Choosing Our Future Today

Feb 22nd, 2005 @ 3:51 pm | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
I hired Bill Tierney twenty years ago when he was fresh out of graduate school to work with me on some research projects. Now he is a full professor at the University of Southern California, teaching graduate courses, writing books, and publishing newsletters. He invited me to write a very short item for his next newsletter – just 250 words (half the length of this column) on what higher education will be like in five years.

That is a tough assignment. He might be paying me back for something I have long since forgotten. On the other hand, I could have said, "No." Instead, I find myself thinking that it is more difficult to predict five years ahead than fifty.

If the future is to be a direct result of trends we see in the present, then a five-year prediction would be easy. Online classes are growing and institutions in most states are growing even faster, so "more of the same" would be a reasonable forecast.

I hate to admit it, but current trends could also indicate a darker view. The military, security, and social programs are consuming enormous shares of public funding and still growing, at the expense of higher education here and nationally. Tuition is going up fast, while financial aid funding is going down fast.

States like ours are aging, with voters who are less likely to focus on education issues. Growth in other states often consists largely of people from diverse cultures and people with low incomes. The gap between haves and have-nots is growing, and college is becoming ever less affordable as a means of bridging that gap. For many people now, the Horatio Alger dream of improving their status is not a realistic possibility.

As always, the quality of the future depends heavily on the choices we make today, individually and collectively. When the North Dakota state demographer predicts declining and aging population figures for the state, he always adds, ý÷unless something happens to change the trends.ţ He is inviting us all to make a difference. Those of us who remember Valley City's Main Street 10 or 15 years ago know that dedicated, hard-working people with vision can indeed make a difference.

To prevent the negative future, we need to keep higher education affordable and ensure that students graduate with knowledge and skills they can use to make a better life for themselves and their neighbors. The university must demonstrate its commitment to helping others, including students, community members, local enterprises and activities, and those less fortunate. We need a strong sense of community with a shared vision of the kind of world we want to help create.

A high school education used to be enough. No longer. A positive personal future depends on lifelong learning for all who can benefit. Increasingly, we all depend on private citizens and businesses to invest in higher education. We at VCSU are grateful to have found so many win-win partnerships that help both parties. Our future depends on them.