Last Sunday, my wife and I had the opportunity to deliver a speech to 100+ university leaders at the Campus Compact Summit of Presidents and Chancellors at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, MA. We were one of four guest speakers–Gen. (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal; Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Director, Peace Corps); and Alberto Carvalho (Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools)– invited to answer the question: “What Does the World Need from Higher Education?” Our prepared remarks are shared below.
In 1970, only 49% of seats were occupied on a typical flight.
Though half-filled, these planes had the potential to take humanity to new heights, to allow individuals to see and learn new things about the world, and to connect communities and cultures.
And while the passengers on the plane likely appreciated the extra attention and legroom; flying under capacity was a negative for everyone. It was bad for business, it resulted in higher prices for the customer, and it had adverse impacts on the environment.
But over the past 4 decades, excessive regulations that fostered this problem were removed, technological advances allowed for better analysis and access, and the airline industry made a conscious effort to increase their utilization capacity– also know as their “passenger load factor.”
The notion of flying at half capacity seems almost comical as today most flights are around 83% full. Some airlines have even managed to get that number very close to 100%.
But why are we talking about airlines today when we were charged with answering the question: “What does the world need from higher education?”
Because it is our contention today that higher education is still flying at half capacity. Higher education has the power to be a catalyst for human development. It can be a force that helps transform our nation’s struggling education system. It can be a vessel that enables our under-served cities and communities to reach new heights.
But it first needs to systematically assess its capacity, work with community partners to identify the current utilization rates, and monitor progress toward improving its utilization capacity.
Our belief about the capacity of institutions of higher education is shaped by our experiences building TeenSHARP on college campuses since 2009. TeenSHARP prepares high school students of color in some of our nation’s most impoverished cities– Camden, NJ; Philadelphia; and Wilmington, Delaware–for top colleges and universities.
Toward this end, TeenSHARP runs full-day programming every Saturday throughout the school year for our students on college campuses. Through our work we have established partnerships at host institutions like Rutgers University-Camden and the University of Delaware; engaged hundreds of undergraduate, graduate, and faculty volunteers in our programming; and leveraged the research of leading scholars to improve our program design.
Over the years, our organization’s success has often been sparked by the energy of college students eager to learn and serve. But at times, it has also been jolted by the abundance of bureaucratic hoops, administrative silos, and “snails-pace” decision cycles in higher education institutions.
Our unique lens into institutions of higher education allows us to appreciate the generosity and public service-proclivities on American campuses. But it also allows us to understand the extent of opportunity and untapped capacity that exists.
Let’s think about the operational capacity of your institutions for a moment. You likely know the usage rates of classrooms on your campuses. But what you might not know is how the opportunity to move our programming onto a college campus– at no cost to us — was a catalyst for our organization’s growth and impact. With access to classrooms, computer labs, cafeterias, and office space, our students are able to gain early exposure to campus life. TeenSHARP is also now better able to leverage campus resources and engage volunteers. Ultimately, this access allowed us to expand our program offerings and to serve more students.
But if you walk through typical college campuses on a Saturday, you see dozens of classrooms with untapped potential to be sites of learning, community engagement, and empowerment.
You’ll see libraries under capacity while surrounding communities might have little access to books and adequate study spaces.
And you’ll see gyms and fields– especially for colleges in urban areas — with unrealized potential to be sites of recreational opportunity and sanctuary; providing access to safe, state-of-the-art facilities for members of the local community.
What would it look like if we assessed the intellectual capacity for community empowerment within higher education institutions?
Think about the impact we could see if academic support service centers could be made accessible on a “standby” basis to students and adult learners in the community. Or the benefits of K-12 educators and college professors working together to address issues of curriculum, rigor, instruction, and K-16 alignment in Centers for Teaching and Learning on college campuses.
Now, we know Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) are all the rage right now. But what about making in-person classes with extra capacity more accessible to the surrounding community?
Many of our TeenSHARP students have been able to audit college courses, complete all the assigned work, and receive a letter from the professor assessing their performance. Although they did not receive credit for these courses, these letters spoke well of their ability to handle college-level work and contributed significantly to their success when they applied to college.
TeenSHARP has also offered opportunities for high school students to experience college instruction in our summer programs. Over the course of six weeks on Saturdays during the summer, students participated in classes taught by different college professors, read different scholarly texts, and gained exposure to different disciplines. These classes piqued our students’ interest in new fields of study and many of them are now pursuing these fields as majors at colleges like Vassar College, Smith College, UMass-Amherst, etc.
As K-12 institutions wrestle with how to ensure students have access to rigorous courses and are truly college ready, there’s significant potential to further leverage the hundreds of courses taught on campuses each year to help address these gaps.
Finally, imagine the win-win scenario that would arise out of institutions of higher education connecting researchers on their campuses with individuals and organizations that could apply their research.
At TeenSHARP, we often invite professors to conduct workshops for parents and students on various topics. Earlier this year, we hosted a professor who shared her research on the impact of parent praise on children’s motivation and development. The result: our parents left with new information to inform their approaches to parenting and the researcher left with new questions and challenges to further explore. This professor later informed us that she had never presented her research to such an audience! (See: Academics Can Change the World–If they Stop Talking Only to their Peers)
A few years ago we invited leading scholar– Dr. Shaun Harper– to conduct a workshop for students and parents on the lessons from his National Black Male Achievement study. One of his findings– that successful black males on college campuses were “appliers”– resulted in a shift in our program design in order to cultivate such habits in our students. We started to emphasize the importance of identifying and applying for prestigious enrichment opportunities. We established relationships with these various programs and became a pipeline into selective opportunities that are often unknown to low-income and minority students. As a result, our students have participated in language immersion programs in China, interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House, served as Bank of America Student Leader interns, and have been selected for Fly-in programs to visit top colleges.
These are just a few examples of how higher education can be a catalyst for social entrepreneurs like us and, ultimately, engines for community empowerment.
And we are sure you can share other stories of your institution’s impact– locally and even globally. But we want to challenge higher education not to be satisfied with an assortment of instances of community impact. It is critical that higher education institutions work with community partners to assess and imagine what full capacity looks like.
And with that north star in your view, work aggressively toward a day when higher education will truly fulfill… emphasis on fill…its public purpose.