As the National Association for Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) holds its annual meeting this week, the presidents will spend a lot of time discussing how they and their institutions can more effectively communicate institutional value, and counter the volatile -- and negative -- public discourse involving issues of cost, student debt, learning outcomes, and placement rates for our graduates.
The challenge, however, is that if we focus solely on deflating myths and countering the sensationalized rhetoric of the media, we are reinforcing the public’s focus on negative issues. We are unwittingly exacerbating the widely held view that, crudely put, “higher education is too expensive, students aren’t learning what they need to learn, and graduates are leaving school with crippling debt and no jobs.”
While this hyperbolic rhetoric is grounded in real issues that we must resolve institutionally and collectively, it is dominating the national discourse in ways that are making an increasingly broad sector of the public suspicious of our relevance, quality and integrity. It is time for us, as leaders in higher education, to play offense as well as defense. We must find ways to collectively guide the national discourse back to a position of truth — of fact-based information that is relevant to the needs and aspirations of prospective students and their families — and then ensure that our institutions communicate our individual values, strengths and demonstrable outcomes in the context of an accurate and nuanced narrative.
Before I offer some suggestions about starting points for shaping that discourse, I do want to recognize that I am implicitly challenging us — the higher education community — to do something that historically we haven’t been very good at: to explain “what it is that we do, how we do it, why we do it this way, and how we know that we’re doing it well” in ways that make any sense at all to people who aren’t us.
We have a tendency — as every profession does — to talk about what we do in a jargon-filled tribal dialect (filled with unspoken assumptions) that is impenetrable to “outsiders.” We need not only to articulate the core narrative about the value and purpose of higher education, but to do so in a language that those who are not us find useful, meaningful and compelling.
So here are some suggested starting points for shaping the national conversation:
Identify and emphasize the skills that employers want and the ways in which our graduates are prepared to fill those needs
As those of us in higher education know, a college education is not job training. The mission statement of my institution, Drake University, promises to prepare students for “meaningful personal lives, professional accomplishment and responsible global citizenship.” But we know that the relationship between higher education and jobs, between higher education and economic development, is at the center of the public consciousness these days, and we must address it head-on.
A national survey of 305 businesses across sectors, conducted for the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), demonstrated powerfully that employers are much less interested in undergraduate major than they are in oral and written communication skills, critical thinking and analytical reasoning, the ability to analyze and solve complex problems, quantitative literacy, the ability to collaborate and to work in diverse groups, the capacity for ethical decision making and for creativity and innovation -- all of which align completely with the essential learning outcomes articulated in AAC&U’s “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” (LEAP) initiative.
These data run counter to recent arguments by some governors that job skills training should be prioritized at the expense of liberal arts programs. These elected officials need to be introduced to today’s liberal arts— where liberal education is integrated with preparation for the world of practice, and where the outcomes directly address the stated needs of America’s employers.
Further, Drake’s strategic plan serves as proof that innovation, agility and flexibility are in play on campus. We must ensure the ongoing vitality and vibrancy of the institution in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, while preparing our students to succeed in fulfilling their personal, professional and citizenship aspirations in that environment as well.
Encourage students to focus on passion, not expectations of income
In an ideal world, a student should enroll in the institution that is the best fit for his or her goals, learning and living styles and academic ability. College must not be just about jobs and money. College should be the place where men and women figure out their aspirations for meaningful professional and personal lives, and set off — with our support and guidance — to make those aspirations come true. It is incumbent upon us to find ways to make that goal the centerpiece of the national discourse.
Choosing a major field of study (and the institution that offers it) on the basis of expected career earnings entails the greatest risk. While we applaud President Obama's call for a college "scorecard" that helps students and their parents compare institutions with objective data, the proposal for a "potential earnings" indicator exacerbates the already serious negative impact of money on college choice for a variety of reasons.
Data indicate that a significant number of undergraduates (40 percent) change their major at least once, and there is a relatively low correlation between undergraduate major and eventual career, especially given the fact that the majority of future graduates will be employed in jobs that do not exist yet. Similarly, there has been little historical correlation between major and eventual earnings. There is a correlation between grade point average and earnings — suggesting that a student is much better off majoring in something for which he/she has both talent and passion.
There is an anecdote circulating on the web that is illustrative, if unverifiable, of the unreliability of connecting a major to career earnings. Supposedly, the highest average starting salary of University of North Carolina graduates belongs to geography majors — thanks to Michael Jordan's staggeringly high earnings. The cautionary message, of course, is that high-paid outliers, who may well be in careers unrelated to their majors, can skew the statistical average and provide students with misleading data on salary prospects.
Shift the discussion from expensive sticker prices to net cost
Students are increasingly making critical life choices based primarily on money — choices that may turn out to be the wrong ones in the long run. They are choosing an institution based on often-uninformed assumptions about the cost of public institutions versus private; based on which school has offered them the largest scholarship; and based on assumptions about earning potential of a particular major.
