Despite the evolving interpretation offered by state and federal courts, American higher education as a community remains committed in its support to increase diversity among students.
At the same time, however, our colleges and universities largely fail to link diversity initiatives to specific workforce needs. This tendency often applies philosophically to all students enrolled, fueled in part by a belief that the responsibility for higher education institutions writ large is to educate broadly.
There are wonderful programs and support groups to promote and support diversity, of course, measured by gender, race, sexual preference, and socioeconomic income. The report of the Ford Foundation-funded Century Foundation released this week speaks compellingly to the role and problems facing American community colleges in these areas. It cites outstanding programs from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the Edvance Foundation, where I serve as CEO and a director, to illustrate efforts under way that demonstrate fresh thinking.
Within industry, particularly in STEM disciplines, global corporate partners look to advance diversity through scholarships, internships, externships and other means to attract diverse employees freshly minted from colleges and universities in fields like engineering, the sciences, and new technologies.
What is missing, however, is the glue that holds these programs together. What may be most significant, indeed, is that programs to promote diversity and more practical efforts to increase graduates in areas like STEM- disciplines seek the same outcome—an educated citizenry even if in part for different reasons.
It is entirely possible that this evolution will occur naturally and that we are simply in mid-stream transitioning to a closer link between diversity and the needs of the American workforce in the 21st century. Even if so, however, American society must be prepared to link the philosophical with the practical, taking the skills of a liberal education and tying them explicitly to workforce needs as millions of jobs requiring a college degree will otherwise remain unfilled.
To do so, higher education leadership must take at least five immediate steps:
There are times in higher education when it seems like colleagues operating in good faith simply talk past one another. America will always need a qualified workforce with skills that do not require a college degree. And as recent literature suggests, there is room for debate on the perceived financial value of a four-year degree, especially from mediocre programs at under-resourced institutions. Yet these arguments do not take into account fully where we will head as a society.
For America to win the “race to the top,” the underlying goals must be more than about training qualified employees. We are better than that.
What is needed most is awareness that for America to be America we must preserve higher education as our best and most effective vehicle to upward mobility, an improved quality of life, and an educated workforce. The next Bill Gates is likely to come from a diverse background. This country must be prepared to provide the access, support, and professional opportunity to welcome employed college graduates who took the chance society gave them regardless of where they started.
We can win the race to the top. But, we ought to also know why we trained so hard for the win.
Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. Dr. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College. Dr. Brian C. Mitchell chaired the Rhodes Scholar Section Committee for Pennsylvania and was chair of the Patriot League (Division I), the President Athletic Conference (Division III), and is the immediate past chair of the board at Merrimack College.
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