Academic journal article Peer Review

Weaving Together Career and Civic Commitments for Social Change

Academic journal article Peer Review

Weaving Together Career and Civic Commitments for Social Change

Article excerpt

"Recognizing that affordability is as much about quality outcomes as costly input, we will provide the next decade's students with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in satisfying and remunerative careers that will justify the expense of undergraduate and graduate education. "

-Rochester Institute of Technology 2014 (emphasis added).

The above quote from the Rochester Institute of Technology's 2015-2025 strategic plan is one example of how an institution has embraced the public's focus on return on investment (ROI). They are not alone. Clearly, those in higher education have heard the message and are striving to prove that graduates will be workforce ready and that the return (salary upon graduation) is worthy of the student's (or parents') investment.


But what does this emphasis on workforce preparation, and the narrow focus on remuneration, mean for the civic mission of higher education? What does it mean for higher education's role in educating students for public life as well as private gain? Historically, American higher education has sought to balance career and workforce preparation with an emphasis on the development of students' civic commitments and their capacity as citizens and builders of the commons. However, with this new focus on the individual student's earning potential and narrowly defined preparation for work, higher education is ignoring the significant social and economic realities that threaten our nation's social cohesiveness, economic competitiveness, and even the viability of our democracy.

As reported in A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future, our college graduates are having to enter a world defined by "intensified global competition," increasing "demographic diversity," and "dangerous economic inequalities" (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 20). The structural nature of our society's racism, classism, sexism, hetero-sexism, and able-ism, among other forms of oppression, continues to alienate and systematically marginalize significant segments of our population. Nationwide, our demographics have shifted, as we approach 2044 when it is estimated that the United States will be a "majority minority nation" (Frey 2014). The majority populations of the largest twenty cities are now non-white. And while enrollment of students of color in higher education has increased dramatically over the past two decades, the "achievement gap" remains. Low-income minority students graduate at much lower rates than their middle- and upperclass white counterparts (Campaign for College Opportunity 2013); in fact, only one in ten low-income students will complete a college degree (Achievement First 2014). Furthermore, as we have seen all too frequently in the past year, fifty years after the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, we are still struggling to learn that "Black and Brown Lives Matter."

Unfortunately, the narrow focus on workforce preparation and an individual student's ROI ignores the deep-seated societal divisions and inequities that continue to undermine our cohesiveness, threaten our productivity, and imperil the fabric of our democracy. As the report by the National Task Force eloquently states:

A socially cohesive and economically vibrant US democracy and a viable, just global community require informed, engaged, openminded, and socially responsible people committed to the common good and practiced in 'doing democracy' (13).

This requires that we move beyond a narrow focus on economic capital (the individual student's ROI) to a framework that recognizes the importance of social, cultural, civic, and political capital as well. Our students, as future professionals and engaged community members, need to leave college with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to build a new, more inclusive, and more equitable multicultural commons. …

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