Higher Education

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National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) director Jean Johnson suggested the following as a possible issue for development into a deliberative framework.  We welcome your comments and additional information about this issue.

I am proposing higher education as an NIF topic because I believe the country faces a number of important choices and trade-offs about its future, some of which involve core values about opportunity and fairness in our country. Although the U.S. higher education system has long been regarded as the best in the world, there are numerous signs that the system is under stress and that large numbers of Americans are asking tough questions about whether the system we have is the system that we need and want.

Here are some of the developments that make this topic so compelling to me.

  • According to U.S. government projections, “nearly 8 out 10 new jobs will require higher education and work force training” over the next decade.[1]
  • There’s a whole cast of government, corporate, foundation, and education leaders pushing for reform. Their criticisms circle around higher education’s costs, quality, whether the system is “accountable,” and whether its mission is suited to the world we live in now.
  • According to a forthcoming Public Agenda study of young adults, most young college graduates say it is very likely that they’ll be economically secure in their lifetimes, but only 36 percent of young people without degrees say the same.
  • The number of Americans going to college has been increasing, but dropout rates are stunningly high. Only 4 in 10 students who start four-year college programs graduate after six years.[2]
  • According to the ACT College Readiness Standards, 78 percent of students entering higher education are not adequately prepared for college-level reading, English, math or science.[3] This puts an enormous pressure on the system. It raises the question of whether college is the right choice for all of these students and about higher education’s responsibility for helping these young people catch up.
  • Despite broad calls for more college graduates in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), the United States is number 27 in the proportion of college students who complete degrees in these fields.[4] As of 2000, there were more foreign students in U.S. graduate engineering programs than there were Americans.[5]
  • Many are concerned about the rise of for-profit colleges. Some see them as providing a needed prod to traditional higher education, while others say these new schools profits off the aspirations of the most vulnerable Americans who are seeking to better themselves.

Public Agenda surveys of the public also show that more Americans are asking tough questions:

  • As recently as 2000, just 31 percent of Americans believed that a college education was essential to succeed in the American workplace. By 2009, a 55% majority had come to believe it—a stunning change in such a short period of time.
  • At the same time, more Americans worry that there are many qualified, motivated students who don’t have the opportunity to go to college.
  • Most Americans say students have to borrow too much money to go to college
  • 6 in 10 have come to believe that colleges are more focused on the bottom line than they are on their educational missions.

NIF would need to develop a compelling choicework for the higher education topic, and I am not sure what the choices would be at this point. However, I do think the issue raises interesting practical and values questions such as:

  • Is going to college a right or is it a privilege for those willing to work hard, save, and sacrifice to get a degree?
  • Has the system become too focused on what’s good for the institutions rather than what’s good for students and the greater society?
  • Do we want a society where people are rewarded based on how educated they are, and what are the implications of that decision?
  • Do we want a higher education system that’s geared to building a stronger economy or one that emphasizes citizenship, free inquiry, or the acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake?
  • Are we putting too much emphasis on going to college? What do we owe to the young people who, for whatever reason, do not pursue college degrees?
  • Is American losing its respect for people who are not college graduates—people who work with their hands or have non-academic skills? How do we feel about that?

[1] White House Fact Sheet, Building American Skills by Strengthening Community Colleges,  2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/White_House_Summit_on_Community_Colleges_Fact_Sheet.pdf
[2] Public Agenda, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, 2009, Page 2. http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/theirwholelivesaheadofthem.pdf
[3]The National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Page 11, 2010. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12999#description
[4] The National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Page 8, 2010. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12999#description
[5] The National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, Page 7, 2010. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12999#description