No one deliberately designed an economy in which these core drivers of success—innovation and technological advancements, manifested through new business formation and investment—push people off their farms, offshore their jobs and drive wages down in many sectors. Unfortunately, these have been the unintended consequences.
The only path forward for the United States is to continue on this historical trajectory of perpetual innovation, a path forged by education. Following the Second World War, our nation emerged to lead the world in educational attainment, and from there led the way to scientific discovery, new business start-ups, new industrial sectors like biotech, pioneering military preparedness, and astonishing feats of human creativity and technological genius, like landing humans on the moon or creating an Internet economy.
We are now falling from the lead on many of these indicators of success. There has even been a rise of those within our own country who believe that the American economic zenith has passed and that now it is time to retrench and cut back on investment in higher education.
Yet higher education is the single most critical adaptive function in our society. Can we educate all Americans to be more creative and entrepreneurial? Can we redesign our outmoded K-12 education system to produce students who can succeed in our colleges and universities? Can we rearticulate our community colleges to better perform their critical role in advanced training and university preparation? And, can we find a way to reconceptualize our universities to prepare broadly educated master learners who can adapt over their lifetimes to the changing socioeconomic conditions of the global knowledge economy?
All of this is possible if academic leaders emerge who understand the imperative for innovation to be both a process applied to higher education and its critical outcome. What is missing at present are leaders creating such models—that is, pathways for more students to achieve higher levels of educational attainment while graduating at the lowest possible cost. At present, we are not trending toward success at the levels necessary for continued social and economic development in the decades ahead.
Public universities, which educate nearly 70 percent of our college graduates, have declining graduation rates, rising costs of access, and higher rates of dissatisfaction from families and public investors such as state legislatures. Universities, both public and private, have generally reacted to the economic slump and escalating costs of the past few years with retrenchment rather than even minimal expansion. Their lack of creativity in adjusting to the reduction of resources has shocked governors and business leaders alike who want to see universities innovate in order to educate more students better, faster and cheaper.