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.
David Maxwell is president of Drake University.
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