Speaking of Education

Higher education is experiencing transformative change driven by increased demands for enrollment, changing demographics, the growth of consumerism, the impact of globalization, developments in technology and national needs for a work force prepared to fuel our knowledge-driven economy. Yet, in the words of Brit Kirwan, chair of the American Council of Education's Board of Directors and chancellor of the University of Maryland System, a "perfect storm" is brewing in the crosscurrents of reduced public funding, higher costs, surging enrollment and increased reliance on learning and research centers to support economic growth. Of particular concern is the shift in public attitudes toward postsecondary education from that of a "public good" to that of a "private good."

Historically, the social compact among government, taxpayers and educational institutions has been that in return for public investment, education would provide for the "public good" through broad accessibility, social mobility, active citizenry and a work force required for economic growth. Although some of these deliverables have been challenged, it is true that since World War II this investment has paid off handsomely by building the largest middle class in history, a successful economy and a higher education system that is emulated worldwide. If that social compact is broken, and public funding continues to decrease, higher education may not be able to deliver on its public mission.

The public good

It is well known that postsecondary education is associated with higher salaries--a fact often used to assert the "private benefit" perspective and to justify reduced funding plus transfer of increased costs to students. But there is also evidence for its public good. Reports have demonstrated public economic benefits such as increased tax revenues, greater productivity and decreased reliance on government financial support. Public social benefits include increased volunteerism, voting participation, community service and charitable giving, as well as appreciation of diversity, improved ability to adapt to technology and reduced crime rates.

The American Council on Education recently devoted its annual meeting to the future of the social compact, reaffirming its benefit for the nation and exploring strategies to re-energize public support. As usual when I attend such meetings, I examine the impact of trends for psychology, consider our role in national efforts and promote our contribution when possible. In this column I address only one of many issues I considered.

Psychology contributes

Education in psychology contributes to the public good. It promotes critical thinking and communication skills fundamental to an educated citizenry. It promotes recruitment of talented and diverse students to our discipline and profession for careers in science and practice to serve the public welfare. Psychology in teacher education can enhance teaching and learning in our nation's classrooms. These benefits are ones we most often promote; they have some recognition but need more. However, there is one "public good" that is less recognized in public policy or by the public, and for which we perhaps have not demonstrated sufficient support. Many of us value psychology's knowledge base as fundamental to an informed citizenry for the 21st century; thus we see education in psychology as an important common good.

Participants in the 2001 APA Education Leadership Conference highlighted areas in which education in psychology can contribute to the "public good"--for example, knowledge and skills related to health and behavior, safety, relationships, group dynamics, intergroup relations, conflict resolution, emotions, coping, judgment and decision-making, learning, development, communication and persuasion, and social influences on behavior. Our educational institutions can promote an informed citizenry on topics such as academic achievement, prejudice, violence prevention, parenting, behavior change, resilience, peacemaking, aging and sexuality, to name only a few.

Many of us support teaching psychology at all educational levels. We believe we must promote related efforts or risk being marginalized as a discipline (with others filling the gap). However, similar to the problem higher education is facing in our society, I do not believe the public understands the "common good" nature of this argument for psychology, except in a very limited way related to the preparation of scientists and health-care practitioners.

This lack of understanding has clear implications for public policy and funding. We must improve public understanding of psychology's relevance for everyday life and the nation's future. We might also consider ways to collaborate with those on a similar mission for higher education itself. I welcome input from those actively engaged in promoting the teaching of--or conducting research on--psychology as part of a "public good," especially those who are incorporating those efforts in collaboration with institutional higher education advocacy efforts. I believe psychology can contribute to the overall higher education agenda as well.

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