Posts Tagged “public perception”

Can U.S. Higher Education Disrupt Itself Before It’s Too Late?

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how disruption will play out in American higher education. My hopes – and concerns – reflect a bedrock belief that America’s colleges and universities operate on an unsustainable finance model that must adapt to new realities. It is impossible to predict how many colleges and universities have the capacity or willingness to make the kinds of structural changes that reach beyond where most have charted their courses.

That having been said, it seems likely that we will see an uptick in mergers, closures, and acquisitions, particularly for poorly endowed and under-resourced institutions that cannot control their financial aid discounts and spending rates.

While almost all institutions feel some level of pain, those with weak governance, internal fiefdoms that fail to communicate across the campus, uninformed faculty, and poorly articulated value propositions will be the first to fall.

External Forces Compound Higher Ed’s Internal Problems

External forces compound the growing problems faced by higher education, where the annual outlook by the ratings agencies has now eroded once again to “negative.” There are a number of quality institutions with financial aid discount rates over 70 percent. A number of these institutions are unable to stop the rise in these rates.

Basic math suggests that as the effects compound, these institutions will so severely limit their options that the impending question on the horizon is how and when they will lose their independence.

It’s Not Too Late to Avoid the Debacle Ahead

In the once robust world of decentralized American higher education, the tragedy is that so much of what will play out could be stopped. There are a number of players who can step in to avoid the debacle ahead.

The first is, obviously, the higher education community itself.

Each and every college or university must determine its value to its community and to American society as a whole. Once defined, its leadership must be courageous in articulating its own value proposition.

Stakeholders – led by trustees and faculty – must accept this value proposition and must adjust their roles accordingly, clearly differentiating what is truly distinctive about their institution – what it does differently than its peers.

The campus community must live within its footprint. And it must adapt to the new realities that fund what it can do best within its means to serve the common good.

State and Federal Governments Have Stake in Higher Education

The second stakeholder group is government, both at the state and federal level. There has never been an effort to have the state and federal governments coordinate their support, especially their financial support, of America’s colleges and universities. The impact varies widely across states.

  • Is it the responsibility of state governments, for instance, to bolster student aid and infrastructure needs rather than simply provide direct public subsidies?
  • Should the federal government effectively designate America’s research universities as the lead participant in many strategic national research and development efforts?
  • Can the federal and state governments lighten regulatory restrictions in an overregulated higher education industry?

Media Plays Powerful Role in Shaping Public Perception of Higher Ed

The third stakeholder group is the media through which the message about higher education is delivered. Much of the negative perception of education shared by American consumers comes from the sensationalism of anecdote, political posturing, and polling. It festers in an unregulated, hyperactive, and reactionary social media environment. Good stories seldom draw ratings and sell print media. This combination of ratings-driven establishment and out-of-control social media has encouraged new – generally negative — perceptions not driven by data.

The cumulative effect is to throw higher education under the bus, often through some combination of bad data and self-inflicted wounds.

The positive message of higher education’s contributions to the common good in American society is often drowned out by sensational, if often accurate, stories of colleges in crisis. The weakness of its parts effectively drowns out the good of the whole.

Can Disruption Restore Public Faith in American Higher Education?

This is the point at which disruption can play a critical role in restoring the faith of the American consumer in the value proposition of American colleges and universities. As disruption sweeps across colleges and universities, higher education is facing the same kinds of pressures as the health care industry.

If higher education, government, and the media that together shape the parameters of higher education continue with their current level of disconnected incoherence, the results may work against a robust college community.

America loses in the end. However, there is an alternative view.

Led by America’s colleges and universities, disruption within higher education can be good for American society – especially if it is intentional and self-directed.

Higher education must break out of the “we’ve never done it this way before” mindset that governs broad national policy despite solid evidence of remarkable innovation in isolated sectors of the academy.

The fact is that the financial model of American higher education is broken. The revenue generated no longer supports the people, programs, and facilities that form the decentralized higher education community that is still admired globally.

Something must be done soon. The answer will likely come from within higher education. My strong hope is that positive disruption arrives before consumer perception and the fiscal crisis intersect to do irretrievable damage.

