Front Page

To Optimize Learning

Conjoining Self-Interest and Societal Purpose

Drawing the Strands Together

Excercising Leadership



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In the United States, as in virtually any setting, societal need has been a driving force in the founding and evolution of higher education institutions. Through the provision of education as well as research, universities and colleges have contributed substantially to the advancement of public well-being. The Morrill Act and the establishment of land grant colleges, the GI Bill, the creation of community colleges, the intensified commitment to science education following the advent of Sputnik, the Education Amendments of the early 1970s, which greatly expanded access to higher education through the federal government’s investment in financial aid—each can be understood as a direct act of public policy stemming from a broadened conception of higher education’s role in serving public purposes, accompanied by a commitment of government at several levels to provide the political and financial support necessary to realize that potential.

At the outset of the 21st century, a confluence of social, economic, and political forces pose daunting new challenges to the nation’s continued vitality and make clear the need for higher education to assume new responsibilities. There is little question that higher education must be among the most important intellectual and creative resources assembled to address an array of critical challenges confronting society—including the sustainability of natural resources; the provision of health care for all in a growing, aging population; and the renewal of economic vitality across a wide demographic range, which entails helping more working adults acquire higher-level skills and knowledge, instilling core human values, and strengthening social structures to ensure that future generations experience lives of justice, equity, and fulfillment. Higher education must organize its resources for increased responsiveness to, and engagement with, society’s core challenges in the century ahead.

These are challenges requiring new alignments of higher education’s capacities, as well as commitments of public policy and financial resources comparable to those of any previous age. In contrast to earlier times, however, the past three decades have witnessed a decreased willingness to make public policy a key lever for engaging higher education institutions in addressing public purposes. In place of major policy initiatives and accompanying financial support to address commonly defined public challenges, state and federal governments have been more inclined to take as an article of faith that higher education institutions will serve the public well-being through the pursuit of their own self-interests.

During these same decades, the nation’s transition to a knowledge-based economy has effectively eliminated many manufacturing jobs that once offered middleclass lifestyles without a college degree. Now more than ever, attaining a life of self-fulfillment, civic engagement, and economic productivity requires a college education. In recent years the cost of a college education has grown dramatically, requiring many students to incur greater debt than in the past. This gradual shift of costs to higher education consumers creates a particular burden for a growing number of traditional-age college students who are from lowincome households, have little family precedent for college attendance, and are reluctant to incur major debt for a college education.

Given these societal changes, higher education has two fundamental responsibilities to help ensure the continued well-being of the nation today:

  • to provide graduates and the nation at large with the skills needed to be effective in a global, increasingly competitive economy, in which corporations reach across nations and geographical divides in search of new markets, more efficient production, and less costly labor; and

  • to close the achievement gap between those students in this country who are advantaged—educationally, culturally, and economically—and those who are not.

To be sure, there are important purposes beyond these two specific responsibilities that higher education should bear, and that public policy and public funding can help bring about. In the 21st century, universities and colleges will be called upon to marshal their full intellectual and organizational strength to address core challenges of the nation and the global society of which the U.S. is part. The research mission has enjoyed strong political and financial support as federal agencies continue to fund scientific research at robust levels, and this component of higher education’s mission must continue to play a central role in the nation’s future vitality. The particular focus of this essay, however, is the role of public policy and the focusing of institutional effort in meeting the nation’s growing need for higher education. Beyond their role in preparing students to be productive and economically competitive, colleges and universities serve an essential purpose in providing graduates with skills of critical thinking and expression in the liberal arts tradition—educating graduates to contribute as citizens to a democratic society whose well-being is increasingly entwined with that of other nations in a global society.

The strands of these fundamental challenges entwine to create a growing sense of urgency for progress on several fronts. It is important for the U.S. to keep pace with the social and economic progress in other parts of the world—progress linked to major investments in higher education, as well as advances in educational attainment in other countries. Remaining competitive in a global economy increasingly requires workers who are more productive and resilient than in earlier times; this means they must be learners for life, capable of returning to higher education to retool for changes occurring in the knowledge base and skill requirements.

These are problems that the intellectual assets of the academy are well suited to address, given the right incentives. Since these institutions constitute the strongest creative and educational assets of the nation and its states, the core question has become: How can their attention and focus be gained in order to address these problems?

The challenge for the years ahead is to achieve a public agenda in an era of diminished public purposes. Many have observed that in the relative decline of policy as a motivating force, higher education institutions may choose priorities primarily from market considerations, setting agendas that seek to advance their own prestige and market position more than the fulfillment of publicly defined purposes. If markets have supplanted the force of policy per se as the primary drivers of higher education’s motivations, what actions will create the market that engages universities and colleges in solving the nation’s most important challenges? Any successful strategy must recognize that no single, centralized approach—no one “market”—can enlist the energies and passion of higher education to achieve a particular purpose. Higher education in the U.S. rightly and productively proceeds from a system of incentives rather than control.

What is required is a new concept of coordination and governance—to craft an agenda of public purpose in an environment of increased private interest and diminished policy engagement.