Shaping Our Future — How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The first Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, began far ranging changes in the landscape of higher education, previously the province of the wealthy. It democratized higher education by opening access, expanding the curriculum, and institutionalizing an ethos of public engagement.

Today, in a time of breathtaking changes the American Commonwealth Partnership (ACP)  believes that we need equally fundamental change. ACP is a coalition of colleges, universities and others launched at the White House on January 10, the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act which established land grant colleges.

ACP is dedicated to the practical work of building democracy’s colleges for the 21st century throughout all of higher education.

The first large-scale ACP campaign is a national conversation using materials developed by National Issues Forums Institute, “Shaping Our Future.” Shaping Our Future will take place in communities and colleges, as citizens discuss the role of higher education in America’s future.

Early forums have shown its timeliness. New York State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, Chair of the Legislative Commission on Science and Technology, says that the State Legislature rarely discusses the purpose of higher education. These conversations hold promise to help develop a narrative of higher education’s purpose, which Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, says is urgently needed to break the partisan gridlock.

The following is excerpted from the issue guide titled Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

The diverse system of US higher education–including public and private universities, smaller four-year independent colleges, two-year community colleges, for-profit schools, and others–already serves a number of important social purposes.  But this guide focuses on the future.  It takes up this fundamental question:  How should higher education help us create the society we want?  It offers three options to consider, each with benefits as well as drawbacks.

While it’s certainly possible for higher education to pursue multiple goals, it’s also true that colleges and universities can’t do everything.  To be effective, they need to focus their energies and set priorities.  As we envision higher education in the future, there are options and trade-offs, and it’s important to think and talk about them with our fellow citizens.  By doing so, we can begin to make tough choices about what higher education can and should be expected to do.

This issue guide presents three options for deliberation.

Option One: Focus on Staying Competitive in the Global Economy

Higher education should help ensure that our economy remains competitive in a tough global marketplace–and that means recapturing our lead in science and technology.  Countries like China are transforming their systems to educate more high-tech professionals, and we should too.  It’s our best chance to keep our economy growing.

Option Two: Work Together and Repair an Ailing Society

Many of the problems we face as a nation reflect an underlying crisis of division and mistrust.  Higher education shapes students’ views about the larger society, and it can do more to strengthen values like responsibility, integrity, and respect for others.  Students also need real-life experience in collaboration and problem solving.

Option Three: Ensure that Everyone Gets a Fair Chance

We call this the land of opportunity, but it isn’t that way for many Americans.  Because graduating from college unlocks the door to advancement, higher education and government should do much more to ensure that all Americans have an equal shot at getting a degree–without accumulating huge debts.

For the full list of Shaping Our Future materials, visit the National Issues Forums site.

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