COMMENTARY: We need a new model for higher ed and regional sustainability

Imagine a higher-education institution that generates community wealth, sets an example for regional sustainability and serves as a vital centerpiece of the community where students and residents can grow, acquire new skills, raise families and participate in civic life. This kind of higher-ed institution would be so much more than just a university; it could be described as a “multiversity” with roots that go deep into the legacy, history and assets of a region while fostering meaningful and lasting relationships for long-term economic growth.

A recent Institute for the Future report sought to imagine what a new kind of higher ed institution could look like in California. Using futures thinking, it integrated deep analytical and systems research with imagination to envision something drastically different from what we have today because what we have learned from the past few years is that the unimaginable can become the new normal overnight.

Longer-term futures thinking and planning is exactly what’s needed today. California’s 13 regions are abuzz with state planning for the federal infrastructure bill, California’s Community Economic Resilience Fund and the Regional K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program, which will send billions to regions from Los Angeles to the Eastern Sierra. Meanwhile, the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges are busy figuring out ways to meet the targets they set with the governor — increase enrollment every year, eliminate equity gaps in transfer and graduation rates, and offer debt-free degrees — in exchange for billions in state funds.

So how can these long-standing institutions be refashioned and re-imagined for the critical economic development roles they play in these regions? We would root universities within an integrated cluster of institutions dedicated to building wealth in a particular community, rather than solo institutions competing to be the most prestigious and exclusive, producing more generic degrees because, well, everyone should have one. Developing public colleges and universities into a place-based “multiversity” is a catalyst for social change and solving pressing problems and meeting the needs of its community with a strong social compact at the regional level — an agreement and commitment from key local institutions and leaders in education, government, business, labor and the arts.

In this vision, the multiversity would not just educate individuals, but also promote societal cohesion, economic development and environmental stewardship. Budgets are allocated based on integrated regional goals, not on individual institutions’ goals. Economic development in this model emphasizes scaling deep and not scaling wide, namely leveraging local resources to benefit everyone within the community and securing strong community ties, both of which are critical for community resilience and economic well-being. It uses the collective economic heft of universities and colleges to drive down the price of housing and extend broadband to every resident. This community-driven approach eliminates barriers for traditionally underserved students and first-generation students, such as long commutes, difficulty transferring courses between institutions, and barriers to gaining on-the-job training and experience.

We have the resources now to re-imagine and then redesign how California’s higher education meets the needs of its people and its communities. This is a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to jump-start new initiatives and investments that could result in thriving communities and socio-economic opportunities for all. This demands nothing less than our imagination — our best ideas for making our systems more inclusive and equitable for the 21st century. In short, this moment is about transformation, not incremental change. Our hope is that this vision of a new “multiversity” can spur innovative and imaginative thinking in regions for better education and economic development planning.

We can’t predict exactly what California will look like in the next decade, but we know one thing: The future is not predetermined. Rather than limit us to what is possible, let’s take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to place education at the core of regional systems that build stronger communities and promote socio-economic mobility for all Californians.


Marina Gorbis is executive director of Institute for the Future, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto.

Christopher Cabaldon served 11 terms as the mayor of West Sacramento. He has also served as director of the Assembly Higher Education Committee and vice chancellor of the California Community Colleges

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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