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To Optimize Learning

Conjoining Self-Interest and Societal Purpose

Drawing the Strands Together

Excercising Leadership



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Exercising Leadership

The call to leadership in meeting the challenge to higher education extends across several domains, and there are pointed areas of responsibility for every partner in this dynamic:

  • State governments: Set clear expectations for universities and colleges in meeting a state’s higher education needs, and hold institutions accountable for achieving those goals. Make necessary public investments in higher education, and align state funding more directly with the actions and outcomes expected of these institutions. Every state must convey to its public and private institutions the educational and societal goals to be attained in fulfillment of the public good. At the same time, states must hold those institutions accountable and support them as they succeed in reaching goals conducive to public purposes.

  • The federal government: Support the expansion of educational opportunity by maintaining and enhancing the availability and purchasing power of needbased financial aid through the Pell Grant program. Contribute to the quality of higher education in the U.S., in part by continued support of the nation’s research agenda, and in part by the collection and analysis of data that provide a reliable basis for assessment and comparisons among universities and colleges. Consider creating tax incentives for individuals who seek continued higher education, and for employers who support their employees in this purpose.

  • Local business leaders: Engage state officials and higher education leaders in partnerships to design and deliver learning programs that meet the evolving skills requirements of workers in a global society. Provide feedback and constructive insights to gauge how well the state and its higher education institutions are educating graduates to be effective in the workplace.

  • University and college governing boards: Hold institutions accountable to the public purposes they need to fulfill. Governing boards of public institutions in particular must resist the tendency to pursue narrowly conceived institutional interests without regard to the broader needs of a state and the nation at large. Trustees must have the experience and understanding that allows them to hold institutions accountable when institutional interest threatens to eclipse their fulfillment of public purpose.

  • Higher education administrators and faculty: Focus the intellectual goods and services of the academy to engage more directly in addressing society’s core challenges. Accept responsibility to educate a broader array of students in a greater range of contexts and circumstance, including more students for whom cost is a significant barrier to higher education access and degree attainment. Colleges and universities must proceed beyond the mindset that equates educational quality with success in amassing endowment, and educating primarily those who are economically and educationally advantaged. Presidential and faculty leadership must work to ensure that institutions meet their social obligation to educate more students of promise who have fewer financial resources.
One of the first tasks of leadership among these somewhat autonomous partners is to impart a sense of urgency and focus to a set of issues about which the public has grown largely complacent. The challenge of leaders—in the federal and state policy communities, among higher education governing boards, faculty and administrators, and across the business sector—is to educate the public about the critical importance of higher education as an instrument of social and economic vitality in the U.S. A combined effort is needed to ensure that higher education remains accessible and affordable regardless of one’s economic circumstance.

The point is not that universities and colleges have failed. Their current structures and operations have proven effective in meeting earlier needs these institutions had evolved to serve. Higher education in the U.S. is a system that accomplished the learning requirements of the 20th century very well. But the challenges of the current age are of a different order, and new behaviors are needed. The value-added of these institutions in the foreseeable future will result from delivering education to students from a broader array of social and economic circumstances, at all stages of life, seeking to be effective in a more complex world of international politics and relationships, and in a competitive global economy.

Part of the resistance to change, within higher education as well as among the public generally, may derive from a sense that behaviors are so entrenched that there is little that could change current motivations except a substantial infusion of new federal or state money. At the same time, virtually no one expects today that higher education would succeed in gaining a substantial increase in public funds without first demonstrating genuine initiative and progress in meeting public needs for higher education. Higher education cannot wait for that condition to change. Universities and colleges themselves must provide part of the initiative; in conjunction with a range of other stakeholders, they must create a stronger sense that meeting the educational needs of the 21st century is essential for the nation’s continued vitality.