Imagine a healthcare system filled with professionals who aspire to serve the healthiest people. They establish hospitals for the people with the highest potential for recovery. They create a mass collection of services intended to help the healthiest people build upon their health to achieve new levels of greatness that would, in return, benefit the masses. When these healthcare professionals gather to look at where their performance statistics are declining, they turn things around by becoming even more exclusive, serving and even healthier clientele. Government and other overseeing entities establish a certain standard for the percentage of patients who have full recoveries in clinics and hospitals. Again, these organizations raise the bar for entry to their clinics. Serving the sickest might lower your stats, so why take the risk?
There are several flaws, over-simplifications and limitations to this analogy, but consider how some of the above represents the vision of no small number of higher education institutions today. There are faculty meetings around the United States where people are discussing how to raise the standard…for admission more than expectations while students are at the institution. As such, they are aspiring to find the “healthiest” students possible, offer further health tips, watch them graduate, and then proudly proclaim the heath benefits of their learning organizations. There are also institutions with much more of an open approach to admissions. They may still have minimum requirements for entry into different majors. These might be based upon the organization’s ability to help students at different achievement levels, along with an understanding of basic skills necessary to make adequate progress toward competence in a given area, but they are far from the elite or exclusive institutions around the country.
As I interact with faculty and University administrators around the United States and beyond, I find many perspectives on the purpose of higher education, just as there are widely diverse mission statements for these institutions. These varying missions drive them to focus upon serving different types of students.
Diamonds in the Rough – They see higher education as “fanning into flame” the gifts, talents and abilities already present in high-achieving students.
Future Scholars – Some think about it in terms of generating knowledge that benefits the world. As such, they seek the best researchers/scholars while also seeking to mentor the next generation of researchers.
Knowledge Creators – These are the schools that are not just about educating students. They are also about a community of learners/scholars that produces new knowledge and innovations that benefit society. This is part of the vision for some research-intensive schools.
Access and Opportunity – Others see higher education institutions as having the purpose of increasing access and opportunity to high-impact learning experiences that result increased opportunity for the rest of their lives. They strive for openness more than exclusivity.
Global STEM Competitors – Still other people argue that higher education institutions in the United States play a critical role in raising up a generation of thought-leaders, especially in growing STEM fields. As such, the purpose of the schools is largely to identity, nurture and raise up as many high-performing leaders in such fields…using any ethical means necessary. It is less about equipping each student, helping each gain new access and opportunity. It is instead about finding and cultivating the best STEM minds in the country (and beyond). Or, others see the goal as being about equipping increasingly larger numbers of people with education in STEM-related fields.
The Cultivated Mind – Many liberal arts institutions argue that a core purpose is to nurtured thoughtful and educated people. Truth, beauty, and goodness are emphasized, and an appreciation for them is cultivated in the students. And yet, some such schools seek to only nurture students who already show significant progress in this direction prior to admission. Still others aspire to expand this vision by welcoming a broader range of students and helping them to grow and develop regardless of where they were when they started.
There are many other goals and purposes as well, just as there is cross-over among these categories; and there is likely room for these six types of higher education institutions, along with a dozen others. Regardless, these distinctions challenge me to think about the goals that governments and societies have for higher education institutions. Much of the public discourse about higher education today is focused on topics like gainful employment for as many people as possible. That seems to call for an approach to higher education that is about more than educating those who need us the least. It seems to be a challenge to think about envisioning more forms of higher education that reach the most people by making education impactful, supportive, affordable, and accessible. While some argue that academic rigor (not my favorite word…I prefer high academic standards) calls for stricter admissions standards, this vision of higher education calls for stricter standards for teaching effectiveness, the quality of learning experience design, academic support, and affordability. Is it more rigorous to teach people who already have high levels of achievement or to raise the academic challenge bar while opening up access as much as possible? As I stated before, there is plenty of room for higher education institutions with different philosophies and purposes, but if we are going to address issues of access and opportunity, that calls for us to think about how to design more higher education institutions that seek to serve those who need them the most.