Conference: Higher Education Urged to Maintain Role in Molding Good Citizens

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a time when college is increasingly being cast as the means to a good-paying job or career, leaders of colleges and universities must reclaim their civic mission to make sure their institutions are places where students are prepared for engaged citizenship.

That was the heart of the message delivered to 2,000 higher education leaders who gathered in Washington, D.C., Thursday for the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Echoing a report her organization released earlier this year, AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider said educators at all levels need to “vigorously, actively and noisily reclaim our civic mission.”

That mission, she said, is to promote higher education not just as a public good, but as a “distinct and needed resource for democracy.”

“We need to face the unhappy reality that higher education’s democracy mission and the democracy mission of schools that laid the foundation for higher learning has entirely been pushed to the sidelines,” Schneider said, lamenting that for the past generation or so, higher education has been primarily spoken of from the standpoint of its role in the economy.

College can’t be seen only for its connection to careers or through the lens of completion but also must be viewed in light of its connection to a “third C” that Schneider said is often overlooked.

“It’s college, it’s careers, and it is citizenship,” Schneider said.

Schneider made her remarks at the opening plenary session titled “Opening a Democratic Front: Confronting Disparate Conceptions of What Matters in College.”

The session was one of several that reflected the theme of the meeting itself: “Shared Futures, Difficult Choices: Reclaiming a Democratic Vision for College Learning, Global Engagement and Success.”

In many ways, the AAC&U conference themes and discussions demonstrated the organization’s ongoing battle to keep liberal arts education vibrant and relevant at a time when policymakers are increasingly emphasizing post-secondary education as a tool for workforce development.

Back in 2010, for instance, AAC&U released a paper that touted the need for higher education to provide a broad education and not just narrow, technical training for specific careers.

This year, the organization kept up such calls but stressed the need for higher education to get students more heavily involved in civic engagement, an issue raised in a new paper titled “A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future.”

For her plenary talk, Schneider was joined by two fellow members of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement: David Scobey, Executive Dean at The New School for Public Engagement; and Eboo Patel, Founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Scobey said while technology has led to a growing number of hybrid courses, and while students are no longer mostly fresh out of high school and student debt continues to rise, higher education must adapt to change but still emphasize its vital role in fostering civic learning.

“The same learning outcomes that prepare students for democratic public life will prepare them for work life in a dynamic economy,” Scobey said.

Patel said that as religion-inspired violence continues to play out in the public sphere, higher education must play increased attention to the role that religion plays in shaping people’s views and do more to foster interfaith dialogue and cooperation on campus.

“If we’re going to have a civic renewal moment in America, it’s going to involve religion,” Patel said.

Patel warned that if higher education leaders don’t address religious strife, the public conversation on various conflicts between members of different faiths will be controlled by noisy groups at the fringes.

The conference featured a variety of panel discussions that sought to push the envelope on how education is delivered and received, presented and perceived.

One such panel was titled “What Would Make This a Successful Year for You? How Students Define Success in College.”

The panel dealt with the findings of “The New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning” (NECASL), a study of selective liberal arts colleges in New England, and how students in the Class of 2010 defined success over the course of their college careers.

The study found that students initially viewed their success largely in terms of grades at the onset of their college experience, but that the emphasis on grades waned over time and eventually begins to yield to an emphasis on academic engagement, although academic engagement never overtakes the emphasis that students place on grades. Sometimes, the panelists said, the emphasis on grades is practical and can range from the need to meet requirements for financial assistance to staying eligible for athletics. 

Lee Cuba, Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, one of the colleges participating in the study, said the findings must be viewed with caution.

Just because students don’t express an interest in certain things, such as exploring the curriculum, it doesn’t mean students won’t do those things during their time in college.

Another caveat is that since many of the students in the study hailed from good schools, Cuba said, “engagement is assumed or taken for granted.”

The study raises important questions for higher education, Cuba said.

“We don’t believe (students) are going to give up on the grade thing,” Cuba said. At the same time, he said, higher education leaders should think about how to make engagement more prominent in the minds of students and how it might influence the ways students set their aspirations for a given year.