Bringing the True Value of Higher Education to the Forefront

To rebuild trust and avoid mismatches in our admissions processes, each college must define its mission, vision and values -- and distinguish them in the eyes of prospective students, Elizabeth Paul argues.

April 29, 2019
 
 

Selecting a college or university is one of the most important life decisions that students and their families make. And, as the recent college admissions scandal that has dominated headlines proves, some parents are willing to do just about anything to get their children into the “right” university.

Scandals such as these erode public trust and add to skepticism regarding the actual value of a college degree. Yet despite this skepticism, research demonstrates that virtually every aspect of life and community is improved by higher education. The college search process today is clouded by consumerism and the commoditization of higher education, resulting in all-too-often misguided choices that can create stress and strain, lengthen or lessen degree attainment, and stunt lifelong value.

In the midst of commoditized higher education, differences among the wide array of colleges and universities have become blurred. Institutions sound more and more alike as they work to not only communicate their relevance among the skepticism but to also successfully attract and retain a sufficient number of students. As a result, students and families are less and less clear about their choices and the educational experience that will best engage, ignite and benefit the individual student.

Meanwhile, economic pressures and sensitivities, as well as sticker and net price volatility, further confuse the factors on which to base the best choice decision. In some cases, parents mistakenly conflate high prices and prestigious rankings with high quality, which is one of the drivers behind the college admissions scandal we’ve all been following. At the other extreme, financial concerns reinforce the bargain hunting of many students and families. For such students and families, the perceived cost of higher education can be an immediate barrier -- with the “sticker price” particularly confusing for those considering whether to enroll in a private or a public education. Understandably, cost-sensitive and merit award-driven students and families increasingly prioritize the biggest scholarship over the particular educational experience that will bring each individual student the most lifetime value.

To combat this, higher education institutions have a moral responsibility to actively help students and families manage these socioeconomic pressures and make the best college choice to maximize each student’s success and reap the most lifelong value. Key to this effort is the dedication of each college and university to defining their mission, vision and values -- and to distinguish those educational values and experiences in the eyes of prospective students.

Capital University has invested a good deal of energy over the past two years to clarify and establish its purpose-focused mission, and to align that with all aspects of the institution’s strategic advancement. Based on this work, I offer several insights to like-minded universities committed to do their part in ensuring that higher education as a whole achieves value and success for each student.

Place values over cost. While the majority of Capital University students receive university-funded financial aid, we continually run into the misconception among prospective students that they simply cannot afford private college tuition. Especially tricky are those students who feel caught in the middle financially, fearing they have neither the level of financial need nor the elite academic prowess to qualify for scholarships that will make private college accessible.

As a result, institutions like ours sometimes don’t get another look from apt students who cancel themselves out of a private higher education based on perceived cost alone -- or worse, never consider us in the first place.

So, how can we address this? We must make a bold statement about our institution’s mission and values and invite students and families to see themselves in this vision. It is more important than ever for each higher education institution to define its character and commitment and to bring this to life in all aspects of the university. While colleges and universities may have differing views as to who their “sweet spot” students are, they must first identify the essence of their institutional commitment. Then they must implement those attributes and values through recruitment and scholarship models that meaningfully connect with target students.

Make recruitment meaningful. A poor college choice is costly financially, mentally and emotionally. In prioritizing high rankings or the best bargain in their college decisions, far too many students and families are compromising the potential value of a truly engaging higher education experience that supports each student’s success. As a result, those students may end up at an institution that is not mutually the right fit.

Higher education institutions also play a role in the mismatch. Those that achieve success in recruitment and retention are clear about the learning and development experience and environment they offer -- and the array of students that thrive and succeed there. Yet our financial aid-leveraging models predominantly prioritize traditional academic performance and ability among students. That leads all of us to compete for the same set of high-achieving students without understanding who they are as individuals -- and whether they reflect our institution’s essence and approach. As a result, we cast a relatively limited net into a far more diverse pool of valuable prospective students who have much more to offer underneath the surface.

At Capital, we’ve decided this must change. Based on detailed research, we have put a stake in the ground and have created opportunities for a growing market of students who are committed to social justice and contributing to the common good. Our commitment includes valuing the diversity of ways in which this core essence or commitment is expressed by individual students.

Focus on good. Capital has introduced a new initiative as not only a response to the challenges of affording higher education but also as a celebration of the good in our world -- something that needs championing in our times. This initiative, called the Good Guarantee, promises a minimum floor of half tuition for incoming undergraduates whose families have chosen mission-centered careers through nonprofit and public-service work. This could be anything from teachers and police officers to nurses and military members. Simply put, a brighter world needs more champions for good, which is why we’ve committed to investing in those who have dedicated their lives to investing in others. Many of our students aspire to focus on social justice issues in their careers following graduation, and we want to nurture and support those paths.

Capital is a private institution with strong public values, so we want to connect with these students’ own personal ethics and lessen their financial burden. The initiative is relatively new, but it has already received a lot of positive attention from families who might not have considered us otherwise. It has also opened new corporate and community partnerships inspired by and centered on our mission.

As higher education leaders, we know our institutions are much more than a price on a page or a number on a ranking, but it can be hard to communicate that to prospective students and their families. The vast array of higher education institutions in our country -- each with individual character and commitment -- hold such promise for our future. It is our collective responsibility to accentuate and celebrate this diversity and help students and families make an informed, purposeful choice about the education experience that will help each individual student thrive -- in college and far beyond.

Bio

Elizabeth Paul is president at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

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