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‘Higher Education and the Changing World of Work’ — designing a national conversation

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REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Both communities and higher education are in a time of dramatic change, when higher education faces new challenges and citizens often feel powerless.  

Matthew F. Filner
Matthew F. Filner

“If you look at the whole picture of everything that is wrong, it is so overwhelming,” one woman from Richmond, Va., told a researcher with the Kettering Foundation. “You just retreat back and take care of what you know you can take care of — and you make it smaller, make it even down to just you and your unit. You know you can take care of that.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, enrollment at degree-granting institutions rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2010 to a record 21 million students.  During the same period, the cost of higher education rose as well, and states have drastically reduced financial support for higher education. To meet costs, students are borrowing at unprecedented levels — last year, student load debt exceeded credit-card debt for the first time at over $1 trillion (yes, that's trillion) — setting themselves up for decades of loan repayments and economic hardships.

Meanwhile, communities face a host of problems, from growing poverty and chronic unemployment to troubled schools and partisan gridlock.

Efforts to lower costs

In response to the challenges in higher education and community problems, policymakers have offered solutions such as making higher education more affordable by dramatically lowering the costs. Part of the support for online education is its potential to reduce costs. Keeping costs low is also often the reason proposed for holding faculty salaries low and replacing permanent staff with temporary staff.

Many have also been calling for curricular changes to ensure that students take courses that will directly contribute to their ability to get jobs. These work-force development approaches ask higher-education institutions to focus instruction on courses that are directly useful in helping students find jobs as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Harry Boyte

Others ask, is this response too narrow? Can higher education help communities understand and address the rapidly changing nature of work and the workplace? What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century? How can diverse populations, including minorities and the poor, gain access? Does quality education suffer when cutting costs is the main focus? Where does education take place? What kind of education will help communities act to solve their collective problems?

We know from earlier research by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College (previously at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs), working with the National Conference on Citizenship and the CIRCLE research center at Tufts University, that higher education has an important role to play as communities wrestle with issues such as these. Education is correlated with high levels of civic participation. Both education and civic involvement are associated with health and economic resilience.

Design team from six local institutions

Work is currently under way on the design of a national public conversation called "Higher Education and the Changing World of Work," which will explore questions about the link between the fate of communities and the future of higher education. This work is undertaken by a design team with representatives of six area colleges and universities – Augsburg, Century, Hamline, Metropolitan State University, Minneapolis Community and Technical College and St. Paul College – in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation (a nonpartisan research organization) and the National Issues Forums (a network that promotes deliberation on public issues). The deliberations will bring the public’s voice into the discussion and decision-making about the future of higher education. 

"Higher Education and the Changing World of Work" builds on "Shaping Our Future – How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?," a public deliberation launched at the National Press Club on September 4, 2012, with Undersecretary Martha Kanter and higher education and civic leaders. "Shaping Our Future" organizers have held more than 140 public forums across the country. In Minnesota, Minnesota Campus Compact organized forums in more than a dozen communities, bringing together college students, parents, faculty, employers, retirees, policymakers and others.

The groups deliberated about the purposes of higher education, including what contributions colleges and universities make to the civic health and economic well-being of communities, in addition to their benefits to individuals. An analysis of the forums by Jean Johnson of the public opinion and public engagement group Public Agenda shows a gap between the ways in which citizens outside the policymaking arena talk about higher education and the debate going on among elected officials and other policymakers.

While policymakers focus on cost and preparation for today’s jobs, forum participants believe that the rapidly changing nature of work and the workplace means we cannot afford to lose the best features of higher education. According to Johnson's report, “Forum participants spoke repeatedly about the benefits of a rich, varied college education … where, in their view, students have time and space to explore new ideas and diverse fields.”

To develop the issue guide for "Higher Education and the Changing World of Work," we will gather diverse opinions from people in communities as well as on campus, exploring people's views about higher education and how colleges and universities might better collaborate with the communities of which they are a part to address the challenges of the changing nature of work and other pressing issues.

We believe that these questions will engage a diverse group of people in many communities. Indeed, the questions – and citizens’ roles in helping to resolve them — are at the center of our future, in Minnesota and across the nation.

Harry Boyte directs the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Matthew Filner chairs the Social Science Department and is a professor of political science at Metropolitan State University. They wrote this piece in conjunction with John Dedrick, vice president and director of programs at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation; Hunter Gordon, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Minnesota; Gregory Mellas, director of the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship at Metro State; Jim Scheibel, honorary professor of practice, Hamline University; and Elliot Wilcox, faculty, Department of Music, Century College.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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