Public Agenda Chairman and Co-Founder Daniel Yankelovich has observed that, in many cases, collective thinking about a complex issue moves through three broad phases. The initial stage is consciousness-raising, when people first become aware of an issue; here the issue moves from being of concern only to a few specialists or experts to something that is defined by the entire community as a serious problem. The second stage, which he calls “choicework,” is the painful process of wrestling with alternative responses to the problem. This is, as Yankelovich sees it, the most difficult stage of the process. Unrealistic thinking and miscommunication often characterize the initial phase of the choicework stage, since it takes an extended period of time for people to begin to confront the alternatives and their tradeoffs. Only after this difficult work has been done is the community ready to move on to the final stage, when the participants try to form a consensus or compromise around specific approaches.
The goal of this project, done for the Futures Project, was to assess the thinking of the higher education community on one important area: the response to vastly increased competition in the higher education arena. To examine this issue we conducted a series of open-ended interviews with college and university presidents, faculty members, and legislators who oversee higher education. One hypothesis emerging from this research is that the higher education community may be only in the early levels of Yankelovich’s choicework stage. Virtually all of our respondents realize they are in a new competitive world, with new forces and constraints. While the problems that need to be solved are clear, the debate itself has not taken a final shape. Our interviews gave us a snapshot of the community in the process of starting to think about choices and responses. On some issues, major players (especially legislators and academic presidents) are still completely talking past each other, with no common framework. In other areas, people acknowledge deep problems but have not yet articulated realistic choices for dealing with them.
In interviews and group discussions with higher education officials and state legislators, we found a growing number say market forces and increased competition are reshaping academia.