Higher Education for a Civil Society

By Melody Rose, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: WittKieffer is pleased to welcome Dr. Melody Rose to our Education Practice. In the following article, she reflects upon the true value of higher learning and the role leaders play in upholding it.

What is the purpose of post-secondary education? As a political scientist and former higher education executive, I am asked this question frequently. These days, consumers, campuses, business leaders, pollsters and policy makers have been dedicating a great deal of thought (and ink) to consideration of this vital question. 

Given the nation’s aggregate student loan debt, which approximates $1.7 trillion dollars (notwithstanding President Biden’s effort at loan forgiveness, the fate of which hangs in the balance), increasingly urgent calls from industry for more job-related curricula untethered from the traditional degree, and a 30-year slide in public investment in our nation’s colleges, there are some clear and compelling answers to the question about the purpose of a collegiate education.

In the usual course of this debate, we frequently hear experts opine on the following imperatives of postsecondary learning:

  • First, the data are consistent that college attainment improves the likelihood of economic stability. College graduates are less likely to be unemployed during downturns and make more money over the course of their careers than those who stopped out after high school or who attended some college without crossing the dais with a diploma. Admittedly, there are nuances in this claim related to input variables: college selection, debt load, discipline and other variables affect the return on investment, but still, in the aggregate, it literally pays to get a college degree.
  • We also know that college attainment improves some critical social determinants of health and overall wellbeing: incarceration rates, general life satisfaction, community engagement, and overall wellness are all improved by higher education. College graduates report satisfaction and personal growth from their educations that benefits their families and communities.
  • We also prepare our workforce through higher education: instruction on core workplace skills germane to particular industries is coupled with universally essential skills such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

A Necessary Balm

While this list of public and private good afforded through degree attainment could be expanded, what is largely missing and deserving of further attention in the debate over the value of college is the one which is most urgent at the present moment: high-quality, enrichening higher education is essential for a civil society. Given this moment of intense civil unrest; multiple, seemingly intractable and divisive global crises; historically high distrust in our institutions of government; increasing community violence and economic instability; and a basic trend toward social incivility, higher education is both a necessary balm to what ails us, and a critical input toward solving for the above-mentioned afflictions.

Education prepares citizens, and in point of fact, the ancient Greeks saw education as the essential foundation of citizenship and good governance. The Greeks explicitly introduced education as a basis for democracy. Without deep introspection, exposure to competing frameworks of thought and life experiences honed through the famous Socratic method of instruction, the people could not be free to discern the public good, to test policies in the marketplace of ideas, or to influence the work of government. Concepts of virtue, disciplined frameworks of thought and habits of mind would also develop citizens capable of constructing and supporting a burgeoning notion of civil society. Concepts of the virtuous citizen were premised on the accumulation of knowledge and anticipation in communities of study. Respect for the rule of law would eventually make its way into the American Founding, and various American presidents, notably President Jefferson, would make deep and lasting investments into education as the basis for the American experiment in representative government. A civil society is one with common purpose and a sense of shared values.

At the mid-twentieth century, the Higher Education for American Democracy report (or Truman Report as it is more commonly known) reported to then President Truman on the condition of higher education, calling both for the development of a community college system as well as for more meaningful public investment in higher education of all sorts. Coming out of World War II, and heading into the Cold War, the report’s timing notes the vulnerability of American global preeminence, and explicitly linked the role of higher education in our ascension to the world stage. To ensure the continuance of a thoughtful participatory democracy, more education was needed.

From Understanding Comes Compassion

We find ourselves at another sticky moment in American history, where shared values and purpose are elusive, divisions abound and institutional cynicism is rampant – and no less so than within our colleges and universities. Contemporary polling reveals that citizen faith in our core institutions of government, the media, and our voting systems are at a nadir. It is gravely concerning that American colleges and universities themselves have lost a great deal of credibility of late. And still, I remain optimistic that this is the very moment for American institutions of higher learning to be the salve that the nation and the world require. It is for moments like this one that our colleges and universities exist: for in sharing perspectives, engaging and debating alternative solutions to our most vexing issues, humans develop analytical reasoning and discernment, as well as understanding for different experiences. Where there is understanding there can be compassion, the true seat of all sound public policy.

Citizen development is the preeminent calling of higher education. Other critical social and personal improvements are made as well, but the creation of a committed citizenry with discernment and empathy is among the most noble. To lead our institutions of higher learning at this moment – when so much hangs in the balance – is a great privilege and responsibility. The potential to impact the future of our democracy and the world we live in is profound. 

Leadership Requires “Convening Power”

Higher education leaders can start by recommitting to the convening power that they uniquely possess within the walls of the academy, but more importantly, within their communities. Only through intentional convening across our differences in environments where respect, intellectual curiosity and a shared commitment to the values of our republic can we bolster the institutions and rule of law required to solve the massive challenges to our shared future.

The mission of WittKieffer is to make the world a better place through exceptional leadership. We have the pleasure of working with sitting and emerging executives who are committed to this work of citizen development. We are fortunate to see these activities in motion every day. Using the unique power of convening for common understanding, shared beliefs and common purpose will we fully leverage/realize the highest calling of postsecondary education: the essential development of good citizens, the bedrock of a well-functioning democracy.

As our industry looks to the leaders of our collective future, having the skill of rigorous convening and the intention to provide students and the broader community with a breadth of knowledge and spirit of common purpose will be necessary in fulfilling higher education’s purpose and solving our world’s most vexing problems. I am grateful to join my colleagues at WittKieffer in pursuing this vital mission.