Friday, December 16, 2011

Can higher education be anti-poverty?

Among the disheartening bits of news yesterday was this: that according to the Census Bureau, half of the population of the US is poor or low-income. While there is debate over the definition and meaning of the statistics, they are simply the latest to indicate that income disparity and poverty in the US are high and rising.

One wonders what colleges and universities can do.  On the one hand a college education still, on average, is worth a significant amount of money through the life of the graduate. Unemployment is lower among those with degrees than among those without. Many community colleges are deeply committed to job training. And college access as a pathway to economic opportunity is a major issue in higher education.

But job training and access are not the same things as working against poverty.  And understanding and reducing poverty are rarely found among college's desired learning outcomes in the way that critical thinking, leadership, sustainability, civic engagement, or understanding diversity are.

Given the ways that colleges and universities work, there do seem to be some clear first steps to mounting an educational attack on poverty.  Place the reduction of poverty on the list of a college's goals.  Study poverty  and work as part of the curriculum, both in majors and in general education.  Focus on the application of learning in the workplace. Ensure that entrepreneurship programs are open to students in all disciplines.  Guard against the assumption that poverty is solely economic or that wealth is the alternative to poverty.  Establish a poverty center that looks and acts like diversity and civic engagement centers.  Establish micro-lending programs to aid students.  Track poverty as part of alumni surveys.  Establish pay scales that narrow the gap between the best-paid and the least-paid employees of the institution. Link poverty reduction to the campus' mission.  And keep the issue at the center of the publications, speeches, web content, and reputation of the institution.

1 comment:

Bryce said...

This is an interesting argument for the evolving social role of higher ed. Your post (and this article that ran in Inside Higher Ed this morning --http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/20/cornell-and-technions-win-new-york-competition-reflects-desire-grow-urban-ties) make me wonder if we need to redefine what it means to be a land grant university. Of course, any institution has a responsibility to contribute to the social good. But, land grant institutions seem to have an even greater responsibility to align their missions and outcomes with societal needs. What I'm hearing from you and others is that we haven't done a great job of adjusting institutional priorities to respond to those changing needs.

Cornell's proposal includes plans for three "hubs." The hubs would be interdisciplinary and change their focus according to the needs of New York City. Sounds like an interesting model.