Rethinking Public Perception of Higher Education

There are a number of reasons why higher education no longer enjoys the level of status and prestige that it once did in American society.

Public perceptions that confuse sticker price and the cost of attendance, the unwillingness or inability of many American families to share the financial burden incurred by their children, and confusion over whether a college degree translates into a job certainly affect how American families perceive the value of a college degree.

Higher Education as Political Punching Bag

Much of the damage in perception is linked, however, to how politics has intruded into the public mindset about value. Writing for Education Dive,  Autumn A. Arnett and Shalina Chatlani reprint from the Washington Post: conservative skepticism around funding for liberal arts education is on the rise, as critics of higher education point out institutions for being ‘elitist’ and ‘politically correct’ centers of student protests that fail to provide skills actually needed for the job market.”

They highlight “growing conservative skepticism on whether institutions are sufficiently addressing student ROI comes at the same time Congress is considering potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which Republicans have already said ought to put the onus of responsibility on institutions to prove they are making college more affordable and worthwhile.”

Many See College as Elitist Bastions of Political Correctness

The reporters argue that many see liberal arts institutions as elitist, teaching students skills that will not transfer to the workplace. They illustrate their point by quoting Donald Trump, Jr., in a speech he gave last year in which he critiqued colleges: ‘We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange, we’ll train your children to hate our country . . . We’ll make them unemployable by teaching then course in zombie studies, underwater basket weaving and, my personal favorite, tree climbing.” They also relate that higher education leaders are working to educate Americans about the value of a college degree “rather than a current impression that a liberal arts education only breeds political correctness, hate speech and protests.”

The depth of support among average Americans for this message surprises many of us. Reporting in the Wall Street Journal recently, for example, Doug Belkin discussed the plight of Emily Ritchey, a rural Pennsylvanian attending highly selective Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Ms. Ritchey noted the difficulty she has had adapting to the different perspective and broader worldview at F & M. Most significant perhaps, however is her report of her parents’ reaction to her studies: “My family asks me all the time if I’m just learning liberal rhetoric. They keep telling me it’s important to learn something practical.”

Has the debate really come down to these arguments? Put differently, has higher education lost the high ground, dragged down into the muck of partisan politics over simple but misrepresented words like “liberal” and “arts”?

Colleges as Foundation for Unpatriotic Views

Has America become so anti-intellectual that many of its citizens equate intellectualism with elitist behavior? Further, do they view elitism as the foundation for an unpatriotic view that somehow diminishes the unique history and unparalleled promise of the great American experiment in democracy that higher education once took the lead to foster?

The problems facing higher education mirror other once seemingly untouchable segments of American society. Federal and state employees are often derisively referred to today as bureaucrats. Religious leaders have taken a major hit in their credibility sometimes seeming to get more airtime for their defense of alleged acts by morally-bankrupt politicians than for their efforts to facilitate open discussion and promote understanding and good will.

It is unlikely that Americans view of politicians and the media could drop any lower in national polling.

For more than 70 years, the United States has staked out its claim to be the leader of the free world. It did so at enormous human and financial cost but always with a sense of optimism and self-confidence.

Part of what made America’s world leadership possible is that higher education provided a safety valve that prepared millions of Americans for the change from a manufacturing to a post-industrial global economy.

As America evolves, there is no single straight or even clear path toward the future. Some Americans have been left behind, economic disparity has grown, and a growing split between economic classes – represented by the chasm between the rhetoric and reality in the current national tax plans – are persistent issues.

It may be that higher education has lost the battle over the language that describes what its colleges and universities do in this hyper-charged partisan environment.

But the work goes on and higher education can respond better and more nimbly to new changes than any other homegrown industry because it represents the best of what has always fueled the American spirit, shaped its economic potential, and defined its cultural awareness.

A new language of promise and potential must adapt to the global stage on which these institutions play and on which America must lead.

Colleges and universities must explain better what they do while working more efficiently and creatively to do so. It’s important because where the country will head is directly dependent on the leadership, talent, and training available on college campuses. Misplaced political rhetoric and misunderstood cultural motivations do not diminish, however, what colleges and universities contribute to America.