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  Access to Democracy
State-wide dialogues on higher education access underway

Access to Democracy (A2D), a statewide initiative to engage community members, teachers, students, civic leaders and the public in a discussion of access to higher education, has begun with community dialogues throughout the state.

The goal of A2D is two-pronged, says Anne Kohler-Cabot, the program's coordinator.

"The first is to increase public awareness, knowledge and understanding of current education issues. The second is to build the capacity of the community to use the tools learned in the current sessions to address other issues of importance to them in the future," Kohler-Cabot says. "The underlying premise is simple—better-informed citizens make more informed decisions."
"The underlying premise is simple—better-informed citizens make more informed decisions."—Anne Kohler-Cabot

The information obtained at these 60-90 minute community dialogues—along with detailed, localized information about educational attainment and economic prosperity—will support the work of the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has asked the commission to focus on doubling the number of college graduates and ensuring that they have the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.

The model for the program is called "deliberative dialogue," Kohler-Cabot says. That form of dialogue emphasizes the value of the process by which citizens consider various points of view on a given issue, rather than seeking consensus on a particular solution, she says.

"The process involves the framing of complex issues that have some public significance, moderated discussion that weighs the cost, benefits and tradeoffs of several approaches to addressing the problem," she says. The National Issues Forum Institute developed deliberative dialogue in the early 1980s.

The dialogues are open to all members of a local Michigan community, with participants benefiting tremendously when more perspectives are at the table, says John Burkhardt, clinical professor in the University's Center for the Study of Higher and Post-Secondary Education, who directs the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good. He says that finding effective solutions to the most difficult public issues is hampered when people think they must choose between polarized options.

"When we frame and debate issues in either-or, good-bad terms, we drive all of the subtlety and imagination out of public discourse. We have allowed ourselves to think of democracy as a competitive activity, when it really should invite creativity and experimentation," Burkhardt says. "Community members, civic leaders, professors, students, church groups and any formally or informally constructed social network could benefit from engaging in deliberative dialogue on issues that they must address together."

A2D dialogues have been held with the Intermediate School Districts of Genesee and Muskegon counties, the Youth Advisory Council Community Foundation of Muskegon, the Migrant Resource Council, Davenport University, the Michigan Campus Compact, among teachers at Huron High School in Ann Arbor, and at public libraries throughout the state.

Additionally, dialogues have occurred with students, civic leaders and community members in Grand Rapids, Flint, Detroit and Ypsilanti. More dialogues are planned for 18 other Michigan communities.

A2D is a project of the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, which is connected with the Center for Higher and Postsecondary Education, School of Education. The National Forum collaborates with many national and local organizations, institutions, researchers and policymakers, each of which contributes in different ways to the movement to make higher education a leading force in American society.

The National Forum aims to sponsor activities that are in line with three broad strategies: Leadership Dialogues, Connecting Research and Practice, and Public Policy & Public Stewardship. For more information or to host a dialogue with friends or colleagues, contact Anne Kohler-Cabot (734) 615-8882 or visit

Support for A2D project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, community organizations, and Michigan colleges and universities.

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