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Higher education leaders across the country are engaging in much hand-wringing over declining public confidence in colleges and universities. A variety of polls and surveys suggest multiple themes. Particularly prominent are findings that the value of college is declining in relation to the benefits. That reflects a belief that the cost of tuition has become excessive, combined with growing skepticism that a college degree confers economic security.

A second theme is that colleges and universities are havens for liberal ideologues whose values are at odds with those of most Americans. One recent survey found that a majority of Republicans and conservatives now think that higher education is having a negative impact on the direction of the country. A third element in the “public confidence” discussion is the perception that colleges and universities are essentially businesses, more concerned with their own well-being than with educating students or serving communities.

How alarmed should academic leaders be? After all, public regard for most institutions -- from the Congress to the media -- is not exactly high, part of a negative national mood. Buried in the survey data, in fact, are reassuring indications of underlying belief in the value of higher education. Some of the findings, moreover, particularly those related to the economic value of a college degree, appear to reflect short-term fluctuations in the economy, especially the difficult job market for college graduates after the 2008 recession. Finally, skepticism about a decline in the return on investment in higher education is misguided, although leaders need to be concerned about why such a gross misperception has gained traction and try to correct it.

Yet notwithstanding the need for caution in interpreting this or that recent poll, public attitudes toward higher education have clearly grown more skeptical, and public support less robust, over the last two or three decades. The generation of academic leaders now nearing retirement can remember a time of widespread admiration for the work of academic institutions, near universal belief in the value of a college education and generous funding from both state and federal governments.

The atmosphere in recent years has been decidedly different. During my time as Commissioner of Higher Education in Massachusetts between 2009 and 2015, I was repeatedly struck by the tepid concern for the well-being of public colleges and universities. Like many other states, Massachusetts significantly reduced support for higher education during the Great Recession and shifted more and more of the responsibility for supplying its revenues to students and families. This development produced little evident concern among state leaders or the public.

Three Recommendations

As someone who chose a career in academe because I believe the work is vital to the strength of our democracy and our economy, and essential to delivering on the promise of the American dream, I have been trying to understand how higher education has fallen so far in public regard. When I consider the three themes in the “public trust” narrative mentioned above -- skepticism about the value of a college degree, belief that academe promotes values at odds with those of many Americans and concern that our institutions are driven by self-interest rather than a commitment to improve society -- I see reflections of things I have worried about myself. I also see things that higher education can do, and emerging patterns of change, that can help recover at least some of the public support we have lost.

First, we must embrace the legitimacy of preparing young people for the workplace as part of undergraduate education. Embedded in doubts about the economic value of a college degree are perceptions that many colleges and universities, especially those that emphasize liberal education for undergraduates, do not take seriously their students’ focus on preparing for a job after graduation. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth in this perception. Champions of the liberal arts have often demonstrated disdain for the practical interests of students, and career counseling and placement offices at many colleges and universities have been neglected and marginal enterprises.

Thankfully, we are witnessing significant change in this area. Many colleges that stress liberal education -- including leading liberal arts institutions such Amherst College, Clark University and Smith College -- are seeking new ways to combine liberal learning with preparation for careers. They’ve introduced internships, made curricular adjustments and intensified use of alumni mentors, while still stressing the central (and undeniable) value of liberal learning. We are on the way to a new paradigm for undergraduate education that can align our work more closely with the reason most students enroll in our programs.

Second, we should reinvigorate academe’s historic commitment to preparing students for citizenship and modeling democratic values. The concern that higher education has become a liberal enclave is largely true, a reality that often reflects deeply held moral ideas that are inevitably associated with advanced learning. We can’t change that, and we shouldn’t. But we can -- and should -- change other things.

For starters, we should take seriously our mission to help students acquire the knowledge and skills to become active, informed participants in our civic life. This priority is fully consistent with our best traditions and can also counter the charge that academic values are at odds with patriotism. I have been encouraged by the civic learning movement within higher education in its various manifestations, but most colleges and universities need to be much more aggressive and explicit in advancing this long-neglected dimension of their mission. In addition, campus leaders must make it clear in every possible way, including when hiring faculty members -- as part of demonstrating their commitment to preparing students for life in a democracy -- that their institutions are open to a wide range of opinion on socially and politically controversial matters and will not let campus communities be dominated by intolerant ideologues.

Third, campus leaders should foreground a commitment to undergraduate education, just as hospitals, including teaching hospitals, foreground a commitment to patient care. The perception that colleges and universities have become self-interested businesses rather than institutions that serve students and communities is particularly troubling to me. I suspect many elements contribute to this perception. But among the causes may well be the de-emphasis of undergraduate education and the prioritization of research that occurred within higher education during the latter part of the 20th century, especially among the leading universities that dominate public views of our industry.

Many of the financial pressures that drive up undergraduate costs -- reduced teaching loads, expensive research facilities, financial aid for graduate students -- derive from the cost of supporting ambitious research programs that advance institutional status but are only indirectly linked with undergraduate education. The shift of emphasis toward research has encouraged faculty members to emphasize publication and grant-getting rather than teaching students, a change that subtly shifts the moral basis of academic work from serving others to advancing individual careers.

This is not intended as an argument against the importance of research and graduate education. But colleges need to make clear to the public that they are serious about teaching undergraduates -- which most people think is our primary purpose -- and do not base the price of tuition on the need to subsidize activities not clearly related to that work. I am encouraged by what I perceive to be a reassertion of concern for undergraduate teaching and learning. But colleges and universities, especially the country’s leading institutions, have a long way to go to re-establish this mission on a par with research as a widespread institutional priority.

Diminished public regard for higher education is both complex and troubling. There are no quick fixes or easy answers. But heightened attention to preparing students for life after college both as workers and as citizens, along with a more focused celebration of our commitment to undergraduate education, can help higher education regain a reputation for public purpose and with it some of the support that has slipped away.

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