iUniversity: Building Bridges to the Future – The Socjourn

Picture the following scenario: a small group of wunderkinds celebrates the end of a long day at their university. Upon arriving at their dorm, they flounce into mismatched furniture, pop open bottles of beer and wax poetic about the future of humankind. Lubricated by the alcohol, their speculations venture deep into the realm of “What Might Be.” Though much of the brainstorming might be fanciful, nevertheless, every now and then the group stumbles upon an idea that has the trappings of a useful and–perhaps even a realizable–scheme. As such, the dormitory think tank shifts its focus from whimsical conjecture to matters of practical applicability. How do we get there from here? Their enthusiasm is so sincere that they may not even register the crucial transition that the group undergoes: from an informal straggle of partiers to an outcomes-driven team. Eventually, against long odds, they develop a workable plan to implement a fantastic technological breakthrough. In doing so, they modify the terrain of the information society and the everyday lives of millions of people. What’s more, they often garner tidy fortunes for themselves.

How many times has this happened? Names such as Page, Brin, Dell, Woz, Jobs, Gates, Allen, and Zuckerberg leap to mind.

Unreal as it may seem, university dorms have incubated many of the most ground-breaking technological advancements that have transpired over the past several decades. Since ventures such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Dell Computers (just to name a few) all flickered to life in the humble confines of university dormitories, this would seem to suggest that dorms–or, perhaps, the universities in which they are housed–offer particularly fertile ground in which to germinate IT revolutions.

So, where will the next great idea come from, and, more importantly, what will it be? Unfortunately, it’s not possible to answer either of those questions precisely. The future is too full of mystery to predict exactly what’s coming down the pike. Nevertheless, I think, given the trends that have helped shape the present, it is reasonable to expect a steady stream of major innovations from the fortuitous collaborations that tend to originate in university dorms.

Thus, if we want to blaze a path toward a better, brighter future, then we should do our best to ensure that every aspiring student has the necessary opportunities to access the innovation-inspiring environment of higher education. We may not know who the next Page, Brin or Zuckerberg will be, but the odds of producing the next generation of inspired geniuses will only increase by expanding access to higher education.

Yet, at a time when the pay-offs for higher education are more obvious than ever, barriers to university-level education are cropping up all across the USA. Due to nation-wide funding cuts, each year students are forced to bear a greater percentage of the total cost of higher education. As a result, many students who can’t afford the sticker price will witness the doors of academia slam shut in their faces. Preposterous as it may be, the next Brin, Page or Zuckerberg could end up being pushed out of higher education and their inestimable contributions will be lost.

In the short term, states might succeed in balancing their budgets on the backs of students, but what will the long-term costs of those policies be?

Certainly, education is not cheap. It has taken an enormous investment to construct the modern educational system. However, I think it is fair to say that, having made that investment, the dividends have been spectacular: education has been a key ingredient in helping the US become the wealthiest, most powerful, most technologically-advanced nation on the planet. Indeed, I believe it is possible for the US to continue reaping huge rewards from higher education, but only by enhancing its commitment to access-for-all, and by maintaining its philosophy of education as a long-term investment in the future. The US will remain the leader of the information society, but only so long as we recognize that higher education is a bridge to the future. We can tear down that bridge, or we can choose to shore it up and then proudly march across it.

The choice is ours. The future awaits.