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Do We Need a New “Truman Commission” to Define Higher Education?

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As college educators, we cannot promise to teach students everything, but we can pledge to help them learn anything.



The posting below asks if it is time to consider forming a contemporary “Truman Commission” to articulate a new consensus on the meaning and purpose of higher education in its many parts. It is by Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus and University Professor Emeritus, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY. Copyright 2021 Robert A. Scott. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




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Do We Need a New “Truman Commission” to Define Higher Education?



In recent years, there has been an increasing number of critics of higher education, some of whom even question the value of a college degree. The former Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, famously said, “A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward.” According to recent reports by Pew and Gallup, those surveyed said that they are deeply concerned about higher education: they question the relevance of academic programs and their cost. 


There also are calls for student loan debt relief, tuition refunds from COVID shutdowns, and free college for all or at least for those below a certain income level. Other reasons for dissatisfaction with higher education are grounded in allegations that college faculty bring their political and social views into the classroom. Still other critics complain that higher education does not do enough to reduce income inequality, that institutions hoard endowments and do not fulfill their tax-exempt status, that they tolerate racial and religious discrimination, and limit access to students of all ages. 


Many of the complaints beg the question: what do we mean by higher education and the liberal arts? With both beauty schools and Bates College included in the definition of higher education, and both Oberlin and online companies called colleges, it is no wonder there is confusion. The World Bank, for example, defines post-secondary or tertiary education as including universities as well as trade schools and colleges. Perhaps it is time to clarify the terms and define what they mean.


First, though, we should remind ourselves of the benefits of a college education. Study after study has demonstrated that college graduates have higher lifetime earnings, less unemployment, better health outcomes, less experience with incarceration, better voting records, and are more likely to volunteer and donate blood than those without a similar level of education.


Historically, the term higher education referred only to higher order mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities, with a deeper introduction to values such as the scientific method, respect for others, and teamwork. This form of higher education is built upon learning in history and historical method, i.e., learning how to examine precedents and context; imagination, i.e., learning how to question what is and imagine new ways of considering what might be; compassion, i.e. learning that sympathy and empathy are not sufficient and that compassion, i.e., acting on knowledge, is important for citizenship; and reflection, i.e., learning to ask about what can be learned from an event or a book or a speech, an essential quality for living a life of meaning. As college educators, we cannot promise to teach students everything, but we can pledge to help them learn anything.


Higher education should promote inquisitiveness; it should assume that the professional mind is interdisciplinary and not bound by borders; it should be intentionally intercultural, recognizing that ideas are not limited by nationality or any other characteristic; and it should involve experience, whether in a lab, fieldwork, or the act of composition. This form of higher education is the source of advanced learning and research in science and medicine, agriculture and metallurgy, among other fields.


It is often forgotten that the Land Grant Act of 1863 promoted a classical or classical as well as a practical education for the “industrial class” or the common person. It provided incentives for states to start colleges or build on existing institutions in order to broaden geographic access to higher education and to make higher education available to working people, women, and African Americans without regard to income. 


Later, the 1947 President’s Commission on Higher Education for Democracy, otherwise known as the Truman Commission, defined the responsibilities of colleges and universities and called for a broad liberal education for a “fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living… for international understanding and cooperation …(and) for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs.” The Commission recommended the expansion of adult education programs, the creation of a system of free community colleges, and the integration of vocational and liberal education, among other societal benefits.


The liberal or classical subjects recommended, called artes liberales, i.e., preparing free and unrestricted persons, consist of literature, history, languages, philosophy, mathematics, and a general education in contrast to professional and technical studies. In this use, liberal is not in opposition to conservative, but is derived from its classical meaning of “free” as opposed to subjugated. In the term liberal arts, “arts” does not refer to painting and theater but to its Latin root, i.e., something made by human skill. 


The Commission also promoted a higher education that would prepare students to be able to identify the problems to solve as well as how to solve them. I think of such an education as transformative as well as liberating; it liberates the provincial and parochial mind. This is in contrast to schooling that is more transactional, like training. I think of the liberating education to be as much as about the development of character and citizenship as it is about the preparation for careers and commerce.


Over time, the classical purposes of higher or advanced education as referenced in the Truman Commission have been affected by four major influences. The first force for change was the introduction into the undergraduate curriculum of pre-professional and technical subjects sought by career-oriented students and their families. These newer, practical subjects include fields such as public relations as a discipline, real estate, insurance, and other course subjects that formally were learned on the job. 


This trend was reinforced by more recent federal initiatives such as the National Defense Education Act in 1958 and the first in a series of Higher Education Acts beginning in 1965. These Acts focused on the employability of graduates and promoted the expansion of access to colleges and universities through scholarships and loan programs. These policies encouraged a change in thinking about higher learning from being a public good, benefiting society at large, to college access serving as a private benefit. With this change, colleges that had been free started charging tuition and the reliance on student loans expanded.


