Higher Education Should Serve Entire Families, Not Just Students

Higher education has a lot of problems right now. It’s also never had more opportunities. The biggest and boldest among them is the opportunity to expand higher education’s mission from being an exclusive and specialized bastion for degree conferrals to a widely inclusive and holistic educational community. What would happen if ‘college’ meant serving entire families and communities instead of individual students? What if the unit of analysis and the focus of service shifted from degree-seeking students to including their families and communities in various ways? What if you could have both exclusivity and inclusiveness in the same strategy by broadening our definitions of ‘education’ and ‘students?’ This is the kind of provocative thinking higher education desperately needs at this point in time.   

A college degree is the ticket to social mobility. That’s the narrative we have all clung to for years. It’s a narrative focused on the context of the individual student. That is to say, the benefit of social mobility accrues to the individual who receives the diploma. And in that context it’s a mostly true story. Assuming a student graduates (only 58% who start end up completing in 6 years), ends up gainfully employed (41% of recent graduates are in jobs that don’t require a degree) and without substantial student loan debt (11% of graduates between 1990-2014 had more than $50,000 in student loan debt, which was linked to worse overall health and wellbeing outcomes) – the narrative holds true. But as noble and inspiring as the goal may be, improving the social mobility of graduates may not be enough to pull higher education out of the steady decline it’s on right now.

Higher education is suffering from rapidly declining public confidence due to rising tuition prices, doubts about graduate work readiness and the relevance of what’s taught, college admissions scandals and a fast-growing partisan divide about its value and purpose. The result of all this has been 10 consecutive years of enrollment declines and the potential threat that these declines may continue for at least another 10 years. The physical and mental images of ‘college’ remain those of walls, gates and ivory towers – images associated with privilege and elitism (both socio-economically and educationally) at a time when a populist movement is alive and well in the United States. Some argue the populist movement has been fueled, in part, by higher education itself.

Michael J. Sandel, the great political philosopher, Harvard professor and author just published a new book, “The Tyranny of Merit,” which provides a fresh and relevant view about the role of meritocracy in fueling populism. He argues meritocracy generates a certain hubris among the winners while at the same time imposing harsh judgment on those left behind. He suggests that the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ is that of the formally educated versus those who are not. And one of the institutions squarely in his sights as driving this meritocratic hubris is higher education – and particularly elite higher education, the institutions that many colleges and universities strive to be more like. As he points out, in the Ivy League there are more students from families in the top 1% of the income scale than students from all the families in the bottom 50% combined.      

In another recent book, “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way,” author Jennifer Morton brilliantly opens our eyes to what she calls the ethical costs of upward mobility. She takes both a philosophical and practical look at first generation college students by arguing that although college helps propel them forward individually, it also comes at the cost of leaving their families and communities behind in various ways. Her own story as a first generation student growing up in Peru and getting a scholarship to a U.S. university paints the typical portrait of students who must physically and psychologically depart their families and communities in order to pursue a degree that ultimately propels them into a new socio-economic status that furthers that distance.

For anyone in higher education who hasn’t read these books, they are absolute must reads. I had never thought deeply about either of their arguments until now. But the notions that higher education may be contributing more to the divide in American society than bridging it and that higher education’s most fundamental value proposition of social mobility also brings with it unintended consequences are new perspectives that leave us with an inescapable sense of responsibility and an urgent call to action. So where do these perspectives take us in terms of a responsive strategy for higher education? It’s both an opportunity and a mandate for higher education to broaden its definitions of who and how it serves.

What does it mean for higher education to shift from serving students to uplifting entire families and communities? Imagine a first generation student who gets a scholarship to a top university. This student leaves her home and goes hundreds of miles away to school. Her family is excited for her and supportive. Deep down they know that she’ll be successful but that success may ultimately mean they will lose her from the tight-knit family they’ve always been. In today’s higher education, this student’s family has virtually no association with the college or their daughter’s experience there. As much as they recognize it as a blessing for her, college becomes something that also takes her away from them.

But what if part of the conditions of this student’s admission to college came with a big embrace of all her family members? What if the college offered to provide English language learning for her parents through their ESL courses that are now delivered live online? What if the students at this university, as a part of their required experiential learning projects, had to do 50 hours of tutoring for high school students from underserved communities and her younger sister was directly included in this? What if her older brother was given the opportunity to enroll in some of the college’s burgeoning certificate and industry-recognized credential training programs offered through their school of continuing and adult education? What if all family members had a pass to audit any of the lectures delivered on campus via an online platform?

What if the college’s health services office extended patient hours for family members through their new telehealth platform so that her grandpa and grandma could get some consultation from time to time? What if the college provided her family with a WiFi hotspot device they can use at home while she’s at college and that the student can use on winter and summer breaks when back at home? For that matter, why not send them a family pack of Chromebooks or iPads that the college purchases through a new discount program with Google and Apple and that the U.S. Department of Education supports through a new ‘College For Family’ Act passed by Congress?

Further, what if this college extended the idea of supporting families to supporting entire communities? What if they offered scholarships to an entire group of students from the same underserved community? What if they designated a parking lot on campus for people from the neighboring community who lack Internet access so they can use the college’s world-class WiFi network? What if this college greatly expanded their family housing options to allow enrolled students to include another family member in their dorm room or on-campus apartment? Perhaps they could offer summer family residence programs – when their dorms are otherwise empty – so that a student’s family members could live on campus with her while she takes summer courses and they enroll in various educational enrichment and training programs? Imagine…

Higher education doesn’t have to imagine this. It’s all quite feasible. Some of the initiatives will certainly require time and money and compete with other priorities at the institution. But most are very low- to no-cost ideas that are simple extensions of already sunk investments by the college: online ESL courses with empty seats in them, idle summer housing, some extra traffic on the college’s WiFi network, some deeper-discounted device purchases, opening online access to existing lectures delivered by faculty who are already on the payroll, offering access to telehealth services staff during off-hours for typical student traffic. Regardless, the costs involved with these initiatives pale in comparison to many of the investments colleges and universities make in other areas.

Imagine what these kinds of moves would mean to the challenges put forth by Sandel and Morton around the hubris of meritocracy and the ethical costs of social mobility. Imagine how these moves would resonate with and re-engage the growing critics of higher education. Imagine how these efforts would move the needle on social mobility in exponentially greater fashion. Imagine how many alumni donors, foundations and companies would jump to get behind this new vision and mission financially. Imagine all that. But don’t spend much time imagining how to get it done. Take a step right now and go make it happen.

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