The Policy Structure
An Agenda For The National Center
About the National Center

home   about us   news   reports   crosstalk   search   links  

Challenges and Opportunities Facing Higher Education
Page 3 of 7


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.

1. Individuals
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 education.

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.

2. Employers
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 organizations.

3. Society
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 are appropriate.

  • 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.



National Center logo
© 1998 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications