Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Voting and Volunteerism and Higher Ed

An article in today's Washington Post, Civic Involvement Tied to Education, provokes a 'duh' moment. For me. Probably because I've studied this for papers I've written for education and political science professors. This most recent study from the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonprofit organization created by Congress, dusts off the public and private benefits of going to college some of our representatives forget when they reauthorize major aid programs for our students.

There is a serious gap between participation in civic life for college educated peeps and non college educated peeps says "Broken Engagement, America's Civic Health Index." The Post's Amy Goldstein, for her part, references super successful Robert Putnam and Bowling Alone. Putnam hypothesizes instability in the American home and workplace and a decline in organized unions are to blame for a class-based schism in civic mindedness.

Goldstein raises multiple salient issues, but for me, getting back to the 'duh' moment, it's that college has real benefits. Policymakers regularly reference implied economic effects and sometimes even tout a revenue calculus that fans out from a university town like mana from heaven. Colleges do create real economic opportunities for people in and around college towns. But colleges also create other benefits for the public. I reasoned in my 2004 paper for a finance of higher education course that with the class-based enrollment divides at top universities and burgeoning costs and thusly price of higher ed we'd start to see a return to equity arguments. (see William Bowen's take on rich kids getting all the opportunities in top colleges as well as in life in general)

A lot of the research done around equity came out of the 1970s and surprise, so did some really good arguments for higher education. Howard R. Bowen, in Investment in Learning compiled one of the most comprehensive reports on the very elusive but oft-sanguinely articulated benefits of higher education: the public benefit. Howard Bowen defined higher education's purpose.

"The primary purpose of higher education is to change people in desirable ways. These changes may, in turn, have profound effects on the economy and the society and even on the course of history." (432)

I'm curious to see if this report from the National Conference on Citizenship sparks any renewed interest in accounting for the myriad benefits of higher ed--like voting and volunteerism.


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