Higher Education in the Future Builds on Past Positive Trends

Each year as January rolls around it is natural to glance back at where we have been and gaze forward to where we are going. This year, as often happens, the past deserves more than a glance back. What has happened in higher education will continue to impact what is going to happen. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently asked education leaders to reflect on several questions. Their answers, in “The Past and Future of Higher Education,” are important to all students and business leaders and illustrate how closely business and education affect each other.

Change in the Past 50 Years
Both Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, talked about access to education when they were asked: “What has been the most significant change, positive or negative, in the past 50 Years?”

Earl Lewis: “The greatest change has been the democratization of access. The number of postsecondary institutions nearly doubled between 1950 and 2010, going from roughly 1,800 to 4,500. There was a concomitant growth in enrollment numbers, going from roughly 2.3 million to 21 million.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III: “The most positive change has been the inclusion of students from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Higher Education Act, in the mid-1960s, more families across the United States have been able to realize the value of higher education and its importance to their children’s future. Millions have been able to access higher education who might not have before.”

The benefits of this democratization of access and inclusion create a benefit for both adult students and their employers. The increase in the number of non-traditional students and availability of financial aid to help students with fewer resources are two concrete results of this change. As adults continue, or even begin, higher education they are part of a system that has become inclusive. Whatever the reasons for not pursuing or completing higher education at the “traditional” stage of life, nontraditional students now find themselves a large segment of the student population and will continue to be a big factor in higher education in the future.

Misconceptions about Education
Margaret Spellings, President of the University of North Carolina and former Secretary of Education, and Brian Rosenberg, President of Macalester College in Minnesota both looked to the future when they completed this statement: “The biggest misconception the public has about higher education is:”

Margaret Spellings: “That college is a four-year sabbatical from life that happens between the ages of 18 and 22. The fact is we are all lifelong learners, and helping people understand that landscape would go a long way in making our system function better.”

Brian Rosenberg: “That education is exclusively about providing a short-term economic benefit to the individual and the state. This is wrong on two levels: Economic benefits are not best measured in the short term, and the benefits of education far transcend any particular economic value.”

If businesses and their employees have had to face any truth about education related to their jobs, it’s that their education is a life-long process, as Spellings says. However, this life-long process yields long-term benefits. The Pew Research Center report Lifelong Learning and Technology shows that 73 percent of adults consider themselves lifelong learners.
• 63 percent of working adults pursued education in the past year to improve their job skills or knowledge related to career advancement.
• 74 percent of adults participated in some form of educational activity to learn about something that interests them personally.

Higher education broadly impacts individuals, businesses, and the US society as a whole. And it really is about more than the money, as Rosenberg stated. Higher education brings more stability with higher likelihood of having health insurance, a retirement plan, and greater job safety. Better health, the prospects of a stable marriage and higher rates of community engagement and volunteerism are all effects of higher education that benefit individuals and the broader society.

Optimism for the Future
In looking to the future Eduardo J. Padron, President of Miami Dade College, and Spellings see how business and education affect each other. This is how they answered: “What makes you optimistic about the next 50 years?”

Margaret Spellings: “In 1940, barely one out of 10 Americans had a high-school diploma and a whole lot of people thought there was no reason to get one. We raised our expectations, put our faith in the ambition and potential of our citizens, and built the best-educated and richest society the world has ever seen. There’s no reason in the world we can’t do that again.”

Eduardo J. Padron: “It is true that for far too long, corporate America has given a lot of lip service to education. More recently, however, because the tremendous shortfall of qualified employees has become so acute, employers now find it absolutely necessary to join forces with educational institutions.”

To compete in the global society in the future, it is important to increase the number of individuals with higher education credentials. America is falling behind other global competitors in education levels and American businesses are facing skills gaps and worker shortages in coming years. Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025 challenges America to, once again, lead the world in the percentage of population with higher education degrees and meaningful credentials. Achieving this goal and increasing the number of Americans with higher education will also mean that businesses have educated workers who can fill skills gaps and be productive with new technology. Increasing the numbers of educated workers will benefit individuals, businesses and society as a whole, and be a focus for higher education in the future.