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To Optimize Learning

Conjoining Self-Interest and Societal Purpose

Drawing the Strands Together

Excercising Leadership



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Conjoining Self-Interest and Societal Purpose

To optimize learning in the sense here described will require that many different stakeholders strike a balance between societal and self-interests—moving beyond the perspective that regards individual well-being as fundamentally at odds with the achievement of a collective good. What is required is a perspective that understands individual and collective benefits of higher education as conjoining parts of a whole. Explicit responsibilities fall to different players in a partnership for public purposes.

State governments

State governments are in many ways the most consequential agents in optimizing learning in the U.S. Beyond their direct contributions to operating and capital construction budgets in public institutions, states provide a societal milieu and considerable support for private colleges and universities, from the understanding that independent institutions are key players helping to meet a state’s higher education needs. Through the past several decades, states have seen an array of growing demands on their resources. Universities and colleges have come into competition with other public service agencies that do not share higher education’s capacity to raise independent funds. As a result, public and private institutions alike now find that public funding constitutes a smaller proportion of their total budget. As universities and colleges respond by shifting more of their costs to students and their parents, the impression created is that higher education is essentially a private good, available to those with the means to pay.

The more pressing concern is the absence of deliberate intention or purpose in the financial support states provide to higher education institutions. No one would claim that the relative decline in direct support to public universities and colleges through the past decades has resulted from conscious policy decisions to make these institutions less important. The phenomenon has come about rather from increasingly urgent demands in other areas, entailing incremental cuts and one-time fixes to close a given year’s budget gap. In allocating funds to institutions, states tend not to make decisions based on a broad perspective that asks what educational purposes are to be attained in return for public investment in universities and colleges. In fact the vast majority of funding that higher education now receives from state governments provides no motivation for changing current patterns of behavior. The most powerful incentives embedded in public base funding simply reinforce the instinct for institutions to stay the well trodden course.

There is a fundamental need for states to progress beyond the mode of business as usual in supporting higher education. Too often states act in the name of simply building and maintaining capacity, rather than using that capacity to achieve a well-defined outcome. The passion for earmarks in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals only feeds the habit of disconnecting public funding from any sense of the broader purposes to be achieved by colleges and universities. There is comparatively little in state budgetary allocations that would explicitly drive a college or university to direct its intellectual goods and services to achieve such ends as the alleviation of poverty, the more efficient use of resources, or the renewal of the economic vitality of a state through education or research. The tendency is to conceive of higher education as simply an engine of economic development in itself, rather than as an instrument for increasing economic and social wellbeing through the educational results it produces.

States need to engage deliberately in defining the purposes they seek to fulfill through their higher education institutions, both public and private. Given the multiple factors that affect the behavior of universities and colleges, states cannot act as sole agents in effecting the changes required to optimize learning and, more broadly, to align the capacities of the academy to address critical challenges facing society in the years ahead. States can, however, work to call more particular attention to those areas in which their educational interests align with the priorities of others—including the federal government, citizens and businesses of the state, and the leadership of higher education itself—to identify where the confluence of public purposes and individual interests occurs. Without seeking to micromanage, states can ask questions and engage in dialogues that impress on institutions the importance of fulfilling public educational purposes as a priority of universities and colleges.

The federal government

While the federal government exerts no direct control of universities and colleges in the U.S., it is a powerful motivator of institutional behavior through its substantial investment in both research and student financial aid. One of the principal recommendations of the Spellings Commission Report on the Future of U.S. Higher Education (2006) was to strengthen the federal government’s support of financial aid, in part by simplifying the procedure by which middle- and lower-income students apply for federal aid, and in part by increasing the availability of need-based financial aid through the Pell Grant program. These steps can provide a powerful counter to the prevailing tide of market motivations, fed by popular rankings and other factors, that often compel institutions to direct their energies to increase resources, prestige, and selectivity, even as growing numbers of students who have financial need fail to seek or attain education beyond high school.

Another important role of the federal government is to oversee the collection of better-quality, readily accessible data that provide a basis for assessing institutional accountability and facilitating informed choice for students and parents. The federal government can also contribute substantially to the goal of optimizing learning through policies that offer incentives in the form of tax credits for companies that provide the opportunity for their employees to seek higher education, as well as for employees who pursue that opportunity.

