Can Higher Ed “Reclaim the High Road”?

A couple of weeks ago, as part of a panel discussion at the New York Times’ Higher Education Leaders Forum, I was asked a question that has stayed with me. It went something like this:

Many skeptical Americans question the cost, accessibility, relevance and elitism (as they see it) of the nation’s top schools. How can colleges prove their worth, regain the public’s trust and safeguard their futures?

This question has such resonance because it brings together several issues that need to be addressed if we’re going to improve our higher ed system so that it works for everyone — every race, every income level, and every type of background.

For example, what does it mean to be a “top school”? While I don’t know whether the questioner had specific institutions in mind, the general narrative in this country is that “top schools” are the ones with the lowest acceptance rates. As someone who attended a state university, I’d argue that the best schools are the ones that understand the needs of today’s college students — especially low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults — and are transforming themselves to meet those students’ needs. What if instead of celebrating exclusivity and prestige, we defined quality by inclusivity and a relentless focus on student success?

Raj Chetty and his colleagues at The Equality of Opportunity Project have found that institutions like The City University of New York (CUNY) have large numbers of students who come from the lowest income quintile and make it to the highest income quintile. We also see this at places like Georgia State University, which has closed graduation gaps by race and is rightly described by the New York Times as “one of the South’s more innovative engines of social mobility.”

Excessive focus on elite institutions steals the spotlight from colleges and universities that are laser-focused on helping students cross the bridge to opportunity. It also closes off important conversations about how higher education is performing as a sector and where improvements need to be (and are being) made.

Another dynamic the question pokes at is the skepticism about college’s relevance. While it’s true that Americans are concerned about access to and the cost of college, they still overwhelmingly believe in its value and know it’s as relevant as ever. Let’s be careful not to confuse valid concerns about cost and access with questioning the value or relevance of education after high school. College graduates earn vastly more and are far more likely to be employed, more likely to volunteer in their communities, and even have better health outcomes. In fact, nearly nine in ten (89%) Americans want to see high school graduates earn a two-year or four-year degree.

However, only one in four Americans think that higher ed is “fine” the way it is. That’s because only about half of the students who start college graduate, and too many either get lost trying to navigate the system or find that navigating the system takes so long that it ends up costing too much.

Our foundation works with college and universities — institutions like Florida International University, Miami-Dade College, and Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio — that are eliminating unnecessary roadblocks and looking for ways to reduce the cost of obtaining a credential. They examine their own data to identify where students fall off track, and they put in place solutions — things like strong advising and digital learning tools — that give students the support and flexibility they need to get to a diploma.

These institutions define the “high road.” If there is a lack of public trust in higher education, it’s likely because we need more institutions to focus on their value and their values. The good news is that there are great examples to point to … if we can make room for them in the conversation.

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