A pillar of the American Dream: Higher education as a public good

By: | Issue: September, 2016
August 22, 2016

Amid the stress and scandal besetting many universities, regional campuses and two-year colleges have quietly and steadfastly gone about the business of promulgating education as a public good and in so doing supporting the American Dream.

The stressors of the university community are by now well known. Declining enrollments, a loss of faith that education is linked to prosperity and, a perception of fiscal unsustainability have all been the subject of much discussion in recent years. Perhaps the most important societal trend is the increasing propensity to see higher education as a “private good,” whereas it has historically been counted as a “public good.” Evidence of this perception of education as a public good is seen throughout our culture: three specifics may suffice. The New England settlers, immediately after they had built houses and churches, turned to the creation of a university, now Harvard. The Morrill Act of 1862, introduced to the U.S. Congress by Justin Smith Morrill at a time when the attention of the country might have been occupied by the Civil War stands as a great testimony to the American belief in education. Finally, the Veterans Readjustment Act, which followed upon World War II, was once again a great statement of faith in higher education.

Higher education became an important, perhaps the most important, pillar of support for the American Dream. Currently there is waning faith in that dream; the Millennial Generation is thought to have almost no faith at all in higher education.

Regional campuses and two-year colleges have experienced stressors similar to those described above. Enrollment is declining. Fiscal sustainability is tenuous for many institutions. Still, by placing emphasis on community needs and on the requests of needed job categories, they have continued to support the social mobility which constitutes the American Dream.

Many regional universities and two-year colleges have continued to be and have grown in being responsive to local, regional, and state needs through providing educational and training programs for industry sector demand. One example involves specific training programs for the oil and gas technologies, especially petroleum and shale technologies, developed and offered by Stark State College, Canton, OH. These in-demand oil and gas training programs, provides graduates for a ready workforce to the oil and gas companies, their suppliers, and support systems in response to the industry needs for Ohio’s booming Utica shale bed. One example of a regional campus that was developed and continues to grow in response to local, regional, and state needs is The Science and Technology Campus (formerly known as the Prince William Campus) of George Mason University, established in Prince William County, VA in 1997. The campus has numerous mutually beneficial partnerships with government and area businesses, namely bioscience, biotechnology, and bioinformatics including the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases and the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine are housed at the Science and Technology Campus. Another example of a regional campus was developed and continues to grow in response to the local, state, and regional needs is the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Founded in 1959, with a gift of just over 200 acres of land and $6.5 million from the Ford Motor Company, the initial focus was to educate and train a workforce in industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, and business administration. Key needs for Ford Motor Company. The university has continued to grow, in response to latter and present needs including teacher preparation and health.

The development of regional academic programs, through institutions of higher education, has a long tradition in these United States. An early example is the development of normal schools or teacher training schools as a response to a community’s need to educate, train, and prepare local teachers. The first public normal school in the United States was founded in Concord, VT in 1823. Many regional universities received their initial start as a normal school, like Framingham State University, within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, beginning in 1839. Thus beginning this long tradition of responding to local, regional, and state needs for an educated, prepared workforce in service to the public good.

Increasingly the American ethos is to see Higher Education as an enterprise whose benefits accrue to individuals or institutions instead of to the society at large. Benefits originally thought to accrue to society at large include good health, prosperity, and full societal participation. Major changes in the source of funding have followed this changed perception: a far greater dependence on tuition is now characteristic of almost every institution of higher education.

Regional campuses and two-year institutions have kept the “public good” most clearly in their mission commitment. This commitment must be recognized if these institutions are to continue to fulfill this mission.

Lloyd A. Jacobs is president emeritus and professor at The University of Toledo; Janine E. Janosky is dean and professor, College of Education, Health, and Human Services, University of Michigan-Dearborn; Thomas Stuckey is president, Northwest State Community College.