Business leaders

A key challenge in creating partnerships to optimize learning is to encourage a kind of thinking and dialogue among a range of stakeholders that makes innovation possible. At both the regional and state levels, business leaders need to be a voice at the table in considering ways to provide a broader range of citizens with the education and training to be competitive in a rapidly evolving global economy. A key indicator of successful partnership is the ability to “gather mass”—to draw interest and support from a variety of stakeholders, thereby creating a combined impact that no single partner could achieve by itself. Through the motivation or pull of productive employment and opportunity, businesses complement higher education’s efforts to advance or push students toward educational attainment. Both of these forces are needed to create an educated workforce and engaged citizenry.

Every party with an interest in advancing the public well-being through higher education should have a disposition to think creatively about opportunities for collaboration between higher education and business. Businesses bring a direct knowledge of changes occurring within given industries and a keen sense of changing skill requirements for current and future employees. Such knowledge makes it imperative that businesses be a partner not just in the funding of higher education, but also in the design of educational programming to meet evolving needs in the workforce. Leaders of business contribute to the effectiveness of higher education by helping define the learning outcomes a global society requires. In addition, business provides critically important feedback on the degree to which students master the qualities required for success in the workplace. As such, business leaders become essential partners in the measurement and successful achievement of learning outcomes—a fundamental requirement if higher education is to deliver at its fullest capacity and garner the financial and political support it will need to succeed.

Governing boards

In concept the governing board of a university or college is the agent of accountability to public purposes. Whether appointed or elected, trustees of these institutions have a primary responsibility for ensuring that an institution’s governance and its financial resources work to achieve purposes that are conducive to the well-being of a state’s citizenry and of society in general. Trustees have the responsibility to hold the institution accountable to its mission without micromanaging or imposing personal or political agendas. Individually and collectively, trustees must understand both the academic mission and finances of the institution. One of the principal impediments to a governing board’s ability to function as intended is the wide disparity in the knowledge or experience of individual trustees. All too often trustees are appointed on the basis of political favor rather than merit.

As a result of these and other factors, trustees can easily become part of the problem rather than constructive forces to align institutions with the fulfillment of public purposes. Both collectively and individually, trustees can buy into the worst pathologies of the institutions they oversee. By the selection criteria, compensation package, and mandate given a president, trustees can contribute directly to the subordination of public purposes to institutional ambitions motivated by a desire for prestige. Led by the arguments of a president and faculty, board members can easily be drawn into the mentality that conceives of advancing the well-being of the institution itself as the primary and all-encompassing goal, while deferring or forgetting entirely the institution’s deeper responsibility to the state and its citizens.

A governing board cannot single-handedly commit an institution to a course of action that opposes its own natural inclinations. It can, however, help to steer an institution on a course of increased accountability, and it can charge an institution to identify the standards to be applied in gauging its fulfillment of public purposes. It is imperative that boards of trustees hold universities and colleges accountable to the broader range of purposes that constitute the basis for a state’s political and financial support. To the degree that trustees relinquish this expectation of responsiveness to the body politic, they contribute to a growing sense of disjunction between higher education institutions and the public purposes for which they ostensibly exist.

Higher education administrators and faculty

A staple element in the success of higher education in the U.S. has been the autonomy that allows individual universities and colleges measures of freedom in pursuing public purposes in keeping with their own institutional goals and strengths. But even as they enjoy substantial freedom in pursuing institutional missions, higher education administrators and faculty have an obligation to commit their institutions to helping advance states, the nation, and society in general in seeking solutions to critical challenges of the century ahead. The political and financial support provided by government are in themselves powerful motivators of such engagement. In addition to its budget for sponsored research, the federal government benefits public and private universities and colleges alike through the Pell Grant and other financial aid programs that expand both access and the range of educational choices available to students. Very often state governments create policies that deliberately include independent institutions within their boundaries as parts of a higher education strategy—for example, by contributing to the tuition of state residents who enroll in those private institutions. Higher education administrators and faculty need to conceive of federal and state support as investments in the future wellbeing of society, rather than as a fundamental right or a reward for past performance.

Among the challenges that particularly confront the nation’s higher education institutions are the need to increase access and degree attainment, particularly for students of lesser economic means, and to design programs that allow students to update their knowledge and competencies throughout life. Success in addressing these challenges will allow higher education to contribute substantially to optimizing societal learning that extends beyond the education of students in classes as traditionally conceived. Higher education faculty and administrators must conceive of themselves as having explicit responsibilities in fulfilling an expanded set of educational purposes in the U.S.