Recognizing Why Higher Education is Important—for
the Economy and Our Democracy

I just returned from the annual SHEEO meeting.  SHEEO is the organization representing “state higher education executive officers”—basically whoever in each state is the highest-ranking official overseeing public higher education—commissioners, chancellors, etc.  About 200 people—the executive officers, their staff members, association people like me, some education researchers—attended the meeting in Denver and heard presentations from such luminaries as Michael McPherson, Senator Gary Hart, and AAC&U’s own board member, Jane Wellman.

Given the sorry state of state budgets, one would expect this meeting to be a dreary affair indeed.  However, the mood was surprisingly upbeat.  No one is happy about the budget situation, of course.  And the consensus is that things will get worse once the stimulus money runs out.  But this group of people seemed very dedicated to rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the business of improving public education no matter what the budget picture might be.

Attendees heard from the new Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter about the commitment the current administration has to higher education and a series of bills making their way through Congress that could result in significant investments in our sector in the coming years to increase the number of American college graduates.  No one believes, of course, that this investment will make up for the structural problems with how public higher education systems are funded.  But the audience gave Kanter a standing ovation nonetheless.  I think they did this less for anything specific she said than for the shift her message represented from the mood of the last few decades.

I got the sense at this meeting that some turning point had, indeed, been reached.  Individuals in government and the business community have come to see higher education as a key element of any economic recovery our nation could hope to have.  And they are right, of course.  Unless we do a better job of educating students—including beyond high school—our nation’s economy simply will not be able to compete internationally.  Of course, our investments have to go beyond just increasing the numbers.  We have to increase the quality of graduates’ learning as well.

Another underlying theme of the meeting, however, seemed to be a reaction to the current debates about health care, especially those happening in town halls and from which we have the pleasure of seeing TV clip after clip of angry, screaming mobs, and cowering congressmen and women.

From an opening speech by former Senator Gary Hart throughout several other presentations during the meeting, the dismal state of public discourse—its rancor, its ugliness, and, most of all, its ignorance—kept coming up.  I have no idea how many participants in these town meetings graduated from our colleges and universities, but the nature of these events has certainly highlighted the need not only for colleges to prepare students to successfully compete in a global economy, but also to participate in building our democratic society.  At the very least, let’s hope that students graduate from college knowing that the Medicare system is actually run by the government.

AAC&U’s Core Commitments initiative is, among other things, working on ways that campuses can help students become effective citizens and “take seriously the perspective of others.”  I’m wondering if faculty returning to their classrooms in the coming weeks might be planning to use the example of the town halls to teach something about deliberative democracy.  What does it take to actually have a productive public debate?  What is the nation’s history of these kinds of debates?  What is the role of the media in advancing or limiting productive dialogues?  I’d love to hear from faculty who are tackling this important part of our educational mission.

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