Friday, February 10, 2012

General Education and the Engaged University

This week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced his second annual budget proposal.  Last year, he sparked a lot of controversy by proposing a 50% reduction in state funding for Penn State.  This year, he proposes to cut the state appropriation to Penn State, Pitt, and Temple by 30% and to the State System of Higher Education by 20%.   The rationale is straightforward:  Pennsylvania government is not generating enough revenue to fund at a higher level.

Certainly, the specific percentages will be subject to negotiation over the next few months.  However, we can expect that the final number will still be a significant reduction in state support.  The impact will be to further shift the cost of higher education from the taxpayer to the individual student. This reinforces a fundamental question that has underpinned much public discussion over the past decade:  Is higher education a public good, which enriches the entire community, or is it a private good, that primarily benefits the individuals who attend and graduate?

The idea of higher education as a “private” good came into focus for me recently, when a LinkedIn discussion quoted an institution that had done an “ROI” report.  It used salary gains by alums as the primary measure of ROI, although it also noted the positive economic impact on the local community in which the campus is located.   By using this approach, the institution essentially bought into the idea that its value can be measured in terms of how a student’s investment in tuition dollars is returned through increased salary.  It is the “private good” argument.

However, it misses several important considerations.  Prime among these is the fact that the student pays for only part of his/her education.  The rest is paid by direct state appropriation and, increasingly, by state and federal student financial aid.  The taxpayer has a huge investment in the education of each individual who graduates from a higher education institution in the United States.  That includes for-profit institutions, which are at the very top of the pile of institutions that receive federal financial aid.

A second, perhaps less obvious factor is that a college education is not meant simply to prepare one for a profession.  The college curriculum has two distinct components.  One is the upper-division professional component—the major and minor.  The other is the general education component.  At most institutions, this is the broad “liberal arts” curriculum that introduces students to the culture in which they live, with the goal of preparing them to better participate as a member of society.  To be sure, for some institutions this idea has eroded to become a simplistic “distribution” curriculum that gives students a taste of the major disciplines.  However, other institutions have taken care to ensure that their graduates are prepared to be both citizens and professionals.

In 1948, as America was finding its way into a new world order after two World Wars that effectively ended the social order that had been set into motion by the Enlightenment and set the stage for a global society and the Information Revolution, a Presidential Commission on Higher Education issued a report, Higher Education for American Democracy, which stated that “The crucial task for higher education today . . . is to provide a unified general education for American youth . . . General education should give the student the values, attitudes, knowledge, and skills that will equip him to live rightly and well in a free society” (quoted in Gail Kennedy, Education for Democracy, 1952).  The Commission outlined eleven objectives for general education:

1.            To develop for the regulation of one’s personal and civic life a code of behavior based on ethical principles consistent with democratic ideals.

2.            To participate actively as an informed and responsible citizen in solving the social, economic, and political problems of one’s community, State, and Nation.

3.            To recognize interdependence of the different peoples of the world and one’s personal responsibility for fostering international understanding and peace.

4.            To understand the common phenomena in one’s physical environment, to apply habits of scientific thought to both personal and civic problems, and to appreciate the implications of scientific discoveries for human welfare.

5.            To understand the ideas of others and to express one’s own effectively.

6.            To attain a satisfactory emotional and social adjustment.

7.            To maintain and improve [one’s] own health and to cooperate actively and intelligently in solving community health problems.

8.            To understand and enjoy literature, art, music, and other cultural activities as expressions of personal and social experience, and to participate to some extent in some form of creative activity.

9.            To acquire the knowledge and attitudes basic to a satisfying family life.

10.            To choose a socially useful and personally satisfying vocation that will permit one to use to the full[one’s] particular interests and abilities.

11.            To acquire and use the skills and habits involved in critical and constructive thinking.

            Today, one can argue that the global Information Society requires a fresh assessment of general education.  Regardless, institutions of higher education that rely on tax support need to articulate how their curriculum helps advance the total society and not simply the careers of individuals.   We cannot walk away from our societal mission just because times are tough.  Instead, we need to find new ways to express how we are engaged with society and to communicate that to all of our stakeholders.  The general education curriculum is one component of that. 

A strategic engagement initiative should also include a strategy for engaging through outreach, research, and technology transfer.  It is time for the academic community to look up and look out, beyond our campuses, and to engage our institutions with the broader society that they serve.