Hey, Higher Education: You’re On Mute

Higher education has been on the decline in an oddly quiet way. With enrollments down 10 consecutive years, state funding below 2008 levels, and public support eroding considerably, it’s almost as if higher education is on mute. How could it be that such a precious institution – embedded in the American Dream and long the envy of the world – is seemingly shriveling away? One explanation is that – as a collective – higher education has been unable to organize itself in a clear and coherent manner to make the most effective case about its value and to coordinate widespread changes to address the critiques of its constituents. It’s time for higher education to unmute itself. 

There are a number of forces contributing to higher education’s decline. Unmitigated increases in college tuition for decades on end have corresponded with astronomical student loan debt. Compounding the cost and debt issues is a real question about the ‘return on investment’ of a college degree, driven primarily by a lack of confidence in the work readiness of college graduates and the relevance of what they are taught. Further, higher education has become a partisan issue with widely divergent views between Democrats and Republicans about its value and purpose.

Amidst the past ten years of declining enrollments, shrinking state funding and waning public confidence in higher education, there has been little in the way of concerted, industry-wide communications and strategies. Instead of working together, institutions of higher education and the associations that represent them have largely focused on promoting their own individual institutions and more narrow interests. Meanwhile, higher education leaders have continued to double-down on messaging of the past – beholden to terminology understood and appreciated only by those inside the academy.

There are many examples of disconnects between higher education and its broader constituents. Let’s start with the foundational quality assurance system for higher education: accreditation. It’s little understood within the academy itself and completely opaque to the general public. Anchored in traditional tenets such as “seat time” and “peer review,” research shows large percentages of Americans prefer new measures such as ‘student and alumni ratings’ and ‘employer ratings’ as the best standard for evaluating colleges. A term such as ‘liberal arts’ – which resonates with those in the academy – is among the least compelling brands to prospective students and parents. Continued insistence that the liberal arts and career readiness are mutually exclusive as well as resistance to the idea of college as a means for preparing students for work stand at odds with the #1 reason why Americans value higher education.

Messaging Matters

The words used to describe higher education make a difference. As the industry tries to climb out of its current decline, words, messages and marketing campaigns will be a key part of the strategy. Such efforts must include identifying and using more modern and resonant language. For example, employers value the liberal arts less by name and more by descriptions of its component attributes: critical thinking, skilled communication, teamwork and cultural understanding, etc.

Work-readiness, industry-recognized skills and career preparation resonate deeply with prospective students and employers. But most colleges miss the opportunity to feature these attributes prominently in their marketing and enrollment management. Internships, long-term projects and mentoring are linked to the most successful graduate outcomes – yet these are not critical facets of accreditation or the many rankings out there. Competency-based education resonates with adult learners, yet its adoption by institutions has been quite slow. ‘Life-long learning’ is one of the most commonly used phrases in college mission statements, but few have been able to demonstrate and articulate examples of how they actually deliver on it. Indeed, opportunities to better promote higher education abound.

Promoting While Eating Humble Pie

The messaging that will win back the hearts and minds of Americans to higher education can’t be purely and blindly promotional. It must also come with a tone of genuine humility. Not every person who passes through the gates of higher education is an automatic success just as not all those without a degree should be subject to wearing the Scarlett Letter U of being ‘uneducated.’ In “The Tyranny of Merit,” author Michael Sandel argues that meritocracy generates a certain hubris among the winners while at the same time imposing harsh judgment on those left behind. He suggests that the ‘last acceptable prejudice’ is that of the formally educated versus those who are not. And one of the institutions squarely in his sights as driving this meritocratic hubris is higher education.

The new messaging of higher education can no longer include absolutes like promoting a degree as the only path to a good life or a good job or enlightened citizenship. It’s possible to both promote it and admit its limitations. It’s also possible to promote higher education without promoting degrees. Non-degree educational opportunities are among the fastest-growing in higher education and the more colleges and universities embrace this the more (not less) appealing they become.

Coordinated Messaging Matters

Despite a net loss of more than 2.5 million students across higher education since its peak in 2011, certain universities have been able to buck the trend and grow dramatically. But for higher education to be effective going forward, it will require much more than individual colleges and universities fighting to distinguish themselves amidst a sea of undifferentiated brands. Instead, higher education as a whole must more effectively differentiate itself from its alternatives. Much like sports conferences spend money to promote member universities as a group, consortia of colleges and universities will need to band together to promote the overall value proposition of higher education.

In addition to universities working together to establish coordinated campaigns, so too must the legion of higher education associations. Although a few associations have long functioned as ‘representatives’ of all of higher education, there are hundreds that (rightfully and by mission) promote their own unique agenda. Promoting specific issues unique to certain types of institutions or functions within the academy will continue to be an important function of associations. But working across associations to build much stronger and more visible support for higher education as a whole will define a new era of collaboration in the service of being a tide that raises all boats.  

Coordinated Action Matters        

For as much as words and messaging matter, higher education also needs to reckon with the changes it must make and take action to rebuild public confidence and enrollments. Individual universities can serve as examples and role models but it is a commitment to collective action that is needed most. For example, it’s one thing for Purdue University to freeze tuition for 10 consecutive years (impressive). It would be a whole other thing if the entire Big 10 committed to doing the same (game-changing).  

University consortia or associations can work to make commitments to actions such as freezing tuition, embedding internships or co-ops as part of degree programs, ensuring students leave with industry-recognized credentials in addition to their degree, building extensive employer partnerships, integrating career services into the academic core, and ensuring all students complete long-term projects (and build a portfolio of such). All these are examples of actions that would go a long way toward rebuilding confidence in and excitement about higher education. And accreditors can help expand and promote many of these efforts through new accrediting criteria.

Higher education also has opportunities to grow its mission and impact by reimagining itself as an institution for non-degree pre-college learning and life-long learning. A movement among universities to offer certificates, short courses and industry skills is already underway and can’t move fast enough. And as higher education expands beyond a focus on degrees and traditional-aged students, it can also rethink its unit of analysis from serving individual students to serving entire families. In short, the good news is there are plenty of ways to address the major critiques of the U.S. post-secondary system.

Higher education has essentially put itself on mute because of pricing that’s unaffordable, offerings that aren’t relevant, messaging that doesn’t resonate and an attitude that’s been irreverent. It’s time for higher education to unmute itself by working toward collective messaging and action. The steps that should be taken are more obvious than not. But they can’t be taken an institution at a time; an outlier or two or some best practices here or there won’t cut it. The pace of change and magnitude of impact necessary to restore higher education’s voice will require a concerted effort unlike any in its history.

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