Over the last twenty years, civic engagement in higher education has definitely become more common and prominent. Last month’s event at the White House, For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission, seemed like a historic moment. Numerous federal officials, including the Secretary of Education, joined leaders from higher education, business, and philanthropy to declare their commitment to civic education and engagement–and to emphasize that work’s contributions to increasing student retention and developing the skills critical for professional success as well as democratic vitality. Video from the event is available at http://www.ed.gov/civic-learning, along with two key documents commissioned or written by the U.S. Department of Education:
- A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a report shaped by national roundtables, which included Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg and University of Minnesota Associate Vice President for Public Engagement Andrew Furco, and
- Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action, which highlights how the DOE will advance civic learning and engagement through schools and post-secondary institutions.
Despite all our progress, there is a long way to go toward fully realizing the full civic mission of higher education and generating broad public support for and engagement with that work. Two pieces of evidence:
In focus groups the National Issues Forums Institute recently held to test a new discussion guide on the mission and future of higher education, participants generally associated higher education with economic opportunity for individuals, not with civic learning and engagement. When the guide and facilitators invited them to consider higher education preparing students to work across differences and helping to solve public problems, people were very energized. That idea of a civic mission sparked their imagination and led to new insights about how higher education could promote stronger communities and a healthy democracy as well as economic vitality and individual success. (See Harry Boyte’s letter reflecting on focus groups and the January 10 White House event, at http://www.nifi.org/news/news_detail.aspx?itemID=20898&catID=24)
A national study of 24,000 undergraduates at 23 higher education institutions found that, while most students strongly agree that contributing to the larger community “should be” a major focus of college, the percentage who agree that it “is” a major focus of college is significantly lower—and it goes down, the further along the student is in school. Similar decreases appear in students’ perceptions of whether their institutions promote awareness of both domestic and global social, political, and economic issues. The 9,000 campus professionals also surveyed were even more likely than students to support the goal of contributing to community, but they were only slightly more likely to consider it an actual focus, leaving a 31% gap between their sense of the goals and its realization. (For the full report, which also includes some analysis of differences by institutional type, see http://www.aacu.org/core_commitments/documents/CivicResponsibilityReport.pdf.)
Minnesota Campus Compact is a network dedicated to changing that, in collaboration with the American Commonwealth Partnership, AAC&U, and others. We’ll be in touch about emerging resources, opportunities to foster dialogue and strategize together in the weeks and months to come—and of course we always welcome ideas and involvement! Meanwhile, we encourage you to read and/or share your own powerful civic stories on both the MNCC blog and the DemocracyU blog.
– Julie Plaut