Are College Graduates Prepared to Support their Alma Maters?

March 18, 2015

In recent weeks, public universities across the country have found themselves buffeted by political forces. In Wisconsin, Louisiana, Illinois, and North Carolina, budgets have been cut, longstanding missions questioned, and centers closed. In states that have attracted less attention, the story is not all that different. In May of 2014, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that 48 states had not brought per student higher education spending back up to pre-recession levels, and the average state was spending 23% less per student than before the recession. Earlier this year, Young Invincibles released a report card grading states on their support for public higher education. Thirty states received Fs, and just four received As. 

As long as we have public universities, of course, elected officials will have some influence over them. In a democratic republic, the people’s representatives make decisions about what is worth public investment and what isn’t. When the system is working well, those decisions are based in part on what elected officials hear from their constituents. And when the actions of elected officials become too disconnected from the values and priorities of their constituents, the corrective built into the system is that those officials will lose the next election.

We all know these battles are not fought on a level playing field. Through campaign contributions, ads, and astro-turf organizing campaigns, those with money can have a disproportionate influence on the policy-making process. Right now, those who seek lower taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations are succeeding at the expense of higher education (among other things). 

The best counter to organized money is organized people. And the most obvious sources of support for public higher education are the millions of alumni of public universities.

So I pose these questions to leaders of universities: Do all of the graduates of your institution have the necessary knowledge and skills to engage effectively in public policy debates over the funding and role of higher education? Do they know how to analyze the relevant data? Are they effective in framing written and spoken arguments in favor of their views? Do they know how to listen to competing views and come to new conclusions? Do they understand the formal and informal processes through which crucial decisions are made at the state and national level? In sum, do they know how to act effectively as citizens?

And what in your curriculum ensures that they do?

The answers to these questions, of course, are relevant to debates over every area of public policy—not just higher education. All of our graduates should be able to act on policy questions, but very few higher education institutions—public or private—have policies or programs to reach that goal. The public universities in Massachusetts are an exception, as the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education last year adopted a set of expected civic learning outcomes for graduates of all public higher education institutions. 

Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not arguing that universities should be organizing their alumni for these battles. Nor am I arguing that universities should be training their students for one side of the debate. I am merely pointing out that when public universities are themselves on the business end of public policy-making, it becomes glaringly evident that more of their graduates need to be more prepared to participate effectively.

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