The escalating hand-wringing about the United States' declining economic and educational dominance often ignores, or at least underestates, one key reality: Many of the countries or regions that are rising in international rankings of educational attainment or workforce skills are ascendant in large part because of the direct intervention, or at least a heavier guiding hand, from their governments.
Meaningfully remaking or shifting the direction of an economy, workforce or education system, as many American corporate leaders and politicians believe the U.S. must, is possible only when many players work in concert toward a common agenda, and that is much easier to accomplish through centralized planning, if not outright mandate. That's why even big sprawling countries like India and China, and confederations like the European Union, have, through government-led efforts, managed to make significant and relatively quick progress toward revitalizing their higher education systems, training scientists and other goals.
What does that reality mean for the United States, where the highly decentralized nature of the higher education system has been viewed as perhaps its biggest strength, encouraging competition and inspiring innovation? That question hung in the air Thursday as the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions gathered a group of college and business leaders to talk about how higher education and industry might work together to strengthen the American workforce, and what role the government might play in that quest.
The fundamental queries posed to the panelists by Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), who heads the Senate panel, were: What can be done to encourage partnerships between business, institutions and government to help the United States remain globally competitive, and what are the roles of each partner?
Given that there were 10 panelists  representing a wide range of institution types, industries and interests, the answers were all over the place, and the conversation around the big square table in the Dirksen Building hearing room was far from cohesive.
Some of the college presidents, like Louis Caldera of the University of New Mexico and Edison Jackson of the City University of New York's Medgar Evers College, focused on the need to ensure that underrepresented minorities had equitable access not just to college but to graduate education.
President Patricia McGuire of Washington's Trinity University and Laura Palmer-Noone, president of the University of Phoenix, emphasized the importance of helping low-income students afford higher education. James Mullen, the president and CEO of Biogen, and Walter Nolte, president of Casper College, a two-year institution in Wyoming, urged that greater attention be paid to attracting young people to the sciences and other high-skill fields.
But several of the business and university leaders reached back to the late 1950s, when, in response to a Sputnik-induced fear that Russia was about to overtake the United States's perceived dominance in science, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. The huge influx of funds that followed -- which was accompanied, inevitably, by greater intertwining of politics and research science -- inalterably changed and bolstered American higher education.
The time may be ripe for a similar intervention, Ted Hoff, vice president for learning at IBM, told Enzi and the other senators. "The part of the three-part partnership that may need to strengthened is government," Hoff said. "It's partly about money, but it's also a statement about where we are headed."
Most college leaders probably wouldn't put more government involvement on their wish lists; complaints about the regulatory strings and reporting requirements attached to federal funds are common. (Sally L. Stroup, the assistant U.S. secretary for postsecondary education, who listened to but did not participate in the roundtable discussion, smiled when asked after the session whether she thought colleges would be open to a stronger federal role. "That's not what we usually hear," she said. Palmer-Noone of Phoenix agreed: "I think government can play a greater role without necessarily centralizing, which would be a huge mistake. We are already regulated enough.")
In an interview after the discussion, Hoff tried to explain what he had in mind. "I'm not talking about more of a government role in terms of control," or "arguing that the government should direct universities" to do things, he said. "In our system, innovation comes from decentralization, but it also comes from interdisciplinary work. I'm talking about the government finding ways to provide more incentives that pull higher education and industry in a common direction, and setting an agenda around where the world is headed."
Apart from more money for students, research programs and technological infrastructure, which virtually all of the participants agreed would help (but which is probably unlikely to be forthcoming in an era of ever-tighter federal budgets), there were few ideas at this stage on exactly what other kinds of support or direction the government might provide. Hoff suggested, as one example, that the National Science Foundation might work with companies like IBM to help develop a curriculum that would better provide graduates the communication, technical and business skills employers are seeking.
McGuire, the Trinity president, agreed both that the federal government might have a bigger role to play and that greater regulation should be avoided. The most significant way that the federal government might step up its involvement without stepping on the toes of colleges or companies, she speculated, is by doing what the Senate committee did on Thursday: ramping up the public rhetoric.
"Most of the issues related to workforce development and education are local and regional ones -- that's where it's going to get operationalized, and that's where the cooperation of colleges and companies really matters most," she said. "But maybe it's good for everybody to fly to Washington to show it's on the agenda of Congress. That can provide some momentum back in the communities."