Thus far in my series on higher education policy, I have elaborated on the following propositions:
- Education for the common good should be a societal priority but not a government bureaucracy.
- Individual and societal flourishing encompasses far more than economic prosperity.
- Private (independent) higher education serves the public good.
Now for Proposition #4:
Public policy and governmental funding should foster student higher education access and choice.
Why end what the world envies?
One of the most globally admired attributes of American higher education is its diversity. In most of the world, higher education is an integral part of the national governmental apparatus. Ministries of education strictly oversee postsecondary institutions, standardize curricula and degree offerings, suppress competition, regulate credentials, and function as de facto accreditors. Not so in the United States—at least up until recently.
For most of our history, private colleges comprised the overwhelming majority of postsecondary institutions. The post-WWII explosion of public universities in the 1950s and the rise of community colleges since the 1960s has altered that landscape. Even though private colleges maintain the institutional majority, public colleges and universities—many with student populations numbering in the tens of thousands—now enroll the overwhelming majority of US students.
Choice is better than control
I do not consider the recent US shift toward education bureaucratization particularly good news. Of course, a higher education marketplace that is not centrally regulated has its hazards. Degree and diploma mills may proliferate. Students and parents will be required to maintain a caveat emptor posture. Up to now, however, the door has been open to every conceivable pathway toward innovation and customization. Students have been in the driver’s seat. They access precisely the kind of education that corresponds to their circumstances, capacities, values, and aspirations.
The possibilities are endless
Ours is the climate in which a Stanford University professor can give birth to Udacity; or MIT can incubate edX; or ABHE’s BH Carroll Institute for Biblical Studies can deliver high quality, multinational, multi-modal, church-partnering, cohort-based graduate education; or ABHE applicant institution Veritas College International can design competency-based degrees through church partners in several global regions by means of extension and distance learning; or a unique graduate institution for educating Christian worship leaders such as the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies can flourish. These and many more providers of distinctive yet demonstrable excellence have a chance to serve students whose needs and aspirations fall outside a homogenous higher education mainstream.
Doors, not walls
I believe the US government took the right approach when it created student aid programs to reward military service and facilitate civilian re-entry (GI Bill, 1950s) and when it created need-based grants to students who could, in turn, choose to apply them to any certifiably [i.e., by means of independent accreditation] reliable institution (Pell Grants, 1960s). Evidence abounds that unequal access to higher education in terms of economic and racial/ethnic factors has been dramatically reduced.
I strongly believe that good higher education policy—including government financial aid—should serve to level the playing field, allowing as many as possible to pursue higher education to the full extent of their capacity and inclination. Aid should be available not only for full-time resident study but also for year-round and multi-modal delivery to students of every station, age range, family, and employment circumstance.
More choices = more winners
The more choices available to the more students, the more our country wins. The more power and purview the government asserts with respect to educational programs and delivery modalities, the more our innovative and diverse higher education landscape—the envy of the world—becomes bland and barren. That would be a crying shame.
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
I expect you will be moved to tears of joy and admiration by this sermon from Coptic Father Boules George following the two bombings on Palm Sunday at Saint George Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta and Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt.