Almost 21 million people attend some variation of a college or university in the United States. For some, the purpose is obvious – to improve their skills, increase their wages, and enhance their marketability in the workforce. But for many – especially those in the traditional 18-22 year cohort – the reasons may not be as clear.
For many of these young students, the goal was to get into college. Most residential liberal arts campuses provide an often bewildering set of opportunities to explore, try out new things, and form or challenge personal assumptions.
Colleges create the opportunity for students to imagine a future — one of the best justifications for the value of a college degree.
In American society, college is the best and sometimes last opportunity for a student to grow within a carefully prescribed set of protected parameters. It can be an idyllic moment when friendships form and core beliefs take hold, free from many of the pressures that will beset new graduates after they enter the job market.
College is also a perfect moment for a student to postpone the future, especially for those who may not have figured their future path. It’s further complicated by the nature of the workforce into which they will enter. College graduates seldom transition into a first job that they will hold until retirement. There’s little chance for a seamless pathway to emerge, no matter how much introspection and reflection occurs in the quiet moments of college life. The global job market changes too rapidly.
In fact, it’s better to prepare generally – acquiring skills that liberal arts training provides – including the ability to speak well, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting – than to assume that more narrow training will open the first doors to productive employment. But this reality does not mean that students can hide their head in their books, extracurricular activities, and friendships.
Post-Graduation Outcomes are Where Rubber Meets the Road for Colleges
This is where the rubber meets the road. Colleges do a wonderful job at inputs, likely because inputs prepare students for a successful classroom experience. They are also improving their assessment capabilities, often because of pressure from discipline-based and regional accrediting associations. But they are weakest at outputs – the kind that prepare students to enter the workplace successfully.
Many colleges tout their graduation placement records. They eloquently promote the percentage of their students who find employment and take advanced degree training within six months after graduation.
Graduate placement stats are a good indication of success but imperfect at best. Colleges with professional degree programs like business, engineering, and nursing will logically have higher placement rates because the market aggressively seeks those graduates. Other strong “pre” professional schools that prepare students for advanced degrees in law, medicine, dentistry, and graduate programs like health sciences and public policy may also expect higher levels of placement.
There are two problems with using graduate placement as measurement of success.
The first is that a college or university normally gears its career center toward programs that support employable majors. While there are exceptions, it’s hard to find a college career center that supports humanities majors as strongly as it assists the engineering and business students. Second, the students are not motivated – especially self-motivated – to use college resources wisely or prepare for life after college.
Students Must Take Responsibility for Future Before Graduation
And that may be the next lesson for colleges to learn. Students – soon to be alumni and graduates – must take some responsibility for their own futures. While colleges can provide better tools for graduates in all majors to succeed in their employment searches, the student must also be encouraged to use the four years wisely. It’s imperative in a global market that students prepare for what’s coming.
It begins by encouraging colleges and universities to be more intentional about their student life programs:
- What does an institution hope to teach in the thousand teachable moments that occur outside the classroom?
- Does it offer a residential life program beyond the classroom and laboratory experience that introduces students to communal living and then encourages progressive choices in a controlled experience to prepare them for independent living?
Students Must Be Thoughtful Advocates for Their Own Futures
Further, should students also be as intentional about their college extracurricular experiences as they are presumably about their academic careers? Some students will have the luxury to seek unpaid internships, externships, and summer employment that prepare them for work after graduation. Others need to work when they are not in school to pay their tuition and living expenses, beyond grants and loans.
Whatever the situation, students can develop an individually tailored strategy that introduces them to the workforce, even if it means only on a volunteer basis.
For students of limited means, having to work can differentiate them from their more fortunate peers as individuals better equipped to be successful after graduation.
Whatever the circumstances, students must learn to use the resources available to them. They cannot put off their future nor be overwhelmed by the challenges it takes to make a healthy career happen. It begins with a thoughtful self-examination and ends with the recognition that they may ultimately be their own best advocates.
