American higher education is at a crossroads. For much of the 20th century our postsecondary system was the envy of the world. The United States had higher participation rates than our counterparts in other industrialized nations, the cost of a college degree or certificate was affordable, and our research infrastructure and quality was lauded for its innovation and creativity. Over the last decade, however, the country’s public and private institutions have been battered by the recession and a disinvestment from state governments.
Student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Whereas significantly more people should be participating in the postsecondary sector the potential exists that the country will see fewer students entering and graduating with a certificate or degree. Ample empirical evidence points to the impact of financial aid and debt on attending college, on persistence, and on graduation. Until recently the country could anticipate that increasing number of students of color and first-generation students would participate in higher education, but now the very real possibility exists that fewer students will attend college in the future. Until we resolve the vexing issues concerning needed immigration reform, we squander significant talent. And those students who graduate may find themselves significantly in debt and unemployed.
Throughout the 20th century a hallmark of American higher education was the idea of academic freedom. Tenure came about to protect academic freedom. Although advances in technology and online learning provide significant possibilities for improving learning, a postsecondary education cannot be bereft of engaged critical inquiry amongst students and faculty. Faculty productivity in the classroom and in the research arena can always be improved upon, but the centrality of academic work pertains to free inquiry. A commitment to research and science that is based on fact rather than opinion has been a centerpiece of American higher education. America’s postsecondary institutions exist to advance the common good. The common good necessitates the search for truth, and academic freedom is critical for that search.
Accordingly, the most crucial issues facing postsecondary education are:
1. To guarantee that an infrastructure exists that maintains quality, enhances the diversity of the student body and increases the intellectual capital of the faculty.
2. To fund the postsecondary enterprise in a manner that makes college affordable.
3. To ensure that students graduate from college in a timely manner without burdensome debt.
4. To maintain regulations that do not stifle creativity and innovation but also protect consumers.
5. To vigorously support the idea of academic freedom as central to the well-being of the academic enterprise.
6. To take up comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM act, in order to use all the talent we have developed in our schools and colleges.
We look for and encourage specific proposals from the presidential candidates with regard to these issues. Although President Obama is the incumbent and has addressed some of the issues we think are crucial, we frame them as if both candidates are equally situated and equally likely to take office in January 2013.
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center. William G. Tierney is university professor and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.