Improving intellectual infrastructure in American higher education
As President Biden and Congress debate whether, to what extent, and in what ways to improve infrastructure in the United States, it becomes apparent that we need a more expansive definition of the term. Proponents of the historical understanding of infrastructure think in terms of “hard” physical structures such as roads, bridges, and airports. Consistent with this understanding, the American Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that our nation has been doing somewhat better recently. Of course, raising the cumulative grade from D- four years ago to C- in 2021 is incremental at best.
To achieve real social progress, however, we must also address the “soft” infrastructure that improves our quality of life, beginning with healthcare and education.
As a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences points out, “Policy-makers should broaden their understanding of infrastructure to include our intellectual infrastructure, which is no less important to the nation’s future than our roads and bridges.” Congressional gridlock notwithstanding, state and federal investment in this knowledge infrastructure has long been integral to our nation’s health, wellbeing, and prosperity.
President Biden’s request that Congress invest billions to upgrade community colleges and research laboratories at historically black colleges and universities is a crucial step toward redressing inequitable underinvestment in this intellectual infrastructure. Bolstering public two-year colleges and minority-serving institutions makes strategic sense in terms of expanding our capacity to produce the millions of additional graduates essential to the post-industrial workforce.
American higher education is the envy of policymakers around the globe. But the preeminence of our leading universities does not correlate with overall excellence. In a nation whose “crazy quilt” of colleges and universities includes “50 of the best universities in the world and 500 of the worst,” as the economist Charles Clotfelter put the matter, we must expand accessibility to discovery, creativity, and innovation at a socially meaningful scale.
The increasing selectivity of our top private research universities and liberal arts colleges no longer surprises anyone. Harvard, Stanford, and the rest compete on this basis, proudly announcing that they accept fewer than 5 percent of applicants. Their positions atop the U.S. News & World Report rankings reward a dubious strategy that constrains the intellectual diversity of our society.
But our top public research universities have become increasingly selective as well. While some go to great lengths to recruit socioeconomically disadvantaged learners, the fact remains that the scale of such efforts is inadequate. Admission is more strongly predicted by socioeconomic status — as captured by zip code — than by impartial assessments of academic potential.
Nevertheless, the conversation about equity and opportunity must not simply focus on the production of more college graduates. It would be a fallacy, moreover, to infer that all bachelor’s degrees are equivalent. Mere access to standardized forms of instruction will not deliver desired societal outcomes. Nor is narrowly focused vocational or technical training sufficient to prepare graduates for future cognitive challenges and workplace complexities.
If individuals are to succeed in an era when knowledge correlates with prosperity and well-being — and if the United States is to retain leadership and competitiveness in the globalized knowledge economy — millions more Americans will need access to learning environments that integrate comprehensive liberal arts curricula alongside cutting-edge knowledge and research essential to the postindustrial workforce.
In our recent book, The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), we advocate managing the tension between excellence and accessibility in college education. Excellence and accessibility are complementary because talent is distributed throughout the socioeconomic spectrum; international competitiveness depends on extending opportunities to individuals from all demographic strata; diversity enhances academic quality; and the success of our democracy depends on an educated citizenry.
The Fifth Wave represents the emergence of a league of colleges and universities unified in their resolve to accelerate positive social outcomes through the integration of world-class intellectual infrastructure and access by the broadest possible representation of our socioeconomic and intellectual diversity. This will require innovative teaching and research, including the creative use of learning technologies, and cooperation rather than competition among schools, as well as institutional partners from the public and private sectors.
Educating students from the top five or ten percent of their high school classes represents business as usual at our leading colleges and universities. The challenge is to educate to internationally competitive standards of achievement the top quarter or third of 18-to-24-olds, and for universities to provide opportunities for lifelong learning to more than half the population of the United States.
Broad accessibility to world-class knowledge is essential to the needs of a workforce destabilized by deindustrialization, automation, and the gig economy, to say nothing of the pandemic. To cope with these challenges, the intellectual infrastructure of our nation must supply means and methods to upskill or reskill. Connecting workers to lifelong learning opportunities will require partnerships between universities and workplaces that recognize that access to education is a social and economic imperative.
But we must be pragmatic in assessing ways to improve our intellectual infrastructure. The suggestion by policy scholar David Kirp that we clone Stanford seems implausible. Proposals to dramatically increase investments by state governments in public universities are unrealistic when public support for higher education in most states is dwindling. Colleges and universities must chart their own paths forward by developing entrepreneurial approaches to knowledge production. Any such effort shifts the burden of responsibility to institutions and stakeholders.
America’s future depends on managing the tension between excellence and access in higher education.
Absent the effort to realize new models for American higher education, the nation will eventually have to confront the consequences of the inevitable decline of one of its most essential assets, and along with it, our prosperity, wellbeing, and leadership on the world stage. The emergence of the Fifth Wave, or something like it, will be necessary to reinvent the legacy of American higher education and extend its accomplishments into the uncertain world that our existing academic culture helped to create.
William Dabars is senior research fellow in the Office of the President and associate research professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University.