The face of higher education in Maine and this country is changing. While our country and state struggle with a prolonged recession, public colleges and universities face shrinking budgets, a higher level of accountability from taxpayers and pressure to respond to the ever-shifting job market and to student demands for career-focused programs.
Colleges and universities are also facing societal and political scrutiny like never before. Some of this scrutiny is justified, but there remains a gap between what really happens on most college campuses and what the public perceives to be occurring.
These forces are requiring that higher education reexamine itself. The viability of higher education will hinge on a common sense answer to the age-old question of whether colleges and universities should simply “professionalize” students for careers or should educate students more broadly in the liberal arts. There continues to be a tug-of-war between those who miss the days of traditional idea exchanges and brick-and-tweed teaching and those who focus exclusively on career related skills training and who see the “softer” skills as a waste of time.
For the most part, both sides believe they are “fighting the good fight” on behalf of students. While career skills are important, industry leaders in all sectors ask for workers with strong communication, interpersonal and critical thinking skills, all of which come to us through the liberal arts.
I contend the answer to that age-old question is not that higher education should exclusively strive for one or the other, but should strive to do both well and in a manner that is relevant to all types of students.
Relevancy is crucial. Educators, at all levels, must understand and know their students to be able to provide them with an education that connects knowledge and skills to the contextual realities in which they exist. This must be done knowing that in today’s world, students from a wide variety of backgrounds enter higher education from a vast array of entry points all with different needs and expectations.
For too long, there has been an expectation on the part of higher education that all of these “square pegs” should fit themselves into the singular “round hole” of higher education. While many well-meaning and insightful higher educators no longer believe in this notion, colleges and universities that stick to this philosophy will be gone in the near future and they will deserve their demise.
To thrive, institutions of higher education need not lower educational standards, but must drop any remaining elitist notions, be responsive to their varied constituencies and see themselves as an active and responsive part of the lifelong spectrum of learning.
They can thrive by being active players in the collaborative development of an efficient PK-16 education system in Maine; one that focuses on aspirations, academic alignment, and resource sharing. Being an active player with the PK-12 community means understanding that there needs to be a shift in philosophy from making all students “college ready” to making all students “post-secondary ready” — with the understanding that vocational and alternative education programs may better serve some segments of the student population.
They can thrive by working closely with adult education programs that are often the entry point and college preparation point for many adult learners. They can thrive by recognizing that not all students can or want to take traditional college classes during the day and during the traditional semester structure, thus requiring an emphasis on varied educational delivery modes, technology and individualized paths for student learning.
They can thrive by working more closely with other institutions of higher education and with employers and industry to share resources, provide access to relevant programs and serve a broader range of students. Lastly, higher education will thrive if its primary emphasis is on the student and their needs in the ever changing world of the 21st century.
Scott Voisine is the dean of community education at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.