In both Inside Higher Education “The Public Support for (and Doubts About) Higher Education” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s trend report “It’s a New Assault on the University” the results of large scale survey research tell a story of what are best described as mixed reviews of higher education. In the Chronicle story, the emphasis is on how politicized the narratives about higher education have become, particularly around free speech. In Inside Higher Education, the emphasis seems to be more on costs and return on investment. (I’ve simplified, so read them yourself for the full details). Together, they reveal the problem of describing higher education as one thing, when it has become (and, perhaps has long been) many things.
This is what I mean. Much of the reporting on higher education focuses on a narrow, elite tier of schools. In those environments, costs are very high, acceptance rates are low (read exclusive), and fights around free speech and safe spaces appear to be common. These institutions are where we see “culture wars” dramatized (whether they are real or not is another thing). If the people being polled about higher education are concerned that our campuses have a political bias, it is unsurprising, because that is what is being covered in the press.
Very little reporting focuses on regional public universities. If attention is paid to us (and it rarely is), the focus is either on a Title IX scandal or, in some rare cases, on our outcomes. Cost comes up, to be sure, and it should because state funding levels are shrinking, thus driving our tuition prices up. This does make families who choose us wonder about whether or not we are worth it. But what we do and how we fit into higher education as a whole is rarely discussed in the media coverage of education.
For two year colleges, the focus is on jobs. There are stories about re-tooling the labor force, focusing on high demand fields, like advanced manufacturing, and keeping tuition down for access. The free college movement, is largely focused on this part of the higher education matrix. This part of the ecology of higher education is easily identified with social mobility and economic advantages, because there are direct job prospects for much of what is offered. Any negative press would be around false promises for certificates, but this rarely happens at the public two year colleges.
There are more gradations, more distinctions between types of higher education, but you get the idea. Surveys that ask about higher education in general, that do not differentiate these layers of educational institutions yield complex and sometimes confusing results, that really don’t apply to all types. There is so much to unpack here, but I’d like to offer a perspective on all of this that rarely get’s discussed: What we have here is a social class problem.
We want to talk about higher education as one thing, because we don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it replicates our social class structures. This is America, we don’t believe in social class. We believe in opportunity, and yes, education is the foundation of much of that opportunity. Higher education can be access to a better life (and the surveys do reveal that people still believe that, with caveats), but it also reinforces our social stratification.
So, let’s talk about jobs. There are no students going to college who are not hoping to connect their educations to future careers. At elite schools, the path to those careers are not necessarily linked to a particular major (although in many cases it is – pre-med, education, accounting, engineering, etc.), but more in the many experiences that students will have prior to and during their education. They will have time for internships, they will be mentored by alumni, they will build interesting resumes by studying abroad or volunteering, and most of all, they will hang around with people who know the diversity of experiences that might be available after graduation, helping to shed light on those mysterious questions like “What does a project manager do?”
At community colleges, while some programs are designed for transfer to four year schools (reducing the cost of education for those students), many of the degrees are very direct job training. Radiology technicians, network or help desk support, veterinary technicians, advanced manufacturing all come to mind. In these schools, we are providing a great opportunity to improve economic security for students, and, when they are funded appropriately (read low or no cost to students) they embody the social mobility we have built our economic and cultural mythologies around.
At regional public universities like mine, our students also want to see the connections between their education and careers, but we offer the same blend of educational opportunities that the elite schools offer, but with fewer naturally occurring opportunities to network. So, we build career centers to try to bridge the gap between one-to-one degree to career connections, and the broader liberal arts experiences that we and the elite schools so value.
So when I ask a question about whether or not higher education is doing enough to prepare students for jobs, I’ve asked a really big and complicated question. If we don’t tease out the difference between our missions and the ways in which we understand the very notion of job/career preparation, the answers will just be simplistic responses that play well in the press, but don’t help us figure out how to understand this issue in our colleges and universities. We then end up with simplistic measurements of our ability to provide a good “return on investment” in things like college score cards and policy proposals that are irrelevant to most higher education institutions.
But we do need good policies. We do need to stop predatory practices that promise great outcomes while encouraging ridiculous amounts of debt. We do need to attend how we fund higher education so that it can provide opportunities to achieve greater economic stability. We do need to articulate how investing in higher education benefits our graduates in more concrete ways than we used to do, not just because of cost, but because our students want to know. We do need to protect all campuses from undue political influence, but we also need to be honest about how pervasive those issues really are (or rather how limited those issues really are).
In other words, it’s complicated. We are not all one thing. We serve different audiences and together we are complex higher education ecosystem. Let’s get honest about our differences and more specific in our surveys, so that our policies can be more effective and discussions of higher education can be more representative of the diversity of who we really are.