Posts Tagged “political parties”

After the Election: First Steps for American Higher Education

MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts speculated recently about whether there was enough soap in America to wash off the mud splattered by the dirty, depressing, and uninspired efforts by both presidential candidates to win votes.

A week ago, we answered the question of who will lead us over the next four years. With this answer will also come a deeper dive into how the Supreme Court will function, which party will control the US House of Representatives and the Senate, and whether there is a path to common ground between the executive and legislative branches.

At the center of the debate will be the fundamental issue of how weakened and ill-defined political ideologies relate to one another. Gridlock is not the fault of a single individual but arises from an inability or unwillingness to seek consensus on issues on which two or more parties can agree. Will the moderates and progressives among the Democrats be able to develop a negotiated common ground? What is the future of the Republican Party? Indeed will the Republican Party as we know it historically continue to exist or is a fractious civil war now underway within it?

Higher Education has Sustained Collateral Damage

For the rest of us – including those working in higher education – there has been considerable collateral damage. Higher education joins a litany of other once sacrosanct, bedrock institutions upon which the promise of America is anchored. America’s colleges and universities produced educated citizens and a trained workforce. A college degree was a powerful symbol of access and choice creating mobility and translating an individual’s potential into a practical reality.

It’s one of the best aspects of American life.

Higher education was also a safety valve that created a pathway traveled by millions of Americans responding to shifting technology, demographics, and labor patterns. It moved the workforce into proximate parity with the shifting demands of an increasingly post-industrial labor force. It was a sacrifice that millions of American families made because the cost/benefit analysis was simple, clear, and direct.

In short, higher education was about aspirations – the promise of an individual made possible by a commitment from America. It always worked best for that “next” generation, especially when its mission broadened with the creation of community and technical colleges for those seeking workforce training but not a four-year degree. It has not been a steady, uninterrupted development, however, and higher education also hit some major bumps in the road.

Assault on Reputation of Higher Education

Perhaps the biggest crisis now facing American higher education is the assault on its reputation. The ideologues attack American colleges and universities as bastions of liberal entitlement. Consumers are in open revolt against high sticker price – confused as the cost of attendance – with the cost/benefit analysis producing less obvious benefits and families unwilling to make the level of sacrifice required. Politicians rely on anecdote and polling to develop plans – good and bad – often to regulate higher education institutions in the absence of new discretionary money.

It’s a mess that tarnishes the reputation of American colleges and universities.

It would be so much easier if higher education could collectively make the case for why American institutions like colleges and universities still function well within the American and global economies. Sadly, the approach must be more nuanced, aggressive in design, and play out over the long term, especially in light of the de-industrialization of large swaths of America.

It’s not enough to save the auto industry if the people, towns, and infrastructure don’t share in and demonstrate the success. It’s about feeling the pain of these regions while also re-shaping the potential that already exists.

Is There a Seat at the Table for American Higher Education?

It’s how the pieces fit together that make it possible to finish the puzzle. American higher education must have a seat at the table to contribute to rebuild the American economy. These must be based on a coordinated strategy rather than a scattered, laundry list of political tactics fed by state and federal tax dollars.

Higher education can still claim its bully pulpit to insist that we cannot create economic incentives without the proper context and a careful linkage to its educational infrastructure.

The facts are that America’s colleges and universities are educational enterprises. But they are also places of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial leadership. And perhaps most important in the 21st century, they are sustainable economic engines fueling the rekindling of local and regional economies.

It’s time to understand that the best way for higher education to reclaim its moral authority is to demonstrate by word and action what role it can play in local, regional and national partnerships linked together with clear purpose and design.



How Will Higher Education Fare in the National Elections?

filled convention hall, lit stage

Let the games begin.

As we prepare for the negotiated spectacle that will play out at both political conventions, these staged reality television moments will also be set against a backdrop of heightened social, cultural, racial, and economic tensions. America has not seemed as divided nor as tribal since the 1960s.

What will this whirlwind of emotion, rhetoric, and anti-intellectualism mean for American higher education?

To begin, it might be best to take a step back to recognize that the federal government has done and can do enormous good.

It was the government that brought us the GI Bill. It was the government that brought us advances like Title IV and Title IX, protecting basic rights to encourage access and equality. These improvements shaped and refined our approach to American higher education. Collectively, they are a powerful statement of what responsible government can accomplish for its citizens.

There is always an open question on what national political platforms mean to governance. They may not reflect the views of the candidate nor the political realities faced by a new administration. But in a strange election cycle where the rule of reason and the basic social courtesies no longer seem to apply, we might be wise to establish a few general parameters by which to read the tea leaves a little early.

First, the operating principle guiding political positioning on American higher education must be to do no harm.

It’s always presumed that national political candidates have benefited from a blizzard of white papers and informed conversations on various education issues. It is further assumed that a coherent governing philosophy emerges from these think tank moments upon which national political leaders can graft sound education program and practice.

There’s a lot to worry about here. The Democrats have a clearer program and their platform is likely to move the presumed nominee further to the left. The Republicans seem to have little definition to their higher education goals. It’s a “who’s on first” moment for both sides with some uncertainty about viewpoints and what will prevail.

Second, let’s understand what we propose.

This is where the philosophical meets the practical. It’s one thing to offer free ice cream for everyone, since almost everyone likes ice cream. But at some point – free public tuition is an outstanding example – both the cost and the impact must be thoroughly vetted.

Who will pay for this “free” tuition? With student/counselor ratios of 1000/1 at some community colleges already, how can a massive influx of new public college students receive the counseling necessary to match the financial resources to the needed graduation outcomes? Do we really want to choke the system further?

Who will build the facilities and hire the faculty and staff beyond what new tuition dollars can reasonably provide?

Do we really want to transfer students in big private college states to public higher education if it is cheaper for the government to educate students at private colleges, supported by grant and loan programs? What would be the impact on local and regional economies?

What’s best for public and private higher education in the long run, already underfunded and weighed down by a massive collection of contradictory and expensive state and federal rules and regulations?

It’s not enough to propose new government programs developed from polling and anecdote. If America wants to improve higher education access and outcomes, its leadership should understand the situation far better than the language used to argue for the programs proposed in the recent primary battles.

Third, rather than approach how to make improvements to American higher education through sweeping programs that a deficit-ridden government cannot afford, it might be better to think about what can be done.

This approach presumes three conditions.

  • The first is that national political candidates ask higher education’s leadership what it needs. One answer will likely be regulatory relief that costs far less than free ice cream.
  • The second is that the new political leadership must be willing to examine which programs work best when measured against their stated policy goals.
  • And the third will be to figure out how the government can offer new programs within available discretion that better serve current students seeking to gain access, debt relief, and employment.

Of course, if the current political dysfunction continues, much of the conversation will go nowhere. Americans must ultimately prevail over their elected officials to demand that things get done. If this requires incremental steps, it may be that less is more. But less is better than nothing.

The alternative is an inward-looking, deeply divided America going forward that is a mockery of the promise that made higher education possible for so many of its citizens.