Publications & Products

Our most powerful tool for social progress and economic recovery

By John Pulley

Shorts       Sidebar      

Like many post-industrial cities in the United States, Philadelphia has seen better days. Its once-thriving manufacturing sector, which had sustained the country's sixth-largest city for generations, has lost steam in recent decades. Manufacturing accounts for no more than one of every 20 jobs today. Retooling Philadelphia's economy hasn't been easy. An initiative to blanket the city with wireless Internet coverage fizzled, and continuing efforts aimed at replacing shuttered factories with technology-intensive businesses have encountered an inconvenient truth:

"We don't have the work force," says Valerie Gay, director of development and alumni affairs at Temple University's College of Education. "A staggering number of people in Philadelphia don't have college degrees. We are now starting to feel the effects of communities that do not have large numbers of postsecondary graduates."

Indeed, the city has more colleges and universities than Boston, yet only about 18 percent of Philadelphia's residents older than 25 have earned four-year degrees--half of Boston's 36 percent graduation rate.

Speaking at his inauguration last year, Philadelphia's mayor, Michael Nutter, vowed to double the percentage of college graduates in the city within five to seven years. He supports a coalition of nonprofit organizations and 15 colleges that seeks to bolster the number of degree holders who live and work there. The program, Graduate! Philadelphia, is particularly interested in the region's 300,000 residents who have already earned some college credits.

In addition to anticipating the hoped-for economic stimulus, proponents of the plan foresee other societal benefits, such as a reduction in crime. According to rankings derived from the 2008 FBI uniform crime report and published by Forbes magazine in April, Philadelphia is the country's 15th most dangerous city. Detroit is No. 1.

"The assumption is that if you increase the number of individuals with college degrees, you increase the economic and social benefits to a region," Gay says.

David Fair, senior vice president for community impact at United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, says the emphasis on college graduation goes to the heart of "the major, major problem that feeds all of our social crises, all the challenges we have to having a healthy economy and a safer community."

It would appear that the city known for Rocky, cheese steaks, and the Liberty Bell may be on to something--a tipping point, perhaps. For some time now, the trend has been to discount the broad societal impact of higher education, to view postsecondary education as primarily an individual good. Now, amid economic uncertainty and rapid global change, there are signs of a shift in thinking, of re-embracing higher education as a driver of social and economic progress.

Philly isn't alone.

The Social Compact

The betterment of society is a theme that runs through the history of American higher education.

Massachusetts' Harvard University was established in 1636, less than two decades after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World, for the purpose of training Puritan ministers, the community leaders of the day. The church's emphasis on economic success and mass education as a means of reform has strongly influenced the American character.

During the past 150 years, higher education has frequently surged during or in the aftermath of war, periods often marked by social progress. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 established the country's land-grant colleges, including historically black colleges and universities, and the G.I. Bill of 1944, which provided educational benefits to veterans of World War II, fueled the country's postwar economic boom.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 sharply increased education spending as a means of winning the Space Race, which the Soviets led after launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. Expansion of the country's system of community colleges in the 1960s and early 1970s coincided with the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

Value to the Individual

"Colleges are not in business for themselves, or even solely for their students, but rather for the public good," said Thomas R. Rochon, the president of Ithaca College in New York, on the occasion of his inaugural address this spring. "That social compact is today significantly frayed.

"We have tended in recent years to downplay the value of higher education to society at large and instead to emphasize the private benefit to one's career and income," Rochon warned. "We've gotten used to thinking about education as an investment in an individual's own future."

The trend of recent decades corresponds with steep increases in the cost of higher education, which has forced colleges and universities to justify their value. To that end, educators have seized on the correlation between educational attainment and earnings power as prima-facie evidence of higher education's worth. In 2008, for example, a worker in the United States with a four-year degree earned an average of $57,181 annually, compared to $31,286 for a worker with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A New Song

Carol Ann Mooney, president of Saint Mary's College in Indiana, says higher education made "a tactical error" in emphasizing earning power as a major selling point. As a result, personal advancement "has come to be the raison d'être of higher education," Mooney says. "We probably did that to ourselves. We have to change our song."

In terms of social benefits, there is plenty to sing about. According to the College Board, higher levels of education correlate with lower unemployment and poverty rates and less demand for social safety-net programs. College graduates smoke less and have healthier lifestyles. They are more civically engaged, do more volunteer work, vote more, and donate more blood.

"The broader societal benefits of investment in higher education are fundamental to the well-being of our nation," the College Board concluded in a 2007 report.

Not least of all, surveys show that more educated people tend to be more open to the opinions of others. In the era of lethal ideologies epitomized by suicide bombers, the benefit of open-minded tolerance cannot be overstated.

