“How should higher education help us create the society we want?” isn’t your usual water cooler topic of conversation. When Minnesota Campus Compact and partners around the state convened 12 dialogues focused on that question, many of the 295 participants—students, educators, nonprofit leaders, newspaper editors, even state legislators on higher education committees—commented that they had never talked about it before. Yet when given the chance to share their own experiences and perspectives, and to listen to others’, most emerged with new energy, insights, and connections with others who care about higher education’s public purposes.
The dialogues began by considering three options outlined in the National Issues Forums discussion guide: focus on staying competitive in the global economy by emphasizing STEM education; work together and repair an ailing society by supporting a broader liberal education; and ensure that everyone gets a fair chance by ensuring they can pursue higher education without accumulating huge debts. Facilitators emphasized that the guide was meant to provoke conversation and that participants were welcome to disagree with its points, to add important ideas they thought were missing, to synthesize the options as they saw fit, and so on. The goal was to come to their own answers to the question.
Participants generally saw the three options as interconnected. Increased
opportunity to attend college, for instance, would boost economic competitiveness by no longer wasting so many people’s talents and potential—and it would help to “repair an ailing society” since inequality is at the root of many social problems. A broad, actively engaging approach to education would encourage more students to be interested in STEM and would develop the non-technical skills critical to innovation and economic development; incorporating ethics in education would also encourage (if not guarantee) the socially responsible use of technical advances. In a diverse, global society, what people used to refer to as “soft skills” (problem-solving, teamwork, cultural awareness, and communication—sometimes specified as including listening as well as speaking and writing) have become the core, transferable skills necessary for professional success, civic participation, and life in general.
As a result, dialogue participants frequently supported a more interdisciplinary and community-engaged higher education. Some of those pursuing science degrees mentioned being motivated by earlier experiences such as testing lake water to inform local environmental policy decisions. Learning that seemed relevant to students and their communities—that gave them the chance to learn and contribute outside the classroom—was powerful. Since we don’t know exactly what the economy or society will need years from now, we must teach people how to think and learn, prepare them to innovate and collaborate, coach them to act responsibly. That does not mean indoctrinating students with particular values or taking over the moral guidance provided by parents and spiritual leaders, but engaging them in dialogue and action across differences and recognizing that no education is neutral.
Another clear theme was that we cannot consider higher education apart from other educational institutions and opportunities—early childhood, K-12 schools, community-based learning, on-the-job training, etc. Many people voiced concern that too many students are showing up at college needing remedial or developmental classes, which contributes to high debt and low graduation rates. Many also lamented the perceived stigma on attending a two-year college or taking time after high school to gain “real world” experience and greater focus before entering higher education. Even students from relatively privileged backgrounds thought that they had not been ready for college right out of high school, yet they found themselves on campus because it was an unquestioned expectation—and at least one student suggested that deciding what you want to do with the rest of your life shouldn’t be so expensive.
To increase students’ success in college and society’s benefit from its investments, dialogue participants were eager to see more people, programs, and institutions encouraging young people to understand and consider multiple options, to find the path right for them and the resources that will help them follow it. They want the same for older people, for higher education is no longer a go-once-and-only-when-you’re-young kind of thing. Providing more deliberate and accessible support for transitions both to college and after college—creating a more seamless, collaborative system of education—was a clear priority across the state.
(Only a few students at one four-year institution expressed strong opposition to increased access to college. They struggled to consider the public purposes of higher education, focusing instead on ramifications for themselves—if more people graduated from college, their own degrees would “be less valuable in the marketplace” when they searched for a job.)
In a departure from the standard NIF format, to support local action as well as deliberation, after participants discussed how higher education should help us create the society we want, they gathered in small groups to strategize around specific priorities for change that they identified. Those discussing the cost of higher education and growing student debt saw that as a major challenge but had a particularly hard time defining find concrete, actionable items to address it. Interestingly, one group of first-generation college students, also African immigrants, said they were better students than they had been in high school, and one added that she needed to do well precisely because college was so expensive; high school required no direct payments, but in college if she did not excel her family’s money would be “wasted,” which they could not afford.
Groups at most of the dialogues focused on deepening partnerships between K-12 schools and higher education—aligning expectations and messages, supplementing educational programming, supporting more service-learning, internships, and other engaged types of learning—and some individuals reported coming away with ideas for steps they could take, despite the daunting task. Others explored how they could provide more collaborative learning opportunities, both by sharing higher education resources (computer labs and other facilities, as well as people) with the broader community and by recognizing community assets that advance both formal and informal learning.
Many participants emphasized the need for continued dialogue, organized in ways that would make it possible for even more people to be at the table. This series had few attendees without any higher education experience, so future events might provide child care as well as food, involve interpreters or offer opportunities for dialogue within particular linguistic or cultural communities. More time would also allow for more substantial consideration of local issues, assets, and practical strategies for change. As one participant said, higher education is “critical infrastructure” for Minnesota, and though its deterioration is not as dramatically visible as a bridge collapse, it has serious consequences for our economic vitality and social and civic well-being.
We are grateful not only to the National Issues Forums Institute and the American Commonwealth Partnership for developing the issue guide, but also to the Blandin Foundation, the Travelers Foundation, InCommons, A Minnesota Without Poverty, and all our local partners for supporting the series of dialogues in Bemidji, Brooklyn Center, Duluth, Mankato, Minneapolis, Moorhead, Morris, Rochester, St. Cloud, and St. Paul. Much more challenging than facilitating these dialogues is effectively building on the new connections and energy that emerged there. Our next steps include writing a report to share with policy makers and other stakeholders and working with local partners on follow up, such as organizing additional dialogues about specific priorities and strategies for change, disseminating information about relevant community initiatives, and supporting implementation of the ideas for collaborative action that participants already identified.
As one university chancellor pointed out, the growth of online learning
opportunities, financial pressures, and other factors will probably result in
fairly radical changes in higher education in the years ahead—making it
critically important that we clarify our sense of its public purposes and invest in ways that increase its value.
Julie Plaut and John Hamerlinck