature of instruction itself--including growing asynchronicity
and greater learner participation, together with the faculty-development implications
that these entail--will need to be specifically addressed.
- recognize that postsecondary education will increasingly come in bites that
are bigger than existing "courses" but smaller than existing "programs."
The delivery of education must reflect the objectives of learners and their employers
rather than the scheduling and delivery traditions historically established by academe.
Single courses are seldom sufficient, either because of the amount of content covered,
or the way it is packaged; some content is viewed as relevant, some not. Complete
degree programs either have more content than the learner is seeking or they take
more time than the learners can devote during a single given period of their lives.
- respond to a growing demand for certification of the resulting learning that
comes in these smaller "bites." In some cases, certification will have
particular meanings to specific employers. In others, it will be accepted by academic
institutions as fulfilling particular degree requirements, or portions thereof. In
these days of high employment mobility, such certifications are important for both
individuals and employers. For example, the acceptance and market value of such credentials
as the Novell Certified Network Engineer (CNE) have stimulated increased interest
in certifications for other important areas within the computer industry. A key postsecondary
policy challenge will be to provide quality assurance for these certifications, and
to encourage their recognition, where appropriate, by academic institutions.
Together, these imperatives suggest the need for a policy framework that is more
oriented to learners and less oriented to educational providers than is currently
the case. Given the historical policy emphasis on institutions of higher education,
shifting to such a framework will constitute a substantial challenge. It will require
more than merely "fine-tuning" current policies that have developed incrementally
over many years. Instead, it will require fresh thinking about fundamental policies
and significant changes in well entrenched ways of doing business. Some of the dimensions
of these changes are addressed in the following section.