When Gallup recently asked how much confidence Americans had in colleges and universities, 56 percent said “some or very little.” As college leaders face growing skepticism regarding their institutions — its high cost and ability to prepare students for future jobs — they are increasingly being asked to defend the value of higher education.
The public’s lack of confidence, however, runs counter to the growing need for a more highly educated workforce. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in our economy will require some type of post-secondary credential. So, what can college presidents do to regain the public’s trust and how can they restore the public’s confidence in higher education?
Outgoing Harvard University president Drew Faust and incoming president Lawrence Bacow recently sat down with The Harvard Gazette to talk about the greatest challenges facing higher education today. “I would say skepticism about the value of higher education, and skepticism about higher education’s product: facts, science, knowledge, an educated citizenry that is not just narrowly trained, but broadly educated,” Faust said. “We have to make a case for all of those things, and a lot of our other challenges derive from the reality that I just described.”
Bacow, the former chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and outgoing president of Tufts University, agreed, stating that many students and parents take a more critical view of college and question its return on investment. “I think as the real cost of higher education has increased, people have adopted more of a consumerist or instrumental approach to higher education,” he said. “What does it do for me? What’s the return on it in the very narrow, short term?”
Leaders like University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman A. Hrabowski believe that institutions need to do a better job of advocating the value of a college degree. During a speech he delivered at the 2018 American Council on Education annual meeting, after receiving the ACE Lifetime Achievement Award, Hrabowski said institutions must commit to creating better access so people are not faced with a decision “of just getting a job or getting an education.”
Hrabowski pointed out that two-thirds of Americans have not graduated from a four-year institution and that there is a growing belief that higher education doesn’t matter. He warned that colleges and universities must adapt and prepare students for life after graduation. “We must become much broader in our participation and be willing to answer the difficult, sticky questions we have in our society,” he said.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, echoed that warning at the same annual meeting, and added, “Our future hinges on whether we have ambitious, socially connected, networked, savvy kids who have hope or who are hopeless,” he said. “When we give students education and tools to better their lives, we are in the business of hope and we are in the business of making the future better. Higher education is the engine of social mobility and the engine of social justice.”
Many higher education leaders recognize that they must do a better job of communicating what their institutions contribute to students — and to society.
In his remarks delivered at this year’s Higher Education Leadership Summit at the Yale University School of Management, Peter Salovey, president of Yale University said, “A college education remains an excellent investment. Pew research shows ‘college-educated millennials outperforming their less-educated peers on virtually every economic measure, and the gap between the two groups has only grown over time.’ In 2012, the median annual earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher were $45,500, compared with $28,000 for high-school graduates,” he said, adding, “Nine in 10 college graduates say the investment was worth it.”
But Salovey also warned that leaders cannot allow the public’s trust in higher education to diminish further. “Our colleges and universities are the bedrock of our democracy, places where the next generation learns how to think, communicate and solve problems,” he said. “They are incubators of new ideas and engines of prosperity. Our institutions serve the public good, and they need public support. The challenge for us is to share our stories of success and service with an anxious public.”
Some critics propose evaluating colleges and universities based on the incomes of their graduates, but measured by that metric, Bacow pointed out that he and Faust “would have been considered failures coming out of our alma maters because we each took a first job that paid a pittance relative to some other jobs,” he said.
Both leaders acknowledge that it’s critical for college and university leaders to change the conversation and highlight higher education’s importance. “So, I think that the current narrative about higher education in the U.S. is one that we have to work really hard to change,” Bacow said. “People are questioning the value of a diploma. They are questioning the value of these institutions to society. They are questioning whether or not colleges and universities actually contribute to the American dream. That’s scary. We need to change that conversation.”