Higher Education, Return on Investment

Trust

As the hand wringing from last week’s scandal in elite higher education continues (oy!), there is an issue that is important to the rest of us.  Public trust in higher education is waning Now let’s be clear, we’ve always been both praised and pilloried – praised for the opportunities and experiences we provide, pilloried for our remove from the real world. In our various forms we’ve always been part of the pathway to professional degrees and the creation of new knowledge, but by design, we’re pretty judgmental which is irritating. This makes a love-hate relationship with higher education kind of normal.

What is new is this–as the cost of college tuition increases, more and more families are questioning the return on investment. Tales of wiz kids inventing apps in garages or hitting the big time in entertainment or sports suggest education might not be the only path to fame and fortune.  Stories of students with liberal arts degrees who can’t get jobs (told in the press in wild disproportion to the reality) make some see a traditional degree as a luxurious waste of time.  And there is the misguided notion that everyone should be enrolled in four-year degree right after high school.  When faced with the lived experience of friends and neighbors, this story just doesn’t hold up.

Well, I suppose we have it coming.  I could talk about how decreases in state funding of higher ed has driven much of the high cost of tuition (which is true), but that doesn’t change the experiences of our families who are striving for their children.  I could also insist that people with undergraduate degrees endure the vagaries of our economic cycles much better than those without (also true), but there are lots of jobs right now, so no one wants to hear that. I could remind folks that even those who major in the most traditional of liberal arts degrees (philosophy, literature, history) have better earning power than those with no degrees, and over a lifetime of work and tend to catch up with a lot of the more professionally focused degrees (including some STEM disciplines).  Yet, this is cold-comfort for those most recent grads living at home because they are paying off student loans.

As great as college education is for our economic system, our political system, and the health and well-being of our citizens, we are still describing what we do in unsupported and undifferentiated terms.  We’re asking the public to trust us, rather than making it clear that we have the best interest of our students’ futures in mind.

Well, not really.  This is really just happening in the media versions of college (both in fact-based and fictional genres). Our realities are very different.  We do, in fact, recommend multiple paths to our students.  Good high school guidance counselors are focused on the varied educational experiences available to students (public and private, four-year, two-year, training programs, etc.). Our high schools also still include technical training opportunities, which is a very important option for many.  Choosing from these many distinct opportunities would be easier for families and school districts if people weren’t so obsessed with that prestigious Ivy League experience.

Good colleges and universities also provide real guidance to students.  We work closely with students to get them on the right path. Some start at a four-year university, but find it isn’t a good place for them.  Good college advisors help students transition to the right place–sometimes a community college, sometimes work until the student has a better sense of what they want out of their education. We have also developed programs to help students return to college if their first attempt didn’t go well (Fresh Start Programs, for example).  At a school like mine, students also stop and start for financial or family reasons, so we’re finding structures to help them manage these real-world obstacles to degree completion.

In public higher education, we’ve also worked hard to make transfer from certificate to two-year to four-year degrees relatively easy (I’m not convinced it is seamless yet). We’re not creating a bunch of stackable credentials as part of a new trend in education, we’re helping students see that we’ve had those stackable options all along.  The trick is to help everyone complete something, so that they have the chance to move on when ready. We’ve also created advising supports to try to keep students from amassing too much debt in their pursuit of an education.  We hate seeing students piling on loan after loan without a good outcome.

But this is the real story that we all have to get our minds around.  The emerging economies rely on an educated workforce.  Our graduates have to be ready to learn throughout our professional lives, because job requirements are changing at a pace that no single degree or certificate can keep up with.  We do want everyone to earn post-secondary education credentials, and probably those credentials will lead to degrees, because we want our students to be able to respond to the changing world of work throughout their lives. But we know the path to those credentials will vary.

So, we have to be clear about the benefits and limitations of each type of educational experience available.  We have to match those experiences to the students we are supporting, doing our best to meet their needs in both the short and long-term. We have to be responsive to the need for lifelong learning and continue to build credentials that support that need.  And we have to articulate the value of the more abstract reasoning and cultural competency that comes from all of those courses that don’t have a visible link to a specific career.  Why? Because we know that students with these capabilities do better over time. The evidence for this exists, but we have to tell everyone.

In other words, we have to earn the trust of the public. I’m sure that if people knew just how much higher education pays attention to where students are going, they’d feel better about us.  If we can show them evidence for our claims about what we do instead of asking folks to just trust us, that would also help.  And, if we demonstrate that we are paying attention to students as individuals, mapping their educational experiences to their unique needs, people might feel better about the financial investment they are making.

Then we need to figure out how to get the press to stop obsessing on a single, elite model of education, and tell the rest of the story.