American Higher Education: Some good cheer for the holidays



As we move into the holiday season and the end of 2015, it seems especially appropriate to reflect on the positive role of higher education in American society.

Next year will present any number of challenges, particularly as the political rhetoric heats up. Some will see bully pulpit opportunities driven by the growing anxiety and frustration among American consumers in a deteriorating global political setting.

Others will propose change that will forever alter the dynamics within American higher education – set with good intentions but without context and a full grasp of how higher education works. This handwriting is already on the wall in what is likely to by an ugly political donnybrook.

But as we move toward the New Year, it might be also wise to take a step back and think a bit about the extraordinary role that higher education plays in America.

Three dominant features come immediately to mind.

Most Americans still believe in some version of the American Dream. At its most simple, Americans work hard to make something special of their lives. Put in different terms, social mobility is the implied promise of America. The United States is splendidly imperfect, but its bones are good. Its foundation is solid and enduring.

That having been said the growing problem of social inequality remains perhaps the greatest threat to a vibrant and sustainable Republic.

Yet this is also the first and perhaps greatest contribution of American higher education. Not everyone needs or wants a college degree, of course. But for all their missteps, 20th century leaders, supported by the American voters, created a higher education system based on two fundamental principles — access and choice. Higher education effectively became the pathway along which Americans walked as they secured their standing in the middle class.

It’s why would-be presidents are proposing free community college tuition in New Hampshire and Iowa. A college degree remains valuable because it is an admissions ticket to employment and greater mobility fueled by higher average annual lifetime earnings.

A second feature is that American higher education is a repository of the nation’s culture – a kind of national cultural trust. American traditions carry forward in college classrooms. We may dispute the politics, ideology and interpretation of how they are conveyed, but what we know of the past, nurture in the present, and create in the future often begins in a college or university classroom or laboratory.

It’s an odd fact of life that the American college campus – mired in process and often the most conservative of places in its internal synergy – is where the next best things often come to life. Colleges can be transformative places both for students and the society in which they live. They may be the last place in America where an individual can still imagine the possible and have the encouragement, backing and space to see it through.

Finally, colleges and universities think of themselves as educational enterprises. Their professors create an educated, informed and skeptical citizenry to keep the Republic vital. And yet in doing so, colleges and universities also scale up to a level that gives them a second and equally important role.

America had become a knowledge economy. In the sketchy recovery from the Great Recession, those places doing best are typically education capitals, the so called “eds,” “meds,” and “tech” centers of the United States, transforming themselves into global cities in a post industrial economy. At the center of the transformation is the American college or university.

Higher education institutions are stable employers, often dominating their region. The cases for Boston, San Francisco and Austin are obvious.  In mid-sized cities, the effect can be even more pronounced. Where would Rochester, NY be today without the University of Rochester as its largest employer? How deep a shadow would Boston and New York cast over the Northeast without the consortia of superb local colleges independently fueling the future of Providence, Worcester, and New Haven?

Their impact in many rural areas is even more dramatic. What would happen to western Pennsylvania and much of the Upper Midwest if the small but durable colleges and universities suddenly disappeared from their regions?

The fact is that America is heavily dependent on the employment that higher education provides, both public and private. We can criticize whether the public good that colleges provide justifies their tax-exempt status. But the numbers suggest that many are sustainable economic engines that keep large swaths of America economically viable.

Policymakers should take special note of the durability, impact and vulnerability of American higher education. The best political argument on higher education in 2016 should be a call for change that does not muck things up. America needs a comprehensive, non-prescriptive higher education partnership that accounts for how the pieces fit together.

As the holiday season begins, we should appreciate what the United States has in higher education. It is a uniquely “made in America” product. They make us the envy of the world. Before the political season begins, let’s first celebrate what we have, warts and all.