When I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, I decided on the following tag line: Public Higher Education: America’s Strategic Plan. Honestly, I was chaffing at the notion that public education institutions were being charged with developing strategic plans that were focused on defining our place in a market of educational institutions. Public higher education is not meant to make a profit. In most cases, we were set up to serve a particular region’s educational needs and we were not designed to compete across regions (although, of course, we do). As I see it, we exist to support two fundamental goals of the nation – cultivate an informed citizenry and support the potential for social mobility. If we are to strategize, we should be focused on better ways to meet those goals rather than identifying market share and seeking improved rankings.
I am less snarky about institutional planning today but I still balk at the market focus. The funding models for higher education have changed significantly and public institutions are now tuition dependent with no choice but to find ways to compete with each other to survive. In New England, where the opportunities for education are vast and the student population dwindling, this need is particularly acute. Public universities that can focus on prestige (higher admission standards and big ticket research opportunities) are working their way up the ranking lists. Some schools have niche programs, carving out a focused identity and usually staying small. Regional comprehensives that focus on access are doing their best to focus on the transformative power of education, largely in terms of socio-economic gains. None of these strategies are negative, but they are trapping us in a competitive cycle that loses track of our essential value.
The good news is that infrastructure is the hot new buzz word, and a big re-think is going on. President Biden is proposing all kinds of investments in higher education, from increasing the Pell Grants and NSF funding, to funds specifically focused on equity. At the state level there is a strong focus on community colleges as an important part of lifting people out of poverty through specific career training. Somewhat more broadly, all of higher education is being incentivized to support particular career trajectories in STEM and Healthcare. This is a good first step, but at this important, once in a century moment, when infrastructure is the word of the day, we need to think bigger.
Let me put it plainly, without a fundamental shift in how public higher education is imagined in relation to the core goals and values of the United States, we will continue to find ourselves chasing rankings and students instead of focusing on learning. While I know it strikes some as a nice-to-have, higher education is essential to the economy we have built so far and the one to emerge. Just as the nation progressed from providing a 6th grade education to a comprehensive K-12 education, and increasingly a pre-K education, it is time to think of public higher education as something that must be universally available (yes, free). It is the essential component of our national infrastructure.
I am not saying we are more important than healthcare. I am saying developing a good healthcare system relies on educating scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers, actuaries, community liaisons, bilingual front line support for treatment and benefits administration, culturally aware people to navigate community norms that might keep them from following healthcare instruction, and so on. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.
Transportation infrastructure is the same story. We need engineers and urban planners, supervisors and pavers, economic development professionals and safety specialists, environmental and computer scientists, people with an understanding of the barriers to usage of public transportation and those who understand how to optimize work schedules to stagger demand. From two-year entry level degrees to doctoral degrees, the whole system relies on education.
Economic development is 100% connected to the educational opportunities available in a community. But it isn’t just the narrow focus of trained financial managers or skills in advanced manufacturing. It is the fullness of ongoing access to education over the life of a career so that people can retrain or refocus their knowledge as the world and/or their interests change. Supporting ongoing access means reframing our thinking about education as a one-time investment (2 or 4 years) to something that people keep returning to throughout their lives.
And, of course, all of these professionally focused arguments for education totally neglect the rest of our value – fostering the insights into human culture, behavior, histories, and discoveries that help us put our world in context. An educated society does not stop at understanding how elections work and how to get a job. It must continue to the why of it all. Obviously, the question of why and the meanings we ascribe to our existence grow with us. The value of the more broadly focused liberal arts thinking often comes into focus long after we encounter them. Each phase of our lives might compel us to think further, ask new questions, and pursue ideas ancient and new. This broad and inquisitive thinking is also infrastructure, with foundations laid in our early education so that there are opportunities to follow up later. It provides room for the growth that we say we value and the emergence of new perspectives that can literally change the world.
So, I’m glad that infrastructure is in fashion and I hope that we can use this momentary embrace of long-term thinking to truly plan for the long-term of public higher education. Let’s commit to our true value as an essential component of a just and thriving society. Let’s fund education in a way that allows us to focus our strategic plans on learning instead of market share. Let’s recognize that public education is America’s strategic plan for a great society.