"For too long we have talked about education as a private good," says Sharon Herzberger, president of Whittier College in California. "It is time to shift our rhetoric and reemphasize the role of education as a public good, recognizing a well-educated citizenry and wide access to education benefits us all."

Broadcasting the Benefits

The ways in which education drives social progress aren't always apparent to the unschooled. The communications challenge for colleges and universities is to draw a direct line between what happens on campuses and concomitant benefits to the public good. Making those connections isn't always easy, says Don Hale, vice president for public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. "The problem, of course, is that people like higher education, but they don't know what the hell we do," Hale says. "It's sometimes difficult to connect what goes on in the bizarre and arcane world of academia with what's going on in the world."

Several years ago, the university adopted a rallying cry that emphasizes those connections: "What starts here changes the world."

The declaration ("It isn't just a slogan," Hale says) acknowledges the vast societal benefits that spring from a world-class research institution. It also serves to keep the university on message, which can be a stiff challenge for a sprawling, decentralized institution.

"People have really adopted this idea, everyone from the president of the university to the president of the student government," Hale says. "There is a pride that comes with the idea that we do stuff that's relevant. People believe it.

"Institutions have to be perceived as relevant to the world and connected to communities in deeper ways than in the past," he says. "The day of ivory towers is done."

Policy and Purse-strings

Convincing state lawmakers of higher education's worth is particularly daunting at a time of reduced revenues and fiscal restraint. Relying on double-digit percentage reductions in financial support for education to close budget gaps is akin to a farmer eating his seed corn during a famine, educators say.

"Public institutions are having higher education budgets cut in ways that suggest that state lawmakers really don't understand how important universities are to the economic development," says Shirley Strum Kenny, who is retiring this month after 15 years as president of Stony Brook University in New York.

Kenny is trying to make the case to her own state legislature: "It is imperative to invest in public higher education. If you're not training and educating people, you are really missing the point and failing to deal with the economic stress."

But inadequate access, due to financial constraints and lack of preparation, is hampering the efficacy of the postsecondary sector to advance economic and social progress.

Vision and Values

There are, however, signs of change. Ramping up investment in education is a pillar of U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to shore up the country's infrastructure. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the economic stimulus law, allocates $98 billion in new educational spending, including investments in basic research that will be made through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, among others.

In his first address to the U.S. Congress, Obama challenged "every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. ... Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country."

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Gordon Brown reiterated his country's commitment to science in spite of the recession. "The bottom line is that the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science," Brown said at a recent lecture at Oxford University in London. "We will not allow science to become a victim of the recession, but rather focus on developing it as a key element of our path to recovery."

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also looks to use an educational investment as a lever to boost the economy. He is pouring AU$1.6 billion into construction projects on college and university campuses and has allocated additional funds to primary school construction.

Global Competition

At the same time that there is growing global consensus on education's value, there is also global competition. In the United States, critics have had grave concerns about the country's growing educational deficit, compared to that of other nations. But they see the new administration's plan as a sign of hope.

"If President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were to do what they are saying they will do, it would have a transformative effect on American education," says Bob Compton, executive producer of Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination. The film's thesis is that America's high schools are failing to prepare students to succeed in college.

Nothing less than the country's economic power and global standing are at stake, Compton argues. At a time when most new jobs and industries require some postsecondary education, the U.S. has fallen from first to tenth worldwide in the percentage of citizens with at least a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, countries in Asia and elsewhere are making massive new public investments in education.

"At some point the intellectual center of gravity tips and moves to India and China," Compton says.

James Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation, equates education with national defense. His New Jersey-based foundation provides more than $7 million annually in support of educational initiatives in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math in the United States.

"You can't expect to maintain our way of life and ability, on a global basis, to influence in a positive way if we do not have the very latest in technology and education," says Whaley. "It's not an individual problem. It's a collective problem."

The Greater Good

On a Friday evening in March, some students at Northwestern College, in St. Paul, Minn., boarded two buses and embarked on a 285-mile road trip to Grand Forks, N.D. Arriving at one in the morning, the 74 students pulled an all-nighter, helping to fill 100,000 sandbags needed to keep the rising Red River at bay. Their work done, they filed onto the buses and returned to campus.

"We tell our donors these stories of graduates making an impact in their community and the world," says Amy Carey, the college's vice president of advancement. "That's what resonates with donors. They want to see, not that our graduates go out and get fabulous jobs, but that they are making a difference. It's been a part of our DNA for a long time."

College and university students elsewhere, at places like Saint Mary's, are becoming more community-minded as well, according to anecdotal and statistical evidence.

