Shaping Our Future

How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?

Published: 2012

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The diverse system of US higher education—including public and private universities, smaller four-year independent colleges, two-year community colleges, for-profit schools, and others—already serves a number of important social purposes. But this guide focuses on the future. It takes up this fundamental question: How should higher education help us create the society we want? It offers three options to consider, each with benefits as well as drawbacks.

While it's certainly possible for higher education to pursue multiple goals, it's also true that colleges and universities can't do everything. To be effective, they need to focus their energies and set priorities. As we envision higher education in the future, there are options and trade-offs, and it's important to think and talk about them with our fellow citizens. By doing so, we can begin to make tough choices about what higher education can and should be expected to do.

This issue guide presents three options for deliberation.

Option One: Focus on Staying Competitive in the Global Economy
Higher education should help ensure that our economy remains competitive in a tough global marketplace--and that means recapturing our lead in science and technology. Countries like China are transforming their systems to educate more high-tech professionals, and we should too. It's our best chance to keep our economy growing.

Option Two: Work Together and Repair an Ailing Society
Many of the problems we face as a nation reflect an underlying crisis of division and mistrust. Higher education shapes students' views about the larger society, and it can do more to strengthen values like responsibility, integrity, and respect for others. Students also need real-life experience in collaboration and problem solving.

Option Three: Ensure that Everyone Gets a Fair Chance
We call this the land of opportunity, but it isn't that way for many Americans. Because graduating from college unlocks the door to advancement, higher education and government should do much more to ensure that all Americans have an equal shot at getting a degree--without accumulating huge debts.

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