Monday, July 27, 2009

Re-Perceiving the Land Grant University for the Information Age

Many Pennsylvanians were surprised this summer when Governor Ed Rendell attempted to make the state’s land grant university ineligible for federal incentive funds by declaring that The Pennsylvania State University, the State’s Land Grant university, is not a public university. Presumably, this was justified because Penn State is not owned by the Commonwealth, but operates as a separate non-profit organization. The Governor later added Penn State to the list of eligible institutions. However, the Governor’s actions suggest the need to re-articulate the land grant mission in light of the dramatic changes confronting industrial/agricultural states like Pennsylvania as they adapt themselves to the new economy of a globalized Information Society.

Land Grant universities were a direct response to the Industrial Revolution. They were created by the Morrill Act of 1862, which allowed states to sell public lands in order to create institutions that would, in the words of the Act, “. . . .teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

The question for today’s land grant educators is: How do we articulate this mission so that, looking forward, the land grant university can continue to be relevant to both individuals and the community in the Information Society? A 21st century strategy should encompass several dimensions of the Land Grant mission. These include (among others): (1) improving access to education, (2) ensuring a strong economic base for communities—a dimension that includes a focus on innovation—and (3) creating professionals who can thrive as both professionals and citizens in a global, networked society.

Access and Success

Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), reported at a Sloan Consortium conference that, while policy makers at the beginning of the 20th century anticipated that the Industrial Revolution would require that 25 percent of high school graduates move on to a college education, the Information Society would require that 80 percent of high school graduates gain at least some postsecondary education. This thinking is reflected in the Obama Administration’s new Graduation Initiative.

The goal of creating graduates for the Information Society requires a three-fold strategy: (1) educating the current workforce, (2) improving the number of high school students who graduate prepared to continue onto higher education, and (3) expanding the capacity of higher education to produce significantly greater numbers of college graduates. While the Administration initiative is focused on community colleges, there are several ways in which our land grant university can contribute to this long-term strategic goal:

· Open Educational Resources – Universities can enrich the resources available to local school teachers by making some of the content in their online courses available for high school teachers to use in their own classrooms. This has a historical precedent in the early days of educational broadcasting, when land grants like the University of Nebraska and Penn State created video-based teaching materials that were then broadcast into the schools for use by teachers.

· Dual Enrollment – Many land grant universities have both online degree programs and smaller, community-based campuses that offer undergraduate programs. Universities can use both online and locally delivered undergraduate courses as dual enrollment courses with state high schools. This will accomplish two goals: (1) it will fill gaps in the local high school curriculum, helping to prepare high school graduates to enter college and (2) it will give high school graduates a head start on a college degree.

· Accelerated Degree Programs Dual enrollment courses could be part of accelerated degree programs that allow people to complete an undergraduate degree in three years through a combination of on campus and online courses, internships, and independent study.

· Virtual High School Programs In areas of critical need—where local resources may not be adequate—Land Grant institutions can assist by providing virtual high school programs, so that students graduate ready to start work in specialized areas. This also has a historical precedent in high school correspondence courses offered by a number of land grant institutions.

Other aspects of re-conceiving the Land Grant mission for the Information Society will be explored in future posts.