COMPETITION - for faculty, for students, for funds, and of course for the best football and basketball teams - is a characteristic of United States colleges and universities. In the coming year, calls for the academy to shift some of its intramural sports to the nation's economic playing field will be sounded loud and clear. Driven by concerns about the competitive decline of the US economy in world markets, governors, state and federal legislators, business executives, and presidential candidates, as if in chorus, are calling on the nation's campuses to play a more direct role in improving the caliber of the country's work force and in aiding the development of new technologies.
On what other institution could such demands from so many different quarters be made - with any hope of their being met? Quite simply, none, says Ernest L. Boyer, former US commissioner of education and now president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Colleges and universities are in the forefront of America's transition from an industrial to an information economy, and ``the challenge has never been greater,'' he says.
But hand in hand with the call to help have come sharp criticisms. The past year saw a host of reports, studies, and commissions decrying the poor health of American higher education.
``Many institutions have paid too little attention to teaching, to values and ethics, to the corruption of big-time athletics,'' Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, told a meeting of college fund raisers in Boston this summer. Pop culture and careerism have taken their toll, and the curriculum has little if anything to do with what students should learn. In much blunter terms, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett raised similar issues last fall in a talk given at Harvard.
``The negative upsurge was inevitable,'' says Mr. Boyer. All the misgivings that people have held about the quality of education at the elementary and secondary level for the last five years ``have moved onto the campus,'' he says.
In addition, higher education must deal with runaway tuition costs, aging and outdated research facilities, and the long-term specter of widespread decline in the professoriat. What must not be lost sight of, says Boyer, is the unrivaled supremacy and quality of American institutions of higher learning. Nations the world over send their best and brightest to be educated in the US, he says.
What higher education must do, says president Bok, is form a new partnership with government and the private sector to solve some of the more pressing problems facing American society, without abandoning its traditional role.
Raising the alarm about the demise of the university's traditional role is Allan Bloom in his recent book, ``The Closing of the American Mind'' (Simon & Schuster, New York), now in its third month as No. 1 on the best-seller list. Bloom cogently and comprehensively accuses the modern university of abandoning its ``true'' mission, the education of rational, independent thinkers capable of asking the classic question ``What is the good life in a democracy?'' and also, ``How does one live it?''
Dr. Bloom challenges a host of utilitarian assumptions held by colleges and universities, such as that they should primarily provide students with marketable skills and conduct socially useful research.
For Boyer, Bloom's book points to another more fundamental problem, the ``quality of campus life'' issue. Higher education came out of the '60s having abandoned almost all standards about social conditions, about its role in loco parentis, he says.
Nevertheless, some colleges and university communities are 30,000- and 40,000-strong. ``They are small cities, and what is left largely undetermined are the responsibilities of faculty and students to each other as a community of learners,'' he says. Connecting the classroom more closely with life outside the academy will be a major task for college administrators, says Boyer.
A summer survey of the American Council on Education found that half of the nation's colleges and universities had recently completed a review of their curricula, and most of the rest planned to do so. Most colleges reported trying to strengthen general education with emphasis on writing, math, and computer-related skills. Three-quarters of the campuses said they would introduce some form of student assessment (testing) in the next few years.
One area where all parties are in agreement (over the ends if not the means) is that something must be done to rein in the rapidly rising costs of higher education while simultaneously helping students pay for a college education. On this front, a bevy of pre- and post-payment plans, private and public, are on the table.
The College Board reports that for four-year institutions, the average private tuition cost will be $7,110, while the average for public institutions will be $1,359. The average per-year cost of attending four-year private colleges this fall will be $11,982, and $5,789 at public colleges. The average tuition increase for the academic year '87-88 is projected at between 6 and 7 percent, with a 4 to 5 percent jump predicted for '88-89.
More heartening than any single financial aid plan, though, say college officials, is that an early, bipartisan consensus seems to have formed, with all of the 1988 presidential candidates calling for greater financial assistance for college-bound students.
Despite the high cost, in cold economic terms, going to college still pays off. A recently issued report by the Conference Board, a business research group based in New York, finds the nation's best-educated households garner the largest slice of US consumer spending. While college-educated families account for 20 percent of the population, they now earn one-third of all income and control half of all discretionary income, money left over after paying for necessities.
One problem that campuses won't face this year is a decline in enrollments. Dire predictions stemming from a sharp drop in the number of traditional college-age 18- to 22-year-olds never materialized. Campuses offset the decline with increased recruitment of part-time and older students.
Indeed, the profile of the ``typical'' college student seems to have altered irreversibly.
According to the US Census Bureau, for the past half decade the ``typical'' college student has not been an 18-year-old attending full-time for four straight years. In 1985, most college students were 22 years or older. Total enrollments for the fall of '87 show less than a 1 percent decline, with some 12.3 million students projected to attend public and private colleges.
But if a decline in total enrollment did not become the problem that was feared, recruitment and retention of minority students may have. Six out of 10 institutions have special programs to increase minority student retention. About 20 percent say that black enrollments are up, while 13 percent reported a decrease.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.