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Creating a New Social Compact Among Higher Education, Government, Business, and Society
In a Time of Significant Economic, Social, and Cultural Challenges


A Discussion Document

As the nation stands poised for a period of great transition, the members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce (BHEW) are considering how best to contribute to the national policy dialogue on education, research, and workforce development over the next 3-5 years. We recognize that the economic and social challenges we face today require more creative, adaptable, and team-oriented workers and citizens than ever before—and that our nation’s college and universities must ensure that preparing students to thrive after graduation remains the primary focus of higher education. As such, we have prepared this discussion document as a way to help us consider our overall agenda in the years ahead, and as a way to share preliminary ideas and invite feedback on potential topics. Our hope is that BHEW can assume a visible leadership role in measuring and understanding the value of public and private investments in higher education—for the benefit of all.

Higher Education’s Historical Roles in Economic and Social Development

The power and influence of colleges and universities is sometimes unquestioned and sometimes disputed, but most would agree that the role of higher education in the nation’s economic and social development has a long history that has been both purposeful and strategic. For example, when the Morrill Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862—a little less than a year before the National Academy of Sciences was founded—it transformed higher education from an enterprise that was accessible to relatively few people and focused almost solely on classical studies to one that could prepare many more of our nation’s citizens for participation in a changing economy and society. The Morrill Act enabled each state to establish public higher education institutions that could support practical education in agriculture, home economics, the mechanical arts, and the military arts and thereby contribute to the growth and security of the nation. By ensuring federal support for the creation of 69 public universities across the country, the Act moved public colleges and universities into the center of gravity of a state’s—and the nation’s—economic, social and cultural development, and gave the federal government and the states a substantial role in supporting higher education.

This government-university alliance spurred U.S. economic development and growth for decades. The partnership further expanded after World War II with passage of the GI bill and increased support for basic and applied research and graduate education. As proposed by Vannevar Bush in Science—The Endless Frontier in 1945, competitive grants to research universities became key sources of new ideas and new technologies—creating a more vital role for the federal government in supporting basic scientific research (including research on university campuses) than ever before.

The resulting postsecondary education system is broad and varied, and includes thousands of institutions spanning major public and private research universities, four-year comprehensive and liberal arts institutions, community colleges, and for-profit colleges and universities. Nearly all of these institutions are beneficiaries of federal and state support—and they contribute immensely to both regional and national economic development, to the development of our nation’s skilled workforce, and to an informed populace that can participate in our system of democracy.

New Challenges for a New Era

Again today, the postsecondary education landscape is evolving rapidly as the nation finds itself at a crossroads—facing new economic, social, cultural, and even global challenges to our nation’s strength and security. Our nation’s workers at all levels require more sophisticated education and training to meet the complex demands of their workplaces; the average postsecondary student is less “traditional” than ever; new research and technologies create new jobs but also threaten many existing ones; globalization brings both new trials and opportunities; and some argue that the compact between government, education, research, and industry established over the past 150 years is being eroded. We believe there is a need to once again re-examine and re-evaluate our historical compacts, assess the need for revitalization, and understand how our nation’s community colleges, 4-year colleges, and research universities can effectively sustain and expand their vital and valued role in this nation’s prosperity.

As BHEW looks ahead to the future of postsecondary education, many questions come to the fore that will require evidence-based, independent study and analysis, such as the following:

• What are the policy and programmatic levers at the national, state, and institutional levels that can create many more high-quality, high-impact learning experiences for students in the nation’s postsecondary institutions of higher education? What are more effective methods of designing and delivering relevant, customized learning activities through creative classroom, laboratory and work-based offerings for all students? Are students getting the right skills for the right jobs, both short-term and long-term? How do we know? To what extent should there be a greater focus on competency-based education as one element of the postsecondary experience for some or most students?