Last week’s efforts that led to the passage by one vote of a House Republican proposal to change health care illustrates the deeper questions now bubbling up about what Americans demand of their government. The Republican-controlled Senate will now take up their version of a health care plan that is likely to differ significantly from the House plan. Meanwhile the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – tagged by supporters and detractors alike as Obamacare – remains the law of the land.
The present donnybrook is likely to play out over several months. The health care debate is set against an even more volatile backdrop as questions about the federal government’s continuing commitment to Medicaid expansion swirl around the efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. These arguments raise even larger questions about how the government should treat other society-wide entitlements like Social Security.
Almost every American agrees that the government has basic responsibilities in defense, infrastructure, and in other areas that protect and regulate American society and how America relates to the world.
But should its citizens also expect that the government work to improve their quality of life from “cradle through career,” that is, from birth to death?
Whatever the mechanism, should government, coordinated at the local, county, state, and federal levels, determine what quality-of-life “markers” best meet the needs of American citizens? There is an old adage that Democrats must always be stopped from misguided efforts to create new entitlements. The argument goes that once citizens appreciate the new benefit, it is almost impossible to take the entitlement away. Americans must make sense of – and be willing to fund – entitlement programs that improve their quality of life.
Open Since the Great Depression, Entitlement “Door” Unlikely to Close
The plain fact is that the entitlement door swung wide open in the Great Depression and will likely never close. Policy debates over state’s rights, free market solutions, and cost have real meaning but are really more about tactics and philosophies rather than outcome. There are times, like the “guns and butter” policy debates of the Vietnam War years, that inform the partisan arguments over health care emerging from the quagmire of the Washington swamp today.
But voters’ support for entitlement programs has been a given for 80 years. The debate is over even if the skirmishes over tactics, philosophies and funding continue.
We should accept that entitlement programs are a cornerstone principle upon which the foundation of American society is built. Any efforts to end them or diminish their reach or value will meet sharp resistance from American voters. It’s something tangible – like Social Security or Medicare — that Americans feel that their government guarantees to work for them.
Debate About Role of Entitlement Programs is Bigger than Health Care
That having been said one of the most interesting historic policy debates of the 21st century will be the continuing role that entitlement programs play in American society. Central to this debate will be which entitlement programs must be supported and whether there is room for a deeper analysis of how current and potential entitlements contribute most to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
We should prepare for these challenges now.
Americans clearly want a safety net that includes Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The task will be to put these programs on a solid footing, looking at a variety of efficiencies, partnerships, their scalability, and new revenue streams, including tax adjustments to pay for these programs. But within these parameters, any new programs proposed must include progressive thinking about what we mean by entitlement.
Is Education a Privilege or a Right in American Society?
One example illustrates this point: Is education – from pre-kindergarten through college – a privilege or a right in American society?
If we focus on higher education, there’s a pragmatic side to this question. America now competes in a global marketplace, despite the rhetoric about “America first.” We know that a college degree is roughly akin to a high school diploma from a generation ago. Economists studying market and labor conditions estimate that as many as sixteen million jobs requiring at least a college degree may go unfulfilled in the next few years.
Higher Ed Leaders Must Claim College Education as Entitlement
Yet despite the considerable funding available, education is a politicized, chaotic mess that frustrates consumers and policy makers. Higher education leadership must lay out a crisp, common sense justification for why education – specifically, higher education – should move above prisons in the laundry list of fundable priorities.
To be fearless in claiming education as an entitlement right for American citizens, college and university leaders must ask – and answer – bold questions:
- Can Americans establish a better, broader definition of “entitlement” that provides a continuous pathway to a productive life from cradle through career?
- Is the current definition of “safety net” too narrow and simplistic to meet the global economic demands that America faces?
- Is the funding solution to each entitlement different based upon the history, existing revenue streams, and the value to society?
- What benefits are Americans entitled to receive from their taxes?
The answers to these questions will shape the quality of life in the United States for generations to come.
Thirty years ago, we all understood what the term “culture wars” meant. It was about Mapplethorpe vs. Helms and teaching old, dead, white men vs. revisionist and black history. There were lines. Whichever side you were on, you knew where you stood.
