Monday, December 14, 2009

Rediscovering Higher Education as a Public Good

A recent Time magazine headline –“College Degrees More Expensive, Worth Less in the Job Market”—prompted a wide-ranging discussion on the LinkedIn “Metacognition” group about the nature of higher education in today’s world. It got me thinking about how higher education is perceived in today’s corporate economy-focused environment.

Certainly one reason why college degrees are more expensive these days is that state governments are funding less and less of the total cost of higher education. In part, that is due to a general perception that higher education is a “private good” rather than a “public good.” That is, if our purpose is simply to prepare individuals to get good jobs, then why should taxpayers underwrite an individual benefit? As taxpayer support declines, cost to the individuals goes up. The result: a more expense college degree to the individual graduate with no appreciable change in quality.

The societal role of higher education was addressed by UNESCO this year in the final communique of the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, which noted: "Faced with the complexity of current and future global challenges, higher education has the social responsibility to advance our understanding of multifaceted issues, which involve social, economic, scientific, and cultural dimensions and our ability to respond to them. It should lead society in generating global knowledge to address global challenges, inter alia food security, climate change, water management, intercultural dialogue, renewable energy and public health." In short, higher education does not end with preparing individuals for jobs; it must, in addition, prepare them to address the broader issues facing society.

That raises a fundamental question for those of us in public higher education: How do we rebuild—in the public perception, in our own sense of mission as institutions and as individual educators, and in practice—the ideal of higher education as a public good in a rapidly changing social environment. In other words, how do we prepare our students to be good citizens in a globalized information society? Part of the problem here is that our curriculum has not adapted significantly to the needs of individuals and communities in this new environment. General education—the part of the curriculum that traditionally has prepared people for citizenship—tends still to be dominated by a distribution of courses that introduce students to the academic disciplines and provide some basic skills (writing, math, basic science, etc.).

One thought would be to move toward a “sandwich” general education curriculum in which general courses are sandwiched around the student’s major/professional curriculum. The first part would provide basic concepts in the key academic disciplines—science, humanities, social sciences—along with critical skills. These might include writing, math, public speaking, but also new skills needed in an information society: collaboration, innovation, finding and evaluating information, team problem solving, inter-cultural understanding, etc. The general education curriculum should also incorporate the technology that drives both professional and personal life—wikis, blogs, online social networking, etc.—so that students develop a sense of the effective (and ethical) uses of these technologies. Student would then move to their professional studies. The final general education component—the top of the sandwich—would be during the student’s senior year, when interdisciplinary courses put their professional studies into the context of life in a global information society. The goal of this upper division general education would be to ensure that individuals enter the workforce with an understanding of ethics, cultural understanding and communications, and the societal implications of their profession.

Early in the Information Society, the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) movement attempted to address these issues through interdisciplinary courses that looked at the interactions among science, technology, and society. Penn State was an early leader in this movement and developed several media-based STS courses in collaboration with faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University. One, “The Finite Earth,” dealt with the limits to resources. One lesson focused on how to identify and engage the “ethical community” of people who would be affected by science/technology actions and who should be involved in major decisions. Similar courses—ideally conducted as senior seminars—could be constructed in every major as a way to match the private benefits of higher education to the public good.