The Crisis In Higher Education: How Civic Engagement Can Save Higher Education (Part I)

In the midst of the most significant global economic crisis in more than 80 years, higher education faces an acute crisis of resources, organization and legitimization. Colleges and universities find themselves in a double bind, one external and economic and the other internal and existential. Public tolerance is withering for increasing tuition as legislative appropriations shrink and student debt continues to grow.

We have entered an age of economic limits, fractured politics, stalemated government and personal fear. How we organize academic and campus life begs an alternative to the very foundation of the prevailing model of higher learning in the United States. The traditional higher education business model is essentially a deflating balloon if not a bursting bubble, as the global economic crisis has created a highly risk-averse climate for students, parents and donors.

The crisis facing American higher education is rooted in a series of challenges around access, cost, affordability, learning outcomes and institutional priorities. The core concepts of the prevailing model of higher learning face acute interrogation including what and how faculty teach, how students learn, how information technology shapes pedagogy and delivery cost, how education is delivered and priced, and how institutions assure successful student learning outcomes and career prospects.

Further, a skeptical public requires a greater understanding of the achievements, and ultimate social value, of colleges and universities.

Perhaps this is due to a widespread lack of understanding about what colleges and universities do beyond their educational function. Higher education needs to help the public to appreciate how it creates, refines and applies knowledge and how this leads to specific and pragmatic solutions to current social and economic problems. In the midst of these challenges, the traditional college is confronted with a variety of forces that seek to reduce higher learning to merely a simple instrumental equation of virtual time invested in exchange for a quickly earned diploma.

Amidst a weakening public commitment to learning about the breadth and depth of human experience and the natural world, universities and colleges are under growing pressure to reduce higher learning to merely a transaction as opposed to a transformation. From its inception American higher education held a commitment to educating for the development of critical abilities, disciplinary mastery and civic learning necessary to develop the independent minded citizens required for a dynamic republic and a vibrant economy. Now the current critique around affordability carries with it a devaluation of American higher education's historic mission. Proposals to reduce higher education to merely an online, non-residential experience will deny students the opportunity to learn how to successfully negotiate and collaborate within one of the few remaining, truly diverse communities left: the campus. Add to this the increased emphasis that colleges place on civic engagement and international education and we begin to see how the campus experience develops more fully rounded citizens, professionals and future leaders, and you understand the value of the campus experience.

Taken as a whole, the global economic crisis and the internal challenges to colleges and universities have given birth to the most fundamental crisis in a century. It is a crisis of legitimacy as well as one of the political economy of higher education. And while these dilemmas appear on campus, our local neighborhoods are severely challenged to maintain their potential as successful communities with opportunity, choice and mobility for its residents. In New York City alone 1.6 million people have fallen below the poverty line, roughly 20 percent of its population. The economy has seen neighborhoods spiraling downward from unemployment, income inequality, the shrinking of the social safety net and the despair over declining opportunities and the absence of hope for a better future. This is the new context facing civic engagement programs for our colleges and universities.

These are not statistics that will afford a vibrant economy or viable neighborhoods. They promise deteriorating conditions of health, education and commerce. Many lives are unnecessarily shattered and the capacities of too many children are stunted. Just as higher education faces dramatic challenges so do our local neighborhoods, particularly urban ones.

I believe that comprehensive and demanding civic engagement programs will help colleges and universities find new relevance, and communities regain economic footing and social rebirth in the midst of this crisis and a new kind of partnership is created between town and gown. I'll explore this new connection in my next post.