Monday, March 21, 2011

State Education Budgets: Stimulate Innovation

            This is turning into a tough year for public higher education in the United States.  Since a raft of new Republican Governors took office in state houses around the nation, cuts in higher education have been seen as a special target to help states deal with deficits.  In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republican Governor Tom Corbett has proposed that the Commonwealth cut the state appropriation for its four state-related institutions—Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University, and Lincoln University—by more than 50%.  That would reduce Pennsylvania’s appropriation for its land grant university—which maintains 24 campuses around the state in addition to the statewide Cooperative Extension Service—to a mere 4 % of the University’s total budget. 

            My purpose here is not to explore in any depth why Republican Governors seem to be so anti-education.  My purpose is to suggest that this is, at best, a wrong-headed solution.   The challenge to Pennsylvania and other states is not simply to cut costs, but to re-position education so that their economies can thrive in a new era—the so-called Information Society or Knowledge Society.

            Most of our educational system is organized to support the an industrial economy.  In fact, our system of public universities and public schools is a direct response to the Industrial Revolution.  In those days, policy makers felt that 25% of high school graduates needed to go on to a college degree in order to provide society with the engineers, scientists, teachers, and business managers needed to sustain an industrial economy.  And, in fact, public education has done a great job in meeting that challenge.

           Today, however, we no longer live in an industrial economy.  We live in a globalized, information economy. In this economy, education has become critically important not only to provide managers and professionals, but to enable the broader workforce to compete in a global workforce and to help their employers innovate from the bottom up in a very competitive, constantly changing technology-driven economy.

            The federal government has recognized the realities of this new environment by challenging both K-12 and higher education to increase the percentage of high school graduates who go on to get a college degree from the current rate of 39% to 60% by the year 2020.   Within this vision is a two-fold challenge:  (1) to expand access to higher education so that it can absorb an almost 50% increase in undergraduate students and (2) to expand by about the same percentage the number of high school graduates who are qualified to enter higher education.

            While some cuts to state education appropriations may be needed in the short run, the real challenge to state government is not to vilify teachers and public education in general, but instead to engage educators in how to address this and related education challenges that are intricately connected to economic well-being.  Cutting budgets will not necessarily result in innovation.  Without a new engagement in innovation, cutting school budgets just means larger classes and fewer specialized courses—often, the same courses that students need in order to get into college.

            Rather than simply cut budgets or undercut the role that teachers can play in the lives of our young citizens, let’s acknowledge the need to trim in the short run, but balance that by stimulating innovation in several key areas:
1.            Invest in Dual Enrollment Courses – Many students find themselves in school districts that are either to small or too poorly funded to maintain courses that students need in order to get into college.  Dual enrollment courses are courses offered by colleges and universities that can be taken by high school students and that count toward high school graduation and college credit.   A strategic commitment to dual enrollment will mean that more students will graduate from college not only prepared to move onto higher education, but with some college credits already under their belts.   A long-term dual enrollment strategy could also result in accelerated degree programs that combine high school study with summer internships, bringing better educated employees into the workforce faster.

2.            Invest in STEM – The need for renewed emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curricula has been long recognized at the national and state levels.  These programs are an essential ingredient to creating an Information Age workforce that can attract new industry to a state or help existing companies adapt to the new economy.  A STEM investment could be directly tied to a dual enrollment strategy or could be part of a refocused general education program in the undergraduate curriculum.  It is also an important component to teacher preparation.  

3.            School/Community/Employer Collaborations – One way that higher education can directly serve local communities is by creating collaborative degree programs with local employers in order to build a sustainable workforce.  These collaborations may involve local school districts, employers, and unions and involve a mix of dual enrollment courses, on-campus courses, community service, and workplace internships.  Ultimately, these programs would fund themselves, but state funds would be useful in creating models.

4.            Revitalize Cooperative Extension – The Cooperative Extension Service was created at the height of the Industrial Revolution out of a fear at state and federal government level that the United States would not be able to sustain industrialization—and the urbanization and immigration that went with it—if we could not also improve agricultural production and make farm life more attractive to new generations of farm families.  Today, there is a similar concern that, at the height of the Information Revolution, we need to revitalize our smaller communities in order to bring new knowledge-based businesses that can thrive in smaller communities.  One challenge here is to bring broadband Internet access to our smaller communities so that companies can maintain their global presence while taking advantage of the stability of small town culture.  We need to re-envision the ideals of Cooperative Extension for this new environment.

            In March 2011, we are facing an important turning point.  New governors, brought into power by fear and frustration caused by the Great Recession, have aggressively moved to cut spending as the quickest way to reduce deficits.  With less than four months remaining until the new fiscal year begins, our educational institutions have little time to respond creatively to a significant budget reduction.  The result will be to pull back, rather than to engage around a new agenda.   State governments have an alternative:  engage educators at all levels to save dollars where we can, but also to re-envision the institutional mission of public education in light of the Information Revolution and get us started down the road toward long-term sustainability in a globalized knowledge economy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rethinking General Education in Tight Economic Times

Today’s newspaper reported on the second Penn State undergraduate program to be evaluated for closure through the curriculum review process that is now underway.  Both programs—Science, Technology, and Society Program and Integrative Arts—share some important traits: (1) they are both interdisciplinary (STS is also inter-college) and (2) they began as general education initiatives that evolved into undergraduate majors.

It probably is natural that this evolution would take place.  A research university is a highly decentralized culture where the academic department is the basic family unit.  Faculty members who create these initiatives tend to be broad thinkers who identify with the broader culture outside academia rather than with the family unit.  However, after the initial wave of innovation, faculty members in programs like these tend to create a new family unit within the culture of the institution.  Interdisciplinary initiatives become their own departments; once-radical views adjust, however uncomfortably, to the older culture.   Some ideas—area studies programs are a good example—find long-term homes in a college.  Others never quite fit in. 

Perhaps the part of the curriculum that suffers most from this is general education, for which these programs were launched in the first place.   One solution might be to focus more attention on interdisciplinarity in general education.  This has been done at Penn State several times over the years.  As an undergraduate student in the 1960s, some of my best general education courses were interdisciplinary courses in the Humanities.  There were also a series of interdisciplinary courses in the sciences:  Physical Sciences 07 and 08, Biological Sciences 01, 02, and 03, and others.  These courses provided a good overview of the liberal arts and science worldviews for nonmajors.  They were focused on understanding humanistic and scientific thinking, but not necessarily how those ways of thinking could help us live a better life.  The old idea of general education as the “distribution” part of the undergraduate curriculum was reinforced:  general education was about getting to know something about disciplines that were not in your major. 

There is another view of general education.   In this view, the majors and minors prepare students for the professions, but general education prepares students to be productive citizens and happy individuals.   This kind of general education is naturally interdisciplinary, because it is focused on the external world and its problems, rather than on the traditional structure of the institution.  This approach took root in the first half of the twentieth century.  Columbia’s Contemporary Civilizations Program and Chicago’s Great Books Program are two examples.  A truly interdisciplinary general education program would follow in the path of these groundbreaking programs and, at the same time, provide an environment in which new ideas could flourish across disciplines.

As institutions revisit their curricula to find savings, they should also step back and look more broadly at the purpose of the curriculum.  General education serves a different purpose than do the majors and minors.  An interdisciplinary general education, envisioned as preparing students to be productive citizens, would allow institutions to protect some space for innovation while also avoiding the creation of un-productive majors.  Perhaps this economy gives us an occasion for a fresh look at general education.