Nearly every gathering of college officials these days reveals at least an undercurrent of concern,  if not a full blown anxiety fest,  about the public’s heightened scrutiny of and skepticism about higher education. Administrators at Monday's meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges got a mixed assessment of current public opinion about higher education and an early glimpse at what college leaders hope will be a successful campaign to bolster higher education's public standing.
The litany of perceived problems is long: drops in state appropriations, increased competition from universities outside the United States, public agitation over rising tuitions, among others.
At the core, though, is the sense that most members of the public -- and in turn their elected representatives -- do not perceive higher education as particularly needing their support, either because they don't value it highly or because they see it as less deserving than many competing priorities for federal and state funds, like elementary and secondary education, national security and health care, to name just a few.
The American Council on Education and other college associations announced a campaign  last spring aimed at changing the conversation about higher education.
On Monday, Maureen Barry, a vice president at GSD&M, an Austin, Tex.-based consulting firm that is producing the ACE campaign, described the polling and other data the company had gathered to inform its “branding” effort and a preview of a national television advertising and lobbying campaign planned for the spring, probably pegged to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s high-visibility Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and featuring heavy advertising, aimed at business leaders, in the Wall Street Journal.
Through interviews with opinion leaders, focus groups with regular Joes (and Josephines), and more quantitative national surveying, the company sought a sense of where higher education falls on the citizenry’s list of priorities for their own personal investment of time and energy and for government investment – and why.
The respondents, Barry said, generally put higher education pretty far down on their list of priorities, for a mix of reasons that suggest they have been paying attention to the very mixed messages that supporters of higher education have been sending in recent years.
First, members of the public tend to view higher education as an enterprise that helps individuals more than society, which isn’t surprising given the arguments college leaders have made in recent years about how much a college degree adds to individuals’ earnings potential. “It’s clear people think that higher education provides a financial gain for individual benefit, rather than a broad-based societal benefit, and that that individual benefit is seen as being for the privileged few,” Barry said.
Second, she said, higher education is viewed as contributing mostly to individuals’ loftier “self-actualization” and “self-improvement” needs, rather than more basic (and hence more crucial) physiological needs like health, welfare and security.
Third, Barry said -- and this surprised her -- citizens are increasingly looking for a “return on investment” for the time, energy and money they invest on their own, and for any government spending made on their behalf, and on this score, she said, colleges were often perceived as having not spent their money wisely. “Don’t they have enough money already?” was how she characterized a commonly expressed perception about colleges (though community colleges, rooted locally and generally seen as providing full access, fared better). Such a view is hardly surprising in an era of steadily rising tuitions, mid-six-figure salaries for many college presidents – and scandals like the recent one at American University,  involving alleged misspending and questionable oversight, hardly help.
The quest for colleges – and the focus of the new ACE campaign, as crafted by Barry’s firm and college leaders – is to try to shift the public perception of higher education from one of a personal benefit for a few to a broad-based benefit that can help cure society’s basic ills.
The campaign, “Solutions for Our Future” (Barry said that their preferred choice, “Solutions for America,”  was owned by the University of Richmond), will seek to make the case that in addition to helping individuals improve themselves personally (which can benefit society by bolstering self-sufficiency), higher education is positioned to strengthen society through innovation and research efforts, economic development, and creating a more informed citizenry, among other ways. (One tag line Barry tried out on the audience: "Transforming Lives. Transforming Society. One Student, One Discovery at a Time.")
“We are the way out of broad-based societal problems,” Barry said colleges can argue, which will tap into a commonly held view of higher education as the “last domain of the noble cause.” Although the campaign will focus on showing the importance of higher education to taxpayers themselves -- getting college leaders “out of the funding debate,” Barry said -- an undercurrent of the drive will be: “As public support for higher education erodes, so does our opportunity to develop solutions.” “We hope to create a groundswell of support among the public,” she said.
College leaders may have their work cut out for them, a former Congressman argued at another session at the NASULGC meeting Monday. Steve Gunderson, president of the Council on Foundations and a former Republican representative from Wisconsin, warned that higher education could be a logical next target for politicians looking for an “enemy” in upcoming elections, given that public concern about the state of the education system has been shifting from elementary and middle schools to high schools.
“It’s the logical progression,” he said, and the Republicans who control Congress may feel no hesitation to attack colleges given the extent to which higher education leaders have largely cast their lot with Democrats. “They may feel, ‘They’re not going to vote for us anyway, so what do we have to lose?’ “ Gunderson said.
In the past, colleges have often been protected against such political attacks because of the avid support of the politically important working middle class, which has looked to higher education as a pathway to opportunity. But colleges – and especially the flagship public universities that are the land-grant group’s primary members – will have a harder and harder time being taken seriously as providers of opportunity as they increasingly fill their classes with upper middle class students, Gunderson said.
“To the extent that colleges walk away from their access mission,” he said, "they risk losing that middle class base and the whole political constituency that represents.”