Ashoka U Influencer: How might social innovation change the course of higher education?

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 08/15/12

Editor's note: This post was written by Brittany Koteles, research fellow (storyteller and adventurer) with the U.S.-Spain Fulbright Commission and volunteer at Ashoka.

Education has been historically endeared as the great equalizer. Now, in the 21st century, universities have been held up as beacons of innovation and knowledge that have helped fuel social change in any sector you name. But it’s not so easy: Higher education is also linked to ivory tower elitism, unthinkable tuition rates, scandals, and flaws that have many asking, Is a college education worth it?

Ashoka U Changemaker Campus Director, Michele Leaman, likened the higher education community to the Titanic: There’s no denying that an iceberg is waiting for universities of the 21st century. In 2012, from Harvard and Yale’s EdX launch to Trillion Dollar Day—a day of protests against unprecedented student debt in cities across the United States—the value of a traditional college degree has never been questioned more.

So how can we keep our universities from going under and turn education around? “The only way we might do so, is if we take coordinated action from everyone on this boat,” said Leaman.

To right that ship, Ashoka U hosted its first-ever “Influencer” event earlier this summer, on July 26, during Ashoka’s Everyone a Changemaker Week®. The event brought together more than 70 higher education influencers—journalists, innovators, employers, foundation officers, campus representatives, think-tankers, and non-profiteers alike—to explore how the sector might overcome the structural barriers and challenges that are looming on an uncertain horizon. At the bottom line, the Influencer event explored the question, “How might we ignite a systemic shift in higher education?”

As a first step toward forming authentic relationships and collaboration among some of the brightest minds in the field, the event focused on seven critical challenges in higher education. We invite you to follow the seven-part blog series to get a glimpse at the conversations:
  • Access & Success: Guaranteeing access to qualified students, and ensuring that they receive the support they need to succeed

  • Civic Mission: Ensuring that the civic mission is valued and measured by institutions across the country

  • Cost & Efficacy: Tackling the rising costs and financial burden of higher education, and ensuring that college is worth the money

  • Real-World Application: Ensuring that students are applying knowledge to real-world issues, not just abstract problems

  • Culture of Innovation: Creating institutions that are flexible, agile, and able to adapt to the changing needs of students and society

  • Research & Publication: Envisioning new incentives for research that fuels social impact

  • Workforce Connection: Connecting employers with skilled graduates that are equipped to be changemakers in any workplace

A closing keynote panel featured Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka; Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University; and Martha Kanter, under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

As stated in a recent Forbes article about the Influencer, Ashoka U’s track record is proving that “social innovation is a key ingredient to the reinvention of higher education.” Innovation in education, combined with a growing community of classroom reformists, just might be able to trigger the kind of systemic change that colleges (and those paying for tuition) are begging for.

Read other pieces in this Social Innovation For Higher Education Series by AshokaU.