John O. Harney: The changing public perceptions of higher education

  View of Middlebury College, in the quintessential college town of Middlebury, Vt.,  with the Green Mountains in the background.

View of Middlebury College, in the quintessential college town of Middlebury, Vt.,  with the Green Mountains in the background.

Via the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)

American confidence in higher education began waning at just the time that more people began to see colleges as more concerned about their bottom lines than about education and making sure students have a good education experience, Public Agenda President Will Friedman told educators gathered in Boston on Monday at a NEBHE panel discussion on “The Changing Public Perceptions of the Value of Higher Education: Is It a Public Good?”

The discussion was moderated by Kirk Carapezza, managing editor at WGBH, a NEBHE partner. N.H state Rep. Terry Wolf, a NEBHE delegate, offered one state’s response.

The benefits of going to college and the importance of higher education institutions were once held to be a creed as American as apple pie. But recurring state budget challenges have constrained investment. Consistently rising tuitions—fueled by increasing college costs—have alarmed many. Politics and free-speech controversies have raised questions about college and universities’ openness and balance of perspectives. In short, times have changed.

Questions swirl:

How are public opinions toward higher education changing?

Why are higher education’s value propositions suspect in the eyes of some policymakers and citizens?

Does this division mirror party lines?

Has higher education been fairly—or falsely—tarred as inefficient?

Has the higher ed enterprise overcompensated for these perceptions by obsessing with business models and efficiency?

What has this apparent shift meant to egalitarian higher education concepts such as need-blind admissions, sabbaticals (ideally to pursue deep thinking), basic vs. applied research, and tenure (especially to protect academic freedom)?

What has it meant for the role of expert faculty informing civic policy outside academe and enriching discourse as “public scholars”?

What about the role of so-called “college towns” sustaining bookstores, theaters, cafes and other businesses favored by college students, budding entrepreneurs, faculty and visitors?

NEBHE was an “early adopter” of the higher education-economic development connection. What role can NEBHE play in balancing New England’s interest in advancing knowledge … and growing its knowledge economy?

Friedman said it wouldn’t be a tremendous shock if prospective students were beginning to question the value of higher ed. Every major institution except the military and libraries have lost major credibility, he said.

Most people still believe higher education is the key to the American dream. And indeed, a surfeit of data continues to show that the more higher education one has, the higher their salary. (Notably, Tom Mortenson, the longtime publisher of Postsecondary Education Opportunity, has also compiled trend data showing states with better-educated populations show better measures of economic, civic, physical and social health, ranging from higher citizen voting rates to lower infant mortality rates.)

But after years of going up, the percentage of people saying higher ed is necessary to success has begun to go down. One reason is student debt. Another is the decline in stable middle-class jobs.

Plus, there’s a partisan dynamic. Pew research shows that among Republicans specifically, the question of whether higher ed has a positive effect in the country fell off the cliff in 2015. In a 2017 survey from Civis Analytics, 46% of Republicans said they were concerned that colleges were pushing people toward a specific political view, compared with 5% of Democrats.

Carapezza recalled that when his WGBH crew visited schools in Germany, they learned that student debt was viewed there as shame (one audience member whispered that it's also seen that way in U.S. minority neighborhoods). Higher ed in Germany, Carapezza said, is seen as a public good, whereas here it is seen as a private gain.

Wolf conceded that some legislators would be happy to totally defund higher education. And negative perceptions spread quickly via social media. She urged leaders to change the way they talk about higher education. If you have a bachelor’s degree it means you can make a million dollars more over your career than someone with a high school diploma only. So why doesn’t an ad campaign promote the chance to make a million dollars?

Plus, a legislator, Wolf said she has to take care of senior citizens and tackle the opioid epidemic before helping college students who, she noted, could be aided less expensively though dual enrollment with high schools.

Some audience members lamented that we were educating too many social workers vs. carpenters (because you can see what they do)—somewhat reminiscent of a campaigning Marco Rubio’s concerns that we need more welders and fewer philosophers.

Of course, we need both.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education, part of NEBHE.