There is not a lot of consensus around the role of higher education in the 21st century — is its purpose to prepare citizens for work or teach them to be thinkers? And how is this different for different types of colleges? Should research institutions be seen as doing one thing, while teaching institutions do another? And where do community colleges fit in?
Much of the conversation around higher education paints the institutions, and the students they serve, as monolithic; policy conversations and those from the general public fail to even recognize that different colleges were created to do different things, and may not all have the same objectives. But they are all measured against the same outcomes.
During the Council on Higher Education Accreditation annual meeting in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, Sijbolt Noorda, the chairman of the Magna Charta Observatory, said, “The excellence delusion is one of the most [dangerous] diseases of higher education. [Every leader of every institution is] pretending to serve the same community, doing excellent work with excellent quality, though almost none of them [are] succeeding at actually training students in a way that would have been able to prevent the financial crisis.”
“Quality assurance very often is about how we do higher education, how it is organized, how we do this and that, and it very often leaves out the matter of what we are doing and why we are doing it — why we have chosen this particular profile and why we are serving this particular community,” he said.
“In general, in higher education, we need to celebrate variety much more than we do," he continued. "We need many types of institutions of higher education .... working within the space together — there’s not one way right in all situations, it’s very much dependent on the requirements of the community, of the specific educational path that you want to serve.”
Evaluating how institutions see themselves
Education Dive has toiled with the questions of what higher education should look like in the 21st century along with everyone else. There is consensus that a "one-and-done" model of education is likely being replaced for a pattern of lifelong learning, and some think the current structure of education will soon give way to more blended institutions and collaboration. But how do institution leaders see themselves? Are their proclaimed missions keeping up with the changing needs of society? How important is the mission statement anyway, are strategic plans more relevant?
Our team conducted a qualitative analysis of 57 randomly selected institutions, including six public flagships; six public research institutions; two regional public institutions; one public online institution; 19 private four-year colleges, including three private Ivy League institutions, one public Ivy League institution; seven community colleges; and three minority serving institutions.
Here are the key findings:
- Of 57 institutions, 21 don't have mission statements posted on their websites in a way that users can easily find and review them, and of those, 14 are elite public research institutions or elite privates. Most of the community colleges or less-selective institutions reviewed do have mission statements posted. One top research institution had a prominent link for the mission statement, but it led to an error message.
- In the 36 mission statements that were available, the most prominent keywords are community, research, programs, knowledge, diverse, learning, society, global, teaching, development, world, excellence, skills, innovative, access and transformative/transformational. Most common phrases: high quality, global society, outreach programs, global community, commitment to excellence, economic development and to prepare students.
- One of the larger elite private institutions that didn't have a mission statement on its website did include an economic impact report to showcase its value as not only providing a private commodity but promoting the vitality of the surrounding community.
Jonathan Gyurko, CEO of the Association of College and University Educators, said he isn't surprised there is such "a variety of goals across different mission statements, as the purposes of higher education continue to —and should — evolve with changing values and societal needs."
"Our colleges and universities don’t merely react to these changes, either. They’re part of the ongoing conversation that defines these priorities," he said.
A recent report released by the Online Learning Consortium found an overwhelming majority of higher education leaders see innovation as one of their top priorities but there is little consensus on what innovation means. The report's authors said "many respondents provided definitions that we, as researchers, felt could be too narrow for what innovation at an institution could encompass. This reveals how potentially broad innovation is — which is encouraging — but without a clear-cut answer as to what it is, institutions may find it difficult to set goals, acquire buy-in, and allocate funds for innovative efforts."
But, Gyurko said, "No matter the aim, teaching is the indispensable constant. It’s through great instruction that our students and our institutions achieve their objectives. This puts a special responsibility on us all to prepare and support our faculty to teach well, with proven instructional approaches."
Kentucky State University faculty members, during the inaugural convening of the Atwood Institute on Race, Education and the Democratic Ideal in October, emphasized the importance for all institutions, regardless of mission, to expose students to high-quality experiences, including opportunities to do research, emphasizing the idea that more and more jobs require research, or at least the kind of analytical thinking which research informs.