• How can new technologies, online-learning, personalized learning, and other innovative instructional approaches enhance the overall postsecondary experience for every student? ? What are the intended outcomes of integrating technology in postsecondary education? How do we capitalize on these technologies to make postsecondary education more accessible to students of all ages while ensuring that the experiences provide adequate opportunities for the development of critical thinking skills, problem-solving experiences, and interpersonal skills?

• How do courses/programs in the humanities, arts, and business impact learning and career readiness —either for the increasing number of students pursuing “STEM” degrees and certificates or for “non-traditional students” who are often seeking a fast-track education or training experience to prepare for a job? What lessons can be learned and applied in the classroom and laboratory from effective integration of courses and programs in STEM, humanities, arts, policy, and business?

• In an environment that seems to demand more immediate responsiveness to economic and social challenges and needs, are there some “traditions” or “customs” of higher education—particularly at 4-year universities—that have become obsolete or do not respond adequately to student needs and the needs of our economy and society? Do systems such as tenure, an emphasis on research publications, and even the traditional departmental structures on our campuses serve institutions, faculty, students, and society most effectively? What problems or needs did these traditions seek to address—and are those the right problems or needs for today?

• How can college be made more affordable and accessible to students of all ages and from all demographic groups--particularly low-income students and students of color? Can we develop better models to more effectively understand the costs and returns—the ROI—in postsecondary education for individuals, governments, and society? Do we need to take a zero-based approach and explore entirely new models for the overall financing of higher education?

• What are the implications for postsecondary education of the possible job displacements arising from automation and artificial intelligence? As in previous social transformations in the U.S. (e.g. during and after the Civil War, and immediately after World War II), broadening access to relevant, high quality education may be one key to limiting the negative effects of disruptive technologies on the workforce—and, potentially, to broadening the overall social benefits of these technological advances. But can we count on postsecondary education to help close the talent gap and any inequality gap that may arise as a result of increased automation and AI?

• In addition to educating undergraduate students for success in work and life, how can higher education efficiently support an even more expansive role as the nation’s leading resource for basic research? Can we calculate the ROI for society of public and private investments in basic and applied research at our institutions of higher education? Can we incentivize stronger partnerships between our research universities and private industry that yield both new knowledge and new products and services?

BHEW’s Future Agenda

These questions are not easy to answer—nor are they intended to be. Nevertheless, we believe these are some of the core questions that may merit evidence-based research and analysis in the higher education arena over the next decade. In raising them, we are motivated by our aspirations to revitalize the nation’s commitment to higher education and leverage greater innovation, improved instruction, and enhanced academic and social support on our campuses—for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole. We are inspired by the initial compact between government, education, and industry that was launched more than 150 years ago through the Morrill Act and that helped contribute to the prosperity and security of this nation for many generations. Today, at a time when many of us believe this compact is in jeopardy, we hope that the nation can once again become united behind a commitment to place colleges and universities at the center of economic, social, and cultural development. Our intent as members of BHEW is to gather input and ideas, and compile and analyze evidence, that would position the National Academies to create specific recommendations for policy and programmatic actions that support significant change and reform.

Members of the Board on Higher Education and the Workforce:

Richard K. Miller, Chair [NAE], President, Olin College of Engineering

Lawrence D. Bobo [NAS], W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of Sociology, Harvard University

Angela Byars-Winston, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Wisconsin--Madison

Jaime Curtis-Fisk, Scientist and STEM Education Program Leader, The Dow Chemical Company

Aprille Ericsson, Capture –Mission Manager, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Richard Freeman, Herbert Ascherman Professor of Economics, Harvard University

Paul J. LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University

Sally F. Mason, President Emerita, University of Iowa

Francisco Rodriguez, Chancellor, Los Angeles Community College District

Subhash Singhal [NAE] , Battelle Fellow Emeritus, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Kumble R. Subbaswamy, Chancellor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Shelley Westman, Senior Vice President, Alliances & Field Operations, Protegrity

Mary Woolley [NAM], President and CEO, Research! America