The second force for change was the specialization of knowledge as a consequence of Ph.D. requirements and the faculty reward system requiring contributions to knowledge and peer-reviewed publications. The third force for change was the fragmentation of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences due to the influence of those applying scientific models of knowing to the liberal arts. In an ironic twist, this increasing specialization of subject matter courses increased choice selections for students but reduced the coherence of degree requirements. This was a consequence of concern to and anticipated by the Truman Commission.


The fourth force for change was the expansion of higher education enrollments and the use of a college degree as a means of screening job applicants. During this and ensuing periods, the “college” credential became a surrogate for the appraisal of individual talents and motivation. In part due to this development, for-profits schools began calling themselves colleges. 


Also, some nonprofit colleges and hospitals sought the university label in order to achieve distinctiveness. For example, in the late 1980s, Monmouth College and Rider College in New Jersey applied for university status to assist in recruiting students from other countries where the label college is equated to high school. Not long after, former teacher’s colleges that had become more comprehensive institutions claimed the university label as a matter of prestige. The State tried to halt this trend as an example of “mission creep” and attempted to impose criteria for the label “university” to be used. This did not work because in the U.S. there are examples of institutions with doctoral programs called colleges, like Dartmouth, and others with only master’s degrees called universities, like Bucknell.


One of the reasons critics complain about elitism in higher education seems to lie in the exclusivity of the few most highly selective and prestigious universities. For example, Harvard admits under 5% of all those who apply. Yale admits under 7%. In other words, they must decide whether they will admit a freshman class by using a lottery system, by taking the highest scoring applicants in descending order, by enrolling only those with a family connection or from certain secondary schools, or by attempting to compose a class with a variety of characteristics and life experiences. They try to give emphasis to diversity as a criterion because they know that academic credentials are highly correlated to family socio-economic status and income and they want a more heterogeneous student body. One such measure of diversity is the number of students receiving Pell Grants. On all counts, however, they choose candidates whom they believe can succeed. 


A major reason for college and university admissions officers to consider characteristics of diversity is that inclusiveness and opportunity are central to the mission of contemporary higher education. It also was a recommendation of the Truman Commission.


College graduates, whether of Asian origin, Black, Latinx, Native American, or white, will live in communities and work in enterprises that are influenced by international and inter-cultural forces. They will be neighbors, co-workers, and supervisors of, or be supervised by, persons of a different ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, or religion. Therefore, it is imperative for colleges to do as much as they can to create diverse campus communities of students, faculty, and staff. By and large, the high schools which their applicants attend do not provide such diversity, so colleges compensate for it. They know that diversity promotes learning.


It is these approaches to student admissions, these attitudes about college education and who merits advancement, and the misunderstanding of the word liberal in the term liberal arts that lead to claims of elitism in higher education. This, then, leads to questioning the role of merit in society. The purpose of the liberal arts is to prepare independent thinkers, not ideological acolytes, but this distinction is not appreciated.


Furthermore, the stewards of colleges and universities, the boards of trustees, are neither selected for their knowledge of the purposes of higher education nor versed in the practices of good governance. Under 10% of college and university trustees have professional experience in the enterprise, something we would rarely hear about at a successful corporation. As a consequence of selection criteria and a lack of training, board members are neither equipped nor educated to monitor the alignment of mission, goals, strategies, resource allocations, reward systems, and results of the institutions they hold in trust. Thus, they generally cannot assure that the mission is clear and that goals are supported. Graduation rates of just 65% after six years of study at private institutions are testimony to this. The rate for public institutions is 58%.


In addition, college and university presidents often take seriously their title of Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and institutions suffer the consequences. CEOs generally focus on matters of money, labor, market share, short term results, delegation of authority, size, and scale. The campus president should serve as the Chief Mission Officer, focusing on mission and purpose; student success in terms of retention, graduation, and advancement of knowledge, skills, abilities, and values; faculty as partners in the enterprise, not simply as employees; and long-term results. They must focus on money, of course, but without losing sight of purpose. They must be efficacious as well efficient and effective.


The U.S. does not have a higher education system per se. It has a about 6,000 public, private or independent, and corporate-owned for-profit institutions of post-high school education and training calling themselves colleges or universities. The terms higher education and postsecondary education are used interchangeably. However, only a subset of institutions has a mission for preparing free and unrestricted persons, goals for advanced and higher learning, and a commitment to educating students for service to the common good as well as for individual fulfillment. Most institutions would fall into the category of tertiary education, the term used in other English-speaking countries and described above. 


Given this diversity of institutions and corporations claiming the mantle of college or university, public concerns about cost and equity, and institutional focus on autonomy more than on fulfillment of publicly approved charters, it may be time for a contemporary “Truman Commission” to articulate a new consensus on the meaning and purpose of higher education in its many parts.




Dr. Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus, Adelphi University 
M: 516.650.1611 || Author, How University Boards Work/