Shaping Our Future
How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?
National Issues Forums Institute
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.Focus on Staying Competitive in the Global EconomyHigher 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.Work Together and Repair an Ailing SocietyMany 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.Ensure that Everyone Gets a Fair ChanceWe 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.
Jean Johnson is a Senior Fellow and Special Adviser for Public Agenda. She has authored studies on education, families, religion, race relations, the federal budget, retirement, welfare, and health care. Most recently, she was the lead author for three Public Agenda/Kettering Foundation reports: “Don’t Count Us Out: How an Overreliance on Accountability Could Undermine the Public’s Confidence in Schools, Business, Government, and More,” “Will It Be on the Test? A Closer Look at How Leaders and Parents Think about Accountability in the Public Schools,” and “No Easy Way Out: Citizens Talk about Tackling the Debt,” She was the principal researcher and lead author for three studies of young adults’ views on college, completed for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College,” “Can I Get a Little Advice Here? How an Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students’ College Aspirations,” and “One Degree of Separation: How Young Americans Who Don’t Finish College See Their Chances for Success.”Johnson has also authored a series of books drawing on her work at Public Agenda, most recently You Can’t Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). With Public Agenda senior fellow Scott Bittle, she is the co-author of a series designed to help typical citizens understand complex public policy issues. Published by HarperCollins, the series includes: Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis (2008); Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis (2010); and Where Did the Jobs Go? And What Can We Do to Get Them Back? (2012).Johnson has also written articles for USA Today, Education Leadership, Education Week, and The Kettering Review. She and Bittle are regular contributors to the blogs The Huffington Post and The Great Energy Challenge. Her media appearances include Bill Moyers’ Journal, CNN, NPR’s Fresh Air, The Dylan Ratigan Show, Today Show, and The O’Reilly Factor.Prior to joining Public Agenda in 1980, Johnson was Resource Director for Action for Children’s Television in Boston. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and holds master’s degrees from Brown University and Simmons College.