Public Higher Ed Has a Good Story to Tell

Regular readers will know that I am not often a font of optimism when it comes to the state of higher education, but I have been digging into the recently released “Varying Degrees 2022” report from the education shop at New America, and I’m seeing some heartening data.

There is far too much in the report to do it justice in a single blog post, but I want to acknowledge the breadth and depth of what’s there for examination, and thank New America for both putting together an accessible overview, and providing all of the Extensive data for others to make use of.

There’s a lot of different ways to slice the data if you’re looking for evidence of positive or negative public sentiments towards higher education, but the once and (who knows?) future market researcher and communications strategist in me is particularly interested in a pair of questions.

Q: Overall, do you think colleges and universities are having a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in this country today?

And…

Q: Overall, do you think colleges and universities are having a positive or negative effect on the way things are going within their local communities today?

The first question on the effect on the country has been asked since 2020, with the percent positive declining from 69% to 55% over that time. Not great, but notable that better than half of people still have a more positive than negative or neutral view of higher ed.

The second question on the effect on the local community is new to this year’s survey, and I am ecstatic that it was asked because I think this is the area where higher education institutions (particularly public ones) can do themselves a lot of good when it comes to generating positive public sentiment.

The narrative of “college” primarily as a place to earn a credential that advances the prospect of the individual has taken considerable root, but the New America report shows that even so, there’s considerable sentiment for higher education as a public good, deserving public support .

Eighty-percent of respondents think that states should spend more to make college affordable. A similar percentage (78%) think that the federal government should spend more to make college affordable. That’s a clear recognition that public money should be a significant part of the support for people attending college.

Still, for public sentiment to improve, I think it’s important to start doing much more to emphasize the collective benefits of a robust system of affordable public higher education institutions. I’m not just talking about an educated populace, or general claims to fostering democratic values, blah blah blah, I’m talking about reminding people how awesome it is to have these institutions located in nearly every corner of the country.

There is already significant research and resources dedicated to providing the economic benefit of institutions to their localities, regions, and states. Sometimes the numbers are truly mind blowing, but for most people, these numbers are also abstractions, blips on a radar that aren’t fully internalized.

On the other hand, the experiences and opportunities a higher education institution provides are specific and concrete, and these benefits accrue to people other than the most direct stakeholders of students, faculty, and staff.

In many cases, a higher education institution may be a town’s chief employer, its cultural center, a hub of technology and innovation. I live in the Charleston, South Carolina area, a city considered to be a world class tourist destination (and it is), but it is also a city whose downtown is significantly enhanced by the presence of the College of Charleston, which brings not just economic activity (in the form of students and their spending), but is also a necessary partner for civic events like the Spoleto Arts Festival, which performers and performances that would otherwise not be accessible in a place this size, while simultaneously providing a platform for local artists that makes their work more sustainable.

Those of us who live here and benefit from the college tend to take it for granted, but its absence would be a significant blow, and that’s to a city that has numerous other advantages. Imagine places where the higher education institution is even more central to the local ecosystem. Every institution has some version of this story that’s relevent to their community.

Now, it’s not as though colleges and universities should puff themselves up and declare that “You couldn’t get along without us!” even if it might be true. Instead, the communication should focus on reminding citizens how often and in what ways they intersect with institutions, so those moments we take for granted become more visible.

Institutions should position themselves as partners, with localities and its residents as stakeholders as important as students, faculty, and staff.

And then we can ask and track the answers to more questions such as:

Q: Do you think your local college(s) and/or university(ies) are having a positive or negative effect on your region’s employment?

Q: Do you think your local college(s) and/or university(ies) are having a positive or negative effect on your access to cultural or entertainment events?

Q: Do you think your local college(s) and/or university(ies) are having a positive or negative effect on your access to new technology and innovations?

Q: Do you think your local college(s) and/or university(ies) are having a positive or negative effect on your region’s ability to attract new residents?

That’s just off the top of my head in the time it takes me to write a blog post. The possibilities really are endless.

Higher education institutions have a good story to tell, a story that people are already experiencing, but it’s a story that may be divorced from its origin, or obscured by other narratives about college in America as a private good exclusive to those who attend the institution .

People are primed to believe good things about our higher education institutions. Let’s remind them that these good things already exist.

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