Postsecondary Trending Now: What is Higher Education’s Role in Citizenship?

This past week has been one of the most important in American civic life, at least in my lifetime. SCOTUS and POTUS have both been busy imprinting the pages with historic rulings and commentary that will shape our democracy in permanent ways, from healthcare to painful introspection on the persistence of racism to marriage equality, this week has been huge for every citizen, no matter what your views of the issues.

I spend a lot of time talking about, writing about, and working with colleges and universities focusing on making college more relevant, more affordable, more accessible and the absolute best quality we can provide to advanced learners. And the foregoing is probably the strongest reason why we have to commit ourselves to those tasks with unrelenting urgency.

Our collective civic life depends on every person being a capable citizen – of being able to read, write and express oneself, being able to think critically and deeply about difficult topics. Our individual success depends on these things as well, and this is where liberal arts colleges can find solid ground to counter the notion that college is simply the beginning of workforce training and that the whole goal of participating in a postsecondary educational experience is to get a job.

“The liberal arts can justify themselves as providing an education in how to choose among these ways of life, by exposing students to the answers that have been proposed by the greatest philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, and novelists in human history. That's a vision of usefulness that transcends income and career to encompass the whole of life.” 

- Damon Linker, The Week

As we feel our way toward understanding the role of college in a rapidly changing economy and social structure, it would be short-sighted to think that this is only about jobs and money. (Though there is a very strong drumbeat for this underlying so much of what higher ed leaders focus on, and I myself have hit that drum more than once.)

Relevance and alignment with workforce demands are critical to demonstrating ROI, but that investment goes deeper, as Linker suggests. It is also about learning how to make a life and be a citizen. Students confirmed this for many Breakthrough Models Incubator teams engaged in student-centered design. As we prepare to welcome new teams to both the Breakthrough Models Academy and the Breakthrough Models Incubator next month, I hope they will consider this week and the important role their programs play not only in the individual lives of students, but our collective civic life as Americans.  


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