It’s graduation season. All over Maine the ceremonies, the speakers, the processions and the parties are taking place. Cynics among us may refer to graduation as “getting the products out the door.” But anyone who has seen even one picture of one beaming family and their proud graduate must be struck with the profound emotional truth that something else is going on here.
In my view, higher education is about transforming lives. Attaining a degree is a certification, all right, but it’s much more than a voucher for the possession of a set of skills or some required list of knowledge. Of course it is those things, and colleges ought to be ashamed if the skills, knowledge, attitudes and aptitudes of their graduates are not up to standard.
A college degree, however, also ought to certify that the holder of that degree has had the opportunity to start crafting a life of a sort that they might never have imagined before they went to college. The reality of transformed lives is what we are celebrating at commencement.
It’s called commencement, as in beginning, for that very reason. At commencement, colleges say to graduates, “Here you are at the end of one journey, but the beginning of another. We have given you a set of skills, some theoretical knowledge and some practical experiences. You are ready for the next steps, so here is the door — out you go. The work of crafting your life goes on, and already the âyou’ stepping out that door is not the âyou’ that came in. The work of learning and transformation that is the fundamental human work continues.”
This is a very idealistic view of higher education. It has inspired me over a long career, but it is not universally shared. For some, the credential is the main thing, and the first job out of college is the ultimate goal. These days, a lot of higher education providers contract with the students to provide the credentials and maybe the first job.
In this view, higher education operates to make sure that the graduates get jobs, while key industries and businesses get competent workers. Preferably as cheaply as possible — for the individual students who have to pay tuition, and for the public that supports the process through state or federal aid.
So which view is right? It is an accident of history that the model of higher education that includes the transformation of individual lives has been strong for at least the past 150 years. It has fit in beautifully with other aspects of our American belief system that include the empowerment of the individual to rise, and perhaps paradoxically the assumption that higher education is a public benefit, producing engaged and competent citizens.
The transformational view is and has always been in tension with the idea that the goal of higher education is to prepare workers for jobs. The original goal of Harvard was to train clergy, and many of our state colleges and universities were founded to provide teachers for a growing nation. The balance shifts continually. Which way will it go next?
We can’t follow the trend without knowing this key fact: Whatever view you favor, a business model underlies the whole enterprise. As Charles Dickens wrote in “David Copperfield”: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”
Public higher education in Maine is on the misery side of this equation right now. The current prevailing model of higher education includes a permanent faculty and staff, a campus with a physical plant, a curriculum, student services, plus connections to community arts organizations, nonprofits, businesses and K-12, and so on through the whole social web. This is a business model, and it has implications for spending money and allocating resources.
Can different decisions be made within this model? Yes, and the University of Maine System is struggling to make them. Will it be enough? Will it be in time to achieve the happiness side of the equation?
Today, some higher education providers do without the permanent faculty and staff, the campus, the food service and the whole supportive structure. Their business model is different. They may or may not succeed in the long run. They do, however, show that other ways are possible.
Transforming lives, sustainably. That would be worthy of celebration. It is our current task.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at [email protected].