For higher education to have its best impact on society, no one approach can do the job.
That was one of the themes that emerged from a dialogue that drew about 20 Bemidji State University faculty, staff and students, as well as a few members of the community, to BSU’s Crying Wolf Room Tuesday night.
Julie Plaut, executive director of Minnesota Campus Compact, and John Hamerlinck, associate director, led the community dialogue, titled “Shaping Our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?” The local coordinators were Mary Tosch, director of the Hobson Memorial Union, and Chinwuba Okafor, Hobson associate director.
Play and Hamerlinck presented to the group three options that had been identified as possible roles for higher education:
E Focus on staying competitive in the global economy. This would put the focus on science and technology in education, for example, perhaps gearing scholarships and student loans in fields that provide the most benefit to the economy.
E Work together and repair an ailing society. The second option would have higher education do more to shape students’ views about society and strengthen values like responsibility, integrity and respect for others, as well as give students more real-life experience in collaboration and problem-solving.
E Ensure that everyone has a fair chance. The third option would involve doing more to ensure that all Americans have equal access to a college degree without the accumulation of huge debts. Financial aid could be expanded, costs could be cut, and higher learning institutions could do more to help students who are at risk of not graduating.
There was universal agreement that no one option stood out as the best, but each had value.
His background is in biology, but Patrick Guilfoile, interim associate vice president of academic affairs at BSU, wasn’t drawn just to the first option.
“I think it’s important,” Guilfoile said. “I don’t think it’s the whole picture, though. … I think they’re all important.”
Laurie Desiderato, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Professional Development at BSU, said she felt higher education already does a good job with science and technology and should continue, while striving for balance with other aspects of education.
Tosch said there are four engineers in her family and her sister is one of them, and they all speak the same “language,” but her sister calls her for advice, “because I work with people.”
Lara Gerhardson, who is the coordinator of the Students First initiative at Bemidji High School and works with the Minnesota Office of Higher Education as an outreach liaison with the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program, said the measure of success should not be solely on economy, but also on things like happiness and focus. “Focusing (only) on the economy would limit us in our ability to help students,” she said.
Aspects of the three options appeal to different people. BSU senior Joe Vito Moubry said he was drawn to the second option, which got quite a bit of discussion.
Okafor said the level of impersonal communication online is one thing that illustrates that people should have more opportunities for face-to-face communication.
“I think it’s vital that we get students in face-to-face situations more often,” he said.
Guilfoile said higher education may not be the best realm to learn values like integrity, respect and responsibility. “It’s not like you can decide this is the best curriculum to make someone a better person.”
BSU senior Meghan Jewett said there were financial aid and work study options she wasn’t aware of when she started going to college five years ago.
“Instead of being $20,000 in debt, I wish I had taken advantage of that,” she said.
Jewett and fellow student Victoria Ramponi said they expected college to be expensive.
“I pretty much just accept it,” said Jewett, who is majoring in mass communications and sociology.
“Hopefully the degree you get will help pay for it,” said Ramponi, a criminal justice major with a sociology minor.
Jewett said more access to college would create a more well-educated society.
But Tosch questioned whether a college degree is the answer for everyone, noting that not all education happens on college and university campuses.
“Are we sure education opens doors for everyone?” she said.
While everyone should have a fair chance for higher education, Guilfoile said, he felt it would work better in elementary school and high school. “The way I read (the option), the university is the place to get a fair chance.”
“We can’t necessarily make it fair,” Gerhardson said, “but could we make it fair-er in K-12?”
“It’s nice to talk about what we do and care about and love every day,” Desiderato said at the end of the discussion, referring to teachers, staff and students alike. “How nice it would be if we had more opportunities to have this kind of conversation integrated in what we do every day.”
“These are good things we’re hearing,” Plaut said. “The conversation is different in every place. It’s powerful to have different people at the table.”
Minnesota Campus Compact began holding these dialogues around the state Oct. 9. Two of the 11 events remain, today at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Nov. 27 at St. Cloud State University. The organization will publish a report on its findings at a later date.