Threat No. 6 — Poor Public Understanding of What We Do
A recent Gallup poll reports that the percentage of U.S. adults who believe college is very important has dropped from 70% in 2013 to 51% this fall. The same survey showed that those who believed it was “fairly important” or “not too important” rose from 13% to 36% in the same time period.
This September, The Wall Street Journal and THE (what the London Times Higher Education Supplement has become) hosted a gathering of university leaders to announce this year’s THE/WSJ rankings. The big unveiling of the top 10 revealed MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech, and seven of the Ivies. Imagine the surprise.
This same event included a presentation on how institutions can hire THE as a consultant to improve their standings in THE’s own rankings—really!
I believe media coverage of the declining public confidence in higher education is a main cause of the decline, but there appears to be little appetite among the press to push in the other direction.
During another panel the THE/WSJ event, Douglas Belkin, one of the principal higher-education writers for the WSJ, stated multiple times that young people are less and less inclined to take the risk of investing in a college education. During the same panel, Joe Barrett, U.S. Midwest and national education editor for the WSJ, stated that the earnings gap between college graduates and non-graduates is at an all-time high. There is a disconnect.
As Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Almost every study concludes that getting a college degree is worth it. What is known as the college wage premium—the difference in lifetime earnings between someone with only a high-school diploma and someone with a college degree—is now, by one calculation, a hundred and sixty-eight per cent. For people with an advanced degree, the wage premium is two hundred and thirteen per cent.”
The earnings advantages of obtaining a college degree didn’t used to be the prime driver for pursuing one. In the 1960s, ~80% of college students stated that the main reason they enrolled was to develop a personal philosophy and ~20% listed the prime reason as increased earning potential. By the 1990s, that ratio had inverted. The focus on earnings now seems even greater, but that may be because the relationship between a college degree and increased income has grown.
The fiscal return on investment is now much greater than 50 years ago, when far fewer good-paying jobs required a college degree.
In the same article, Menand wrote, “In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the college wage premium was small or nonexistent. Americans did not have to go to college to enjoy a middle-class standard of living. And the income of Americans who did get a degree, even the most well-remunerated ones, was not exorbitantly greater than the income of the average worker. By 1980, though, it was clear that the economy was changing. The middle class was getting hollowed out, its less advantaged members taking service jobs that reduced their income relative to the top earners’.”
Now even many “blue-collar” jobs require significant technical training.
Like fifty years ago, the greatest benefits of a college education are its potential to expand a student’s world view, to challenge students to appreciate competing value systems, to empower them to value and celebrate difference, and to cultivate generous civility. Higher education in its best form is dedicated to developing humble leaders, engaged citizens, and good neighbors.
The new Gallup data cited above may be an indication that, in the maelstrom of contemporary media, the average U.S. adult does not understand the objective earnings data and has lost an awareness that higher education is dedicated to fostering leadership, citizenship, and civility. A more chilling conclusion is that at this particularly troubling inflection point in our history, fewer respondents believe these qualities are important. Let us hope not.