Home On the Agenda Why Waning Confidence In Higher Education Is Worrisome

Why Waning Confidence In Higher Education Is Worrisome

March 16, 2017

Colleges and universities can’t count on being given the benefit of the doubt under conditions of mistrust and anxiety.

There are significant gaps between the public and college leaders when it comes to the purpose and value of higher education. Experts often chock it up to a difference between perception and reality. It’s well founded that a college degree provides a level and secure path to a better-paying job, and ultimately, a middle class lifestyle. So why don’t more Americans buy it?

American Council on Education (ACE) Senior Vice President Terry W. Hartle said at ACE’s annual meeting Monday that recent focus groups showed that the economic value of a college education is declining. As described by Rick Seltzer, one focus group participant believed the average student loan borrower takes on more than $13,000 in debt per year, and a majority of participants said that colleges and universities are indifferent to costs students pay.

Waning confidence in higher education is not all that new. A survey we conducted last summer showed a significant increase in the number of people who say there are many ways to succeed in today’s work world without a college degree. In reality, it is a significant change in public opinion – a 14 percentage point increase from 43 percent in 2009 to 57 percent in 2016. Just 42 percent of Americans said a college education is necessary for success in the workforce. Juxtapose this trend with the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s projection that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some form of post-secondary education, and the problem becomes more critical.

The root of prospective students’ worries are rational. In a 2013 survey of adults looking to attend or return to college, a majority said they worry about taking on too much debt, among a host of other issues (see Figure 9 below). Fifty-two percent of 18 to 24-year olds expressed doubts about gaining the skills and knowledge they need for a job.

Do student worries miss the point? Last week, Inside Higher Ed released findings from its seventh annual survey of college and university presidents. It shows that only 12 percent of college presidents either strongly agree or agree that most Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of higher education.

What exactly is that purpose? It’s hard to tell, as the survey does not explicitly define or ask presidents to describe it. If we knew this is what presidents mean by “an accurate view of the purpose of higher education,” we could look at research to say there’s a well-defined disconnect.

However, as we’ve seen in our own survey research, it’s clear economic security and socioeconomic mobility are primary concerns for the public, especially prospective students. Diminishing or debasing that perspective is out of synch with realities facing the growing population of new traditional students who come to higher education with fewer resources, more pressures and far more complicated lives than traditional students of the past. Concerns about investing in education with no guarantee of a job, problems transferring credits, and other issues are important and legitimate grievances that shouldn’t be dismissed by saying people are swayed by media coverage of student debt.

The silver lining is that, though confidence is less steady, over half of Americans think a college education is still the best investment to get ahead. In the focus groups and forums we’ve facilitated around the country, members of the public continuously express a deep belief in the importance of higher education in the world today. But, what they’re expressing at the same time is that too few colleges seem to care about the things they care about: socioeconomic mobility.

Gaps in perceptions should give experts and leaders pause. As Dan Yankelovich has cautioned, colleges and universities can’t count on being given the benefit of the doubt under conditions of mistrust and anxiety. These groups need the time and opportunity to come together to think seriously about the purposes and value of higher education in a changing world. Bridging this gap through direct communication about the decisions leaders and citizens need to make together is tantamount to ensuring higher education provides more people with the genuine opportunity to make a better life through education.

We’re working across the country with national organizations, thought leaders and colleges to help improve the quality and accelerate the pace of problem solving on complex issues related to higher education, workforce development and the future of the American middle class. Specifically, through partnerships with the Aspen Institute for College Excellence, the Community College Research Center and the American Association of Community Colleges, we are helping strengthen the work of networks and coalitions trying to solve problems in new ways that better meet the needs of students from all backgrounds. We look forward to keeping you updated on our work around the country, and encourage you to engage with us and share your own knowledge and experience.


ALISON KADLEC, PH.D., AND Megan Rose Donovan