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Serving the Public Good

Since its founding in 2000, the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good has sought to “increase awareness, understanding, commitment, and action in support of higher education’s public service mission” (Burkhardt, Pasque, Bowman & Martinez, 2009, p. xiii).  To understand the mission of the Forum, it is vital to give some additional thought to the meaning of the term “public good”.

Historically in the United States, a public discourse often focused on the many public goods associated with education, namely, increased democratic participation, support for the arts, lower instances of criminal activity, and the like. This traditional viewpoint has been fully documented in many previous reports, including several issued by the National Forum itself. Among those most frequently cited is a report on a series of national dialogues sponsored by our organization several years ago (citation). The conclusions reached from these discussions were more fully developed in follow-up meetings held in conjunction with the Wingspread Conference Center and several foundations. The arguments for and against a “public good orientation” for colleges and universities were captured in one of our most frequently referenced book, “Higher Education for the Public Good: Voices from a Movement” published by Jossey-Bass in 2005.

These various discussions were influenced by focus-group and survey research which we either conducted or commissioned that provided us insight into how attitudes about higher education were changing as more individuals were aspiring to attend college. We also organized discussions on this general topic in partnership with the Lumina Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and many community based organizations, focusing an exceptionally wide range of conversations on the question “What is College For?’ Reports on our findings have been captured in a series of papers and articles. The most basic conclusion to be drawn is that college participation is regarded differently by individuals depending on their personal and group backgrounds, economic circumstances, and previous educational experiences. These differences in perspective carry over to whether higher education is seen as a public benefit (or private) with social and political consequences (or merely economic implications for students themselves).

It is often said that college graduates will make one million dollars more in their lifetime than those who did not attend college.  This statistic, along with others about the financial benefits of higher education, encourages millions of young Americans to acquire a college degree.  Personal income is an example of a private good, or private benefit – usually tied to increased education. While we believe there is much more to education than the ability to earn income, we acknowledge that not everyone agrees with this or sees the balance in the same way. It is not really a matter of engaging in additional research to prove that higher education matters to communities and society as a whole. That research is available and clear. Perceptions and motives to attend college differ. Institutional motives and interests differ as well. Motives for financing public access to higher education also differ from state to state, from time to time and across generations.

One argument for the public benefit of higher education access is captured in the recognition that our society is changing demographically---and very quickly. Research at the National Forum examines how providing higher education to everyone in society, specifically underprivileged and minority groups, can help foster a stronger democracy.  Examples of these historically excluded populations, analyzed at the National Forum, include different racial minorities, women, and low socio-economic status societies.  According to research by Julia Garbus, higher education increases “civic awareness, democratic participation, and the well-being of all inhabitants of the United States,” therefore positively affecting the “public good” (Martinez, Pasque, Bowman, & Chambers, 2005, p. 7).  In citing this research we said,  

“Universities and four- and two-year colleges are some of the most valuable laboratories for democratic experimentation in contemporary America. Universities and colleges are not only an important part of communities, but they are often communities unto themselves — requiring collective action from a wide array of students, faculty, and administrators from a variety of backgrounds” (Continuing the Conversation, 2012).  

Higher education has already shaped our current society, but expanding it will create more opportunities for more people.  It will advance and improve the way our country operates.  Providing college access to society at large will improve the quality of life in the United States, creating social uplift and serving as a public good, not simply a private benefit.

The very concept of a collective public good may be at risk in a society that increasingly defines success as the result of individual economic gain and private control. In many ways, the higher education system has contributed to this trend and is being dramatically changed by it.  In a recent speech given to State Higher Education Executive Officers, John Burkhardt pointed to the implications that might come with this shift in focus:

The essential interdependency on which nations rise and fall is carried in the social institutions that we create and defend. The most important investment we make collectively is in the durability and continuing evolution of these social institutions. If we are to be a democratic society our social institutions must express, enact and embody democracy and freedom. If we are to be otherwise, then our social institutions can and will be otherwise.

We must acknowledge the sudden and unexpected fragility of our circumstances and the vulnerability of our social institutions as the world enters its next period of revolution, one that will be driven by changes in demography, expectations, concerns for security and economics as much as technology and politics. Higher education as a distinct, pervasive and influential social institution will be tested in new ways under these conditions. This will be our test: to provide public leadership and to continue to promote higher education as an important public benefit.



Burkhardt, J.C. (2017). SHEEO Conference Keynote Address.

Burkhardt, J. C., Pasque, P. A., Bowman, N. A., & Martinez, M. (2009). Higher education for the public good: Exploring new perspectives. In P. A. Pasque, N. A. Bowman & M. Martinez (Eds.), Critical issues in higher education for the public good: Qualitative, quantitative, & historical research perspectives (pp. xiii-xx). Kennesaw, GA: Kennesaw State University Press.

Continuing the Conversation. (2012) Dayton Days Research Meetings. Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation.

Martinez, M., Pasque, P. A., Bowman, N. A., & Chambers, T. C. (2005). Editor’s foreword. In M. Martinez, P. A. Pasque, N. A. Bowman & T. C. Chambers (Eds.), Multidisciplinary perspectives on higher education for the public good (pp. 6-8). Ann Arbor, MI: The National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good.