The final polishes have likely been put on President Obama’s State of the Union address for tonight, but if his speechwriters still have time might I suggest an addition: we need a national conversation again about the purpose of our higher-education system.
The president has used the national stage before to focus on higher education, including last year’s State of the Union when he put colleges on warning about their rising prices. But except for a speech to a joint session of Congress early in his first term when he called for the United States to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, Obama has not used the bully pulpit to focus the mission of our colleges and universities.
Some might say that the 2020 goal is exactly that, but it focuses institutions on throughput — how to get more students out of college with a credential or degree. It’s not a bad goal in a world where the knowledge economy rules. But we highly value our colleges and universities in the United States. We put their names on our car windows, wear their logos on our sweatshirts. We grant them tax-exempt status, but for the most part we have come to see them as just another engine of economic growth in recent years.
What we need is more of a broad national purpose for higher education that we had in the 1940s (educating returning GIs), 1950s (race to space), 1960s, (educating the Baby Boom generation and building research capacity), and the 1970s and 1980s (using that research capacity to win the Cold War). Indeed, it seems that since the end of the Cold War, we have moved away from these broad narratives about higher education and focused more on tactics: increasing access and attainment rates. Again, not bad goals, but by themselves they are unlikely to propel the country forward for the second decade of the new millennium.
There are several options for the president to choose from. He could say that we’re going to double down on research and call for a doubling of federal research dollars, like President Clinton did in the late 1990s. Given the budget deficits in Washington that’s unlikely to pass Congress. But taking a page from previous generations, we should focus our effort around the research powerhouses that we have on campuses around the country. Perhaps we can harness that scientific know-how to help solve one of the greatest threats to our future: global warming. With news coming out nearly every week about new dangers facing the planet, that would be my first choice. What would your choice be for a national purpose for higher education if you had a chance to write something into tonight’s State of the Union?
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