College Leaders Must Sharpen the Case for Higher Education

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

At the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) in Minneapolis last week, there was a good deal of attention paid to how higher education should address the steady decline in support for America’s colleges and universities among consumers (that is, students and families) and key external stakeholders.

Indeed, NACUBO took appropriate preventative steps by showcasing a marketing effort designed to make a stronger, broader, and more articulate case for why colleges create value – both practically and philosophically – in American society.

Those of us who care deeply about the future of higher education commend NACUBO for working to get in front of this steady erosion in support.

Sharpening the Case for the Value of Higher Education

It’s clear, however, that we have a great deal of work to do to sharpen the argument and make it more relevant to the audiences with whom we wish to engage.

That may be the most important take-away from NACUBO’s discussions: The value proposition for American higher education must reflect the concerns of those who we are trying to convince. It must also resonate with them.

That’s not to say that we should abandon the older arguments. Historically, the most appealing case made by higher education about its value was that America’s colleges and universities produced an educated citizenry broadly prepared to contribute to global society.

Founded and nurtured by the liberal arts tradition, higher education offered more than narrow technical training. Given the rising nationalism and growing tribalism in American culture, this is a critical argument to make.

In fact, it may be the most important argument to make – a foundation upon which a broader case can be built. But laying the foundation is no longer sufficient, although it is essential that the argument on the broader social good of higher education be strengthened and supported.

It makes no sense either to politicize the criticisms of the argument or to cater exclusively to consumer whims, anecdotes, and polling about why higher education matters.

There will always be a subset of arguments about whether or not higher education has been captured by the left. For those who think in political terms, it’s what matters, and sometimes it appears, it’s the only thing that matters.

Economics, Not Politics, Shape Perceptions of Higher Education

There is some merit to these arguments, but many of us do not believe that the broad middle group of educators is narrowly ideological either by discipline or practice. It’s generally healthy to have these political debates, but it will likely be economics rather than politics that shape American perceptions of higher education in the future.

It’s also wrong to build entirely new justifications based narrowly on consumer whims. But this is where additional work must be done. Colleges are tuition-driven by nature and design. The 94 institutions with endowments of $1 billion or higher control nearly 75% of the $529 billion reported by all institutions.

It is a myth to assume that all colleges are wealthy places, living off draw downs from expansive endowments.  Further, at all but a handful of colleges, the often-touted fundraising juggernauts with impressive campaign totals are typically some combination of aggregated annual fund receipts and deferred gifts that build to a bigger number. There is an open question as to how much immediate benefit comes to a college from comprehensive fundraising campaigns. 

The financial and demographic issues facing most colleges and universities are challenging:

  • From 2010-2016, the average comprehensive fee (tuition, fees, room and board) rose 43% for private colleges and 68% for public colleges.
  • Financial aid discounts now exceed on average 50 cents of every tuition dollar received.
  • Significantly, recent surveys show that 46% of graduates from U.S. four-year institutions have enrolled in community college at some point.

In an era of steady or declining demographics, consumers are voting with their feet. In a new survey, one in eight colleges have had merger, closing, or acquisition discussions internally over the past year.

Despite these challenges, the sky is not falling as some doomsday prognosticators predict. For the moment, American higher education has lost the public relations battle with the outcry over high sticker prices and a one-sided read of employment after graduation statistics.

Higher education exists in an increasingly transactional world in which families no longer put “skin in the game” because they view higher education as a right supported by the state and not a privilege in which families must also play a role.

But the foundation of preparing students for a global society in which students must graduate with a pragmatic understanding of how they can contribute is a good beginning defense of the value of a higher education degree.

On to this foundation must be grafted other justifications, however, that build from previous arguments on value. If the rigors of the 21st century demand creativity and imagination, it will be an evolving curriculum within higher education that will provide the entrepreneurial encouragement and training.

It’s already happening in ways large and small throughout American higher education. It’s why our colleges and universities are the basis for imitation and the envy of the world.

Those who advocate for America’s colleges and universities must find words – sometimes different words — that are neither defensive not outlandish to explain their value. It’s a public relations battle that higher education cannot lose.

This article first appeared on the Edvance Foundation blog. 

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