"I think there is a difference in the youngest of our students right now," says President Mooney. "I think there is a somewhat [more reliable] moral compass, more of a social consciousness."

Mooney speculates that the surge in students' awareness and activism could be in reaction to the spate of scandals and difficult circumstances that have beset the United States in recent years.

Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan University, concurs. He points to "notable changes" illuminated by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's longitudinal survey of freshmen, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the Universtiy of California, Los Angeles.

"The data show that students who are coming to college today have more interest in these issues than was the case in the past," Jones says. "Our society is crying out for moral and ethical leadership in every sector."

Jones wants Ohio Wesleyan to create those leaders: "It's important for educators to prepare people for the capacity to fulfill a job, but I think the more important role for education is the preparation for leadership ... and not just for self-interest but for the larger society."

Education Everywhere

It is easy to assume that education is like oxygen, something essential that is and always will be around to sustain us.

"We started to take education for granted," says Tim Massie, chief public affairs officer of Marist College in New York for the past 30 years. "There is a need to reemphasize and help educate the public about the critical role education plays in a democratic society. ... We have to be able to convince legislators at the state and federal level, donors and foundations that the solution to many of the problems identified by society today will have to be to some extent addressed by institutions of higher education."

The relationship between higher education and a well-governed democracy is one of symbiotic interdependence, suggests Terry Piper, dean of the School of Education of Barry University in Florida.

"In this century, the bachelor's degree is the new high school diploma," Piper says. "A well-educated citizenry is essential to a functioning democracy. An ill-informed vote is easy to obtain but ultimately unhealthy to the democratic process."

Access and Progress

Higher education's role as a primary catalyst of progress isn't a given. As the pace of change in the world quickens, educators say, colleges and universities must adapt if they are to maintain their leadership position. For many educators, the fundamental question is how to improve access and rates of completion.

"If America is to remain a beacon for other nations, we will have to improve our efforts for all of our citizens," says Massie. "If we do the right things, we will continue to be important. If we don't, it will be harder to make the case for funding."

Stony Brook's Kenny advocates for a new National Education Act that would expand government's educational responsibility by entitling every qualified American to four years of college.

At Michigan State University, President Lou Anna Simon is emphasizing an ethos of inclusion and excellence that was prevalent in the founding of land-grant colleges: Good enough for the proudest; open to the poorest.

Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, is also concerned about access: "We better be careful that we don't avoid our deeper responsibility to those who cannot afford to go to college."

The Fabric of the Future

Warren Arbogast, founder of Boulder Management Group, a higher-education technology consultancy, says that higher education is in one respect a victim of its success. Its ubiquity in contemporary life makes overlooking its importance all too easy.

"Most people fall victim to grossly taking for granted how higher education fits into everything we do," Arbogast says. "Higher education is woven into the fabric of everything we know and everything we depend on and everything we want to become."


FOLLOW THE MONEY. Researchers at the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability released their second report in early 2009 titled, Trends in College Spending: Where Does the Money Come From? Where Does It Go? The deep dive into data from nearly 2,000 U.S. institutions shows that students are paying more of the total cost of their educations, while public funding wanes and spending on classroom instruction is down. The study authors conclude: "Students are paying for more-and arguably getting less." For the full analysis, go to

THREE-BY-THREE. In Australia, three leading business schools are cooperating to find ways for government, business, and charity to work together more effectively for the benefit of society. The Centre for Social Impact is a partnership of the University of New South Wales, the University of Melbourne, and Swinburne University of Technology. The organization conducts research, provides coursework, and advocates for strengthening the charitable sector in Australia. "Collaboration is the key to our success," says CSI founder Peter Shergold.

REAL WORLD U. The University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. has made a concerted effort to strengthen and tout its ties to business and postgraduate employment. Promoting itself as "the UK's leading business-facing university" seems to be paying off: Hertfordshire saw its applications go up 16 percent for fall 2009. This more than doubles the national average in increased applications of 7 percent. Leaders at Hertfordshire say the success is the result of several years of effort, putting the emphasis on the student experience and employability after graduation.

ENTRY-LEVEL PHILANTHROPY. Three recent University of Pennsylvania grads, recognizing the power of education in their own lives, have founded a charity to spread the transformative power of education to some of the poorest communities in the world. is a "microphilanthropy" Web site created by Joyce Meng, Xiang Li, and Jennifer Chen. The site pairs donors with children such as Yongsong Dong of Sichuan, China, who needs $250 per year to attend school. The site supports students in Kenya, Uganda, Brazil, Rwanda, and India, as well as other provinces in China.

About the Author John Pulley

John Pulley is a freelance education writer and was formerly a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.




Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.