5 questions for the cross-examination of higher ed

To measure the quality of an institution by the incomes earned by graduates within a defined period following graduation, as the current government proposals suggest, is to fail miserably to understand the range of motivations that drives our most intelligent and best educated young people. Not everyone takes the highest paying job her or she can get.

Further, there is no correlation at all between the jobs that are most essential to the public good and the salaries of those positions. For starters, compare the salary of a public school teacher with the salary of a professional football player.

5.  What is the public purpose of higher education? To listen to the current administration, it is all about fueling the economy through job training. Certainly that is important, but it is far too small a vision of the public role of higher education. For many individuals and communities, colleges and universities provide their only affordable access to the arts.

Colleges and universities nourish democracy through preparing broadly educated citizens with a sense of public duty and community responsibility. Colleges and universities provide students with practice in civil discourse; practice in forming communities where diversity is a strength rather than a source of conflict. Colleges and universities are repositories of memory and hotbeds of research and innovation.

They are primarily responsible for developing the intellectual capital of the next generation. When they are doing their job, they typically fuel the critical thinking that helps keep all of our public institutions at their best.

Higher Education in 2014 may be getting what it deserves. It is paying the price of having been a law unto itself for too long. We can only hope that this moment will be a wake-up call, motivating higher education beyond defense of its privileges and self-interest to constructive engagement with the public’s questions before it loses the opportunity. For everyone’s sake, we hope it is not already too late.

Shirley A. Mullen has been the president of Houghton College from 2006 to present. She has held position in both teaching and administration in higher education for over 35 years. She holds Ph.D.’s in both philosophy and history and was recently named one of Christianity Today’s “50 Women You Should Know”.

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