I do recognize that in offering merit aid, we are contributing to the fact that considerations of money are increasingly distorting important educational choices, and I think most of us would welcome a national moratorium on that practice.
What are missing from these deliberations, when dominated by financial considerations, are some important nuances. Private colleges and universities are not necessarily more expensive than public. The four- and six-year graduation rates for private institutions are higher than for their public peers. Additionally, many private institutions offer significant amounts of aid, reducing the real cost.
As leaders, I fear that we aren’t having all the right conversations. Rather than focusing our attention solely on myths and half-truths, we should counter our critics by reframing the questions to focus on what is really important, and by providing evidence of the student outcomes and institutional values that we promise. Both approaches need to be infused with transparency and accountability on the part of all of us who speak for our institutions and for the higher education community. Most importantly, we need to reframe the conversation to be about the students, not about us.
Ultimately, the long-term solution to cost and access has to be a partnership among families, institutions and policy makers. We must help families understand and appreciate that higher education is an investment in their future, and we ourselves must be cost-effective and financially accessible. And governments must recognize that postsecondary education, including liberal education, is a public good for which they must share the burden of cost — a burden that is much less expensive than prisons, welfare and a stagnant economy.
Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Two years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. The latest example is Alex Williams’s “The Old College Try? No Way!” in The New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy. But it is not new.
From 1870 to 1890, enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew. College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.
Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shopkeepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.
But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful. What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important -- namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.
It was true not only for preparing young people for law and medicine, but also pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, teaching, social work, clergy, nursing, accounting, forestry, public health and other professionals – and at the same time helping to educate them to be concerned, informed citizens -- that would lead and staff new organizations in the public and private sector and as concerned, informed citizens.
Let’s reconsider Steven Jobs’s memorable 2005 Stanford commencement speech as Exhibit A in the case against college. First, Jobs did not opt not to go to college. He went to Reed College and dropped out – a very different life choice than not going to college at all. Second, even after dropping out, he stayed close to the Reed College campus – its students, faculty, resources and opportunities – all to his educational and vocational gain. Third, his explanation for dropping out – disorientation and uncertainty – probably were signs that a liberal education was prompting him to consider and confront complex questions of purpose and place. Perhaps Reed College was “doing its job” for Jobs?
Above all, doesn’t it seem strange and conveniently safe that Steven Jobs gave his inspirational talk to Stanford graduates who momentarily would receive their coveted Stanford degrees? I wager that most in that audience were delighted with Jobs’s message urging them to pursue their dreams – and equally delighted that they were buoyed by the experience, friendships, faculty and learning -- and degree -- on all counts that going to college had made opportune. The Steven Jobs inspirational talk would have been more compelling as a “case against college” had he chosen to deliver it to 16-year-olds at, e.g., Oakland Tech. But he didn’t – and for good reason.
Whether in 1880 or 2012, the historical message is that there are good reasons to go -- or not to go -- to college. And, given the diversity of American higher education, the choices are complicated by the options of where to go – such as two-year vocational vs. four-year liberal arts college or small campus versus large flagship state university -- and what to study, and for what end – an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or perhaps prelude to an advanced degree. We also have in the United States a long tradition of some professions such as performing arts and major league baseball where one need not first have a college education. The spate of current articles do not make the case against college – they make a case, or several cases, depending on an individual’s situation and goals. A maxim of societal behavior is that strident advocacy makes a point and at the same time fosters alternative and counter points.
In sum, the fervent articles denigrating college unwittingly make indirect and direct cases of numerous good reasons to go to college. Why, of course, the exceptional genius does not need the delay of required courses. Partying by 20-year-olds is going to take place at sports bars quite apart from being enrolled in college. In fact, most accounts of Silicon Valley successful entrepreneurs suggests that unabashed partying is par for their course. So, why begrudge that or dismiss that as a nuisance and distraction linked exclusively to undergraduate life?
But even an icon such as Mark Zuckerberg did gain from going to Harvard by finding the name and inspiration for “Facebook” – not from Philosophy 101 but from the booklets distributed during freshman orientation week. How to calculate the net worth of that informal collegiate experience? And for the multitude of bright, talented committed high school graduates who were not selected for Peter Thiel’s highly selective program, might not there be a thoughtful choice about college that just might provide some good learning and opportunities?
The net result is that we do not have “The Case” against college – but the more subtle, provocative question of many cases for and against going to college as befits a complex, diverse and credentialed American society. Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Maybe not going to college is not such a great idea.
John Thelin is a professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. He is author of A History of American Higher Education, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Because of increased competition for students, decreased household income and skepticism about value, a third of institutions predict tuition revenue won't keep pace with inflation, Moody's survey finds.