As a historian and an educator, I am fascinated by the evolution of our national conversation about higher education. I recently came across two data points that concern me about the state of that conversation. The first is that nearly 90 percent of college and university presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed believe that the public doesn’t understand the purpose of higher education. The second comes from Public Agenda, which found that public belief in the necessity of college for success in the working world has declined since the recession, after large gains in the previous decade.
This combination does not bode well for the future. If public skepticism grows and higher education’s response is to dig in and double down on old messages, support for our colleges and universities could weaken, endangering our efforts to increase student success and close attainment gaps. To avoid that path, we need to reframe the conversation about the change that is needed in higher education.
So how do we do that? First, we need to bring new and more diverse voices to the change conversation – and listen to them. That was one of the reasons the Postsecondary Success strategy recently launched the Frontier Set, a group of 31 high-performing and high-potential campuses and systems from across higher education and the nation. Exciting and groundbreaking change is happening at places like Arizona State University, but it’s also happening at places like Florida International University and Sinclair Community College. We need to understand and share their stories to inspire other institutions.
Second, we need to move from an “either/or” mindset about the point of higher education to one of “both/and.” Too often, it seems like policymakers and higher education leaders are talking past each other about the value and purpose of education after high school. College is both about gaining knowledge and skills for a career and gaining competencies to live a healthier and more productive life. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are deeply interrelated and should be viewed over a lifetime of learning. And it is past time to start framing them in that way.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, we need to have more of a student-centered conversation about change in higher education. A great deal of the discussion and debate about increasing attainment and equity focuses on institutions – their needs, their efforts, their challenges and opportunities. Having the perspective of today's college students is important to ensure that we are designing policies and processes that meet their needs. We talk a lot about ensuring that our students are ready for college; now it is time to place more emphasis on how student-ready our colleges are.
Change is hard, especially for an enterprise as given to tradition as higher education. But shifting the conversation about higher education in a changing world – and then taking action – is critical to our efforts to help more students get to and through college. And they are counting on us to get it right.