The American public understands that going to college helps individuals get ahead. But what the public doesn't understand is that colleges help society as a whole, and that more people benefit than the graduates themselves.
Convincing the public of that broader social benefit is the goal of a major national campaign that higher education leaders are planning. The Public Trust Initiative will involve efforts in every state and with every sector of higher education. The effort will feature both a national ad campaign and attempts to have colleges shift some of their communications with their own constituencies -- students, parents, alumni, opinion leaders, taxpayers generally -- away from messages about individual institutions and toward messages about higher education.
"There have been a number of calls recently for a new national dialogue on the social compact between higher education and society," said Stanley O. Ikenberry, former president of the American Council on Education and the University of Illinois, who is leading the effort. "What we are trying to do is to launch such a dialogue."
The Public Trust Initiative will probably be formally launched in the fall. To date, a small group has been studying data on public attitudes, conducting focus groups and briefing different groups of college leaders. The effort is a collaboration between the American Council on Education and other higher education groups. The first public briefing on the campaign will come at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges, which gathers in Boston this weekend.
Ikenberry said that much of the work thus far has been trying to get a handle on what the public knows and doesn't know about higher education, and to figure out which messages will work. For example, he said it was important that academics not to talk about higher education as being "in crisis."
"The public doesn't see higher education in crisis. Some of us may see that, but the public isn't convinced of that, and even if they were, the public isn't ready to take on yet one more crisis," with Iraq and other issues already center stage, Ikenberry said. "The public may well be in crisis overload."
He said that the message of the campaign would be a positive one, with the emphasis on "why access to higher education is important to society broadly." He said colleges need to talk about how having an educated populace affects health care, crime prevention, the economy, the quality of life, etc.
Ikenberry said that the campaign, to date, has not focused on fighting images of higher education that come up in the culture wars, such as the idea that Ward Churchill is representative of faculty members. Ikenberry said he is hopeful that this controversy will pass, but "if that's seriously and persistently on the public's list of concerns, obviously we would have to address it."
Part of the message that will need to go out, Ikenberry said, would be to confront questions and criticisms people have about higher education, and to do a better job of answering questions like: How are you keeping costs down? Are you operating efficiently?
While there are "tension points" about accountability, Ikenberry said that colleges need to be prepared to answer questions about themselves for the campaign to be successful. He said that the ACE and other groups have already been leading discussions about how to balance demands for accountability with colleges' needs, and he said that this new campaign reflects the discussion  about the social compact at this year's council meeting.
Ikenberry also said that he thought community colleges would end up playing a key role in the campaign because the are by definition close to local communities.
Philip Day, chancellor of the City College of San Francisco, has been involved in creating the campaign. He said such an effort is overdue.
"I think there is an issue that is of concern in the public about whether or not higher education is pulling its weight," he said. "Are we accomplishing our missions? Are we achieving the results people expect? Is it assisting in some broader objectives related to global economics and competitiveness and all of that."
Day said he thinks the answers to those questions "are most definitely Yes." But he said academics need to remember that "we are sometimes misunderstood -- people don't quite get it."
He added, "We need to try to establish a better balance between those that are on the outside looking in and those that are on the inside looking out."
David Ward, president of the ACE, said that it's time for a new approach on building public support. "There didn't seem to be any way to stop the deteriorating levels of public investment through old-style advocacy," which would have been "to have in effect said, 'we are entitled to certain levels of support.' "
By stepping back from the issue of appropriations levels in this campaign, Ward said, he hopes that higher education can build a stronger base of support. "We had to try something different."