The battle lines changed and have morphed into something quite different today. As the first efforts by the Trump Administration to enact an immigration ban sputtered in chaos, confusion and a “must see TV” legal battle, the implications of the fight over how to provide national security have become clear. So, too, did the historical precedents that informed this newest battle.
It turns out that the new culture wars are also social, economic, and political in nature.
The new battle lines are between visions of American society that are industrial vs. post-industrial in outlook, design, and practice.
Historical Perspectives on Economic Battle Lines
What’s most interesting is that these new lines mirror the pitched battles over industrialization in the early 19th century, especially in England, as machinery replaced manpower in textile production, especially weaving. The warriors then were craftsmen, rooted in an agricultural society, who saw their traditions and way of life threatened by the mechanization of their livelihoods.
The protesters – the Luddites – were English textile workers and independent craftsmen who destroyed weaving machinery to protest the mechanization of textile production. They were fearful that years spent learning their craft were wasted and that unskilled workers would take their place. Eventually, the military suppressed the Luddite movement. England became the world’s leading industrial power throughout much of the 19th century.
Two hundred years later, the parallels persist as America moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Workers in the manufacturing sector have seen their jobs disappear and wages stagnate as income inequality has continued to rise for over twenty years, despite some recent upticks. The presumed culprit is cheaper overseas labor, principally identified as Mexican and Chinese. The Luddites of 19th century industrial England have become the “America first” nationalists of 21st century America.
Globalization and National Security Concerns Interwoven
Symbolized by the debate over renegotiating NAFTA and abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership, it has become a battle to stem the tide over “free trade” globalization cloaked in concerns about national security. Internally, the battle lines are also cultural, on issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and refugees, and Supreme Court picks. The philosophies behind these competing claims are decoded into a broader national debate about “American values.”
For the moment, the effect is to split the country almost uniformly, depending upon the crisis de jour. Practically, there is a political dimension with the red and blue states recast, within limits, as “nationalists” and “globalists,” respectively. The problem with the rhetoric today is that people will get hurt. It’s probably where the large crowds protesting immigration policies can do the most good, however, especially if they can humanize the negative impact of “America first” policies.
“Eds and Meds” are Economic Engines
There is another danger, already recognized in cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco. These are the “eds and meds” capitals of the country whose economies are in each case bigger than those of most countries with which America competes. They are the booming economic engines of the US economy. It’s why the Silicon Valley’s biggest technology players have joined together to speak against the immigration ban.
The stakes are high. How American higher education plays its hand could set the United States on a path that will shape its ability to compete.
To this end, it’s important to have clear strategic goals in mind. Here are some first thoughts:
Higher Education Must Choose Battles Wisely
Build a strategy out of the initial tactical responses that have occurred in response to the early policy initiatives of the Trump administration. Protests are fine – critical, in fact – but choose the battles wisely. America’s leading educators should speak out on policies that affect higher education, linking what they say to social, cultural, and political concerns about American values. Their campuses must be prepared to support them, particularly if they focus on the issues and stay out of the politics.
Higher Ed Must Be Broadly Inclusive
America’s colleges and universities must remove what can sometimes be seen as legitimate criticism and become more tolerant of ideas, including those with which they and their college communities disagree. They must practice what they preach on how best to be broadly inclusive.
Higher Ed Must be Leader in Post-Industrial Economy
“It’s the economy stupid.” American workers list job security as their principal worry. In a world in which “do no damage” should be a primary operating principle, it is dangerous for the American economy to power down, for example, because of knee-jerk immigration policies. We need the best and the brightest with us. But we also need a Manhattan Project version of a Tennessee Valley Authority initiative to move the Rust Belt mindset forward.
The goal is a growing economy to build a robust middle class across the country. America signaled that globalization would undergird the world economy when Bill Clinton signed on to NAFTA.
The trick now will be for leaders – including those who run American colleges and universities – to help America prepare to lead a post-industrial economy.
It will require sane, reasoned debate. Let us begin.