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The Role of Higher Education in Today’s Global Economy

Today’s business world has no shortage of high-profile biographies that make it easy to question the value of higher education. The career trajectories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, British mobile phone mogul John Caudwell, and Twitter founder Evan Williams are called forth to make the case that college isn’t needed for winning in business—or for making lasting change.

by Donna Rapaccioli, Dean and University Professor at Gabelli Business School, Fordham University

For each member of this select roster, however, there are several million students—more than 150 million worldwide—who are actively engaged in learning at universities. Rather than question their choice, I believe with conviction that they have availed themselves of a wondrous, unparalleled experience. Higher education offers at least three advantages that are rare in most parts of our society: the gift of global awareness, the process of discovery, and a much-needed focus on the most pressing problems facing our world today.

My certainty in the value of higher education stems partly from the fact that more than 8,000 students have earned their degrees while I have served as dean of Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business. Having learned about their backgrounds and marveled at their trajectories, I know that when higher education is done right, there is magic in these halls. Of course, much has changed since the founding of the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco in the year 859 and the University of Bologna in 1088. Students wear sweatshirts and denim rather than heavy robes. Inkwells gave way to pens, which in turn were banished by Surface laptops. The library card catalog only lives on as scrap paper for the reference desk staff.

At the same time, though, so many things are the same.

First and foremost, universities remain a bastion of awareness of self and others. If secondary education is a place to develop a foundation in the familiar, higher education is a place to push one’s boundaries. University-level coursework puts students face to face with concepts that are new, unfamiliar, and often challenging—in a good way. University students can take courses in Medieval Sinners and Outcasts (history), Ethics in Business (law and ethics), Global Consumer Behavior (marketing), Introduction to Peace and Justice (peace and justice studies), and Political Economy of Poverty (political science). Universities like Fordham value respectful, deliberative discussions that educate students on what others believe and give them a chance to reflect on what they believe. There are few institutions in global society that can match universities in their role as a convener of productive dialogue and exchange.

It cannot go unmentioned that the place of the university classroom as an open forum for the fruitful transfer of ideas is at risk today, as the forces of uncivil rhetoric threaten to undermine our ability to learn from one another. But the good that higher education does in this regard, in millions of classrooms, outweighs the difficulties. An example that holds meaning for me is captured in a small sculpture of a ram, maybe two inches long, that sits on my desk. The ram is a symbol of Fordham, representing not just its athletics teams, but also its ethos of perseverance and persistence. It also symbolizes our school’s ongoing relationship with a network of Kenyan carvers who create beautiful work in soapstone. About a decade ago, we forged a connection with these carvers as part of our Fair Trade program, which teaches students to cultivate U.S. markets for sustainably produced goods from around the world. Through the Fair Trade initiative, Fordham freshmen through seniors get to know artisans in Kenya whom they might have never met outside the context of their university studies. They learn about the stone carvers’ business objectives, personal goals, expertise, and culture—and the carvers learn about theirs. Trips to Kenya with their professors allow our undergraduates to gain perspective.

Higher education programs around the world recognize this value of global immersion and have brought it to life through extensive exchange networks. Students from Fudan University in China study economics in Paris, several hundred students spend a term at Fordham’s London campus each semester, and students from Politecnico di Milano continue their engineering and computer science coursework at the University of Illinois at Chicago, among millions of other combinations. Collaborative master’s programs, in which universities form long-range partnerships that jointly award degrees and combine their students in the same classroom at regular intervals, are becoming popular: Fordham offers a master of science program in global finance, for example, in which our students learn alongside classmates from 27 global partner schools, including SDA Bocconi, LUISS, ESSCA and AMS, for six weeks each summer. In university programs such as these, students have a chance to find common ground and purpose with people from different circumstances and different places.

Higher education also remains a place of discovery. The exchanges that take place in universities are key to knowledge generation. Think of all the things we use in our daily lives that have their roots in university research: the seat belt (developed at Cornell University), web browsers (which got their start at the University of Illinois), Plexiglas (hailing from McGill University in Canada), flu shots (originating from research at the University of Rochester), and probiotics (thanks to the University of St. Petersburg in Russia). Universities sponsor inquiry that would be unlikely to thrive in the same unfettered way in the outside world, and dedicated faculty members cultivate the doctoral students whose work ensures that we have a next generation of explorers.

Importantly, today’s colleges and universities recognize the fact that all of this discussion, deliberation, and discovery are for naught if they are not directed at solving the world’s most pressing problems. Fordham, like most Jesuit institutions, strives to direct the talent and thought of its students, faculty, and administrators toward identifying and resolving the issues that keep our society from reaching its fullest potential. The demand for clean, renewable energy. Hunger. Poverty. Inequality. The need for responsible consumption. At the start of each school year, we challenge our incoming freshmen to come up with a business idea. Not just one that will make money. One that will change the world.

Their ideas are often inspiring: a mobile food truck that sells healthy meals and donates a share of the profits to community-based organizations, a media company devoted to changing gender-based social standards and structures, and a business that works toward regenerating brownfield sites that were contaminated by former industrial use, to name a recent few. This project serves as an annual reminder that among the 150 million university students worldwide are individuals who have the creativity and drive to change society for the better—and that higher education provides them with the opportunities for reflection, exchange, and discovery that lead to the achievement of their goals.


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