Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system of higher education will work for these students, and it won’t serve us as a nation. Yet many of our policymakers hark back to a more narrowly framed higher education system that no longer exists. Using the “when I was in college” predicate to offer solutions about what ails higher education is like saying, “when I was watching ‘Dallas’ on television.” It’s irrelevant because it bears little resemblance to the current reality.
If our political leaders are going to make the kinds of important decisions required to redesign our higher education system for the 21st-century economy and democracy, they need to stop looking at their personal history and start looking to the future.
They must stop focusing on how things were when they attended college and start focusing on what needs to change. How can we increase postsecondary educational attainment to match or exceed the dramatic gains in virtually every other nation except the U.S.? What should community colleges do to drive our need for better-educated, middle-skill workers? What should students know and be able to do with an associate’s, or bachelor’s or master’s degree to be successful in our modern economy and democracy? How do we deliver more high-quality learning to a much larger group of Americans, without forcing ever-higher tuitions?
These are the kinds of questions that must be explored for the future of our nation. Looking ahead to the learner-centered, skills-driven world that will need to be delivered through higher education is much more important and urgent than looking back on a system that no longer exists.
Jamie P. Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education.