Higher education has a marketing problem—one that is partly of its own making.

We all know that the public relations situation of higher education is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the general public continues to believe in the value of higher education. A 2015 survey indicates that 95 percent of the population finds it “very important” or “somewhat important” that a person has a degree or other professional certification beyond high school.[1] A more recent survey from the civic enterprise organization New America shows that 75 percent of the American public agrees (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “It is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.”[2] That percentage goes up to 84 percent among Generation Z (those students just about to enter college or in college now).[3] The information here is good news. Americans think that what colleges and universities have to offer is of value, and they want it for themselves and for their children.

On the other hand, why Americans want what higher education is selling is both interesting and somewhat problematic. What Americans mean by “successful” tends to be simply financial advantage. In the Gallup-Lumina survey, 70 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that having a degree or professional certification beyond high school is “essential” for getting a good job.[4] The Freshman Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute shows that the views of the typical first-year student strongly align with those of the general population. While recent years have shown a slight decline in the percentage of students who cite economic reasons for pursuing a college degree, the numbers still are quite high. For 2015, 85.2 percent indicated that getting “a better job” was a “very important” reason for pursuing a college degree, and 69.9 percent indicated that making “more money” was a “very important” reason.[5]

Now we all know that a college education reaps financial benefits. What I find problematic, however, is that the American public views those financial benefits as the only value or at least the overwhelmingly most important value of higher education. Put another way, the American public views a college education as a mere means to the end of financial success. As a consequence, the public and its elected representatives assess the value of higher education in narrow economic terms. For example, think of the governors who want to tie higher education funding to the future incomes of college graduates as well as the public ridicule that politicians have heaped on students majoring in fields such as anthropology, French literature, and art history. The measure of the quality of higher education has become mere economic impact.

Those of us in higher education have contributed greatly to our difficult public relations situation, for we have, by and large, defined what we do using the dominant language of American culture—the language of profit and loss, supply and demand, consumption (indeed, we increasingly treat students primarily as consumers), and, in short, means/end rationality. By focusing most of our attention on the economic impacts of higher education—for individuals, our communities, and our nation—we have fueled the popular perception that higher education is merely a means to tangible ends: a degree, a well-paid job, a comfortable level of consumption, national economic growth, etc. Just think of the common refrain that a college graduate, over the course of a career, makes approximately $1 million more on average than a non-college graduate. Rarely do we hear more. Is that really the only message we want to send to the general population?

It is unfortunate that advocates for higher education have succumbed to the same means/end rationality that dominates American culture. While there is a plethora of books that champion the cultural and personal benefits of liberal education (particularly the humanities), the conversation in legislatures, among citizens, and increasingly on campuses is all about money. This state of affairs suggests that folks like me (and probably you, since you’re reading this article) are the only ones reading those books. Talk about preaching to the choir!

The Association of American Colleges & Universities annually surveys major employers to find out what kinds of skills and capacities they are looking for in future employees. Fortunately for those of us in higher education, employers regularly identify those skills and capacities that are at the core of a liberal education: the ability to analyze problems, strong communication skills, the ability to work in teams, etc. We need to keep in mind what employers want when we think about our curricula and what we do in the classroom. But we need to beware of basing our advocacy solely on such employer demands.

Now don’t get me wrong. Higher education is a means to a degree, a well-paid job, and a comfortable level of consumption—at least for the overwhelming majority of our students. But it is so much more than that. We all know that it is. Therefore, my argument is that if we hope to truly advance the cause of higher education, then we’d better get back to making the case that it is more than merely a means to other ends.

We must make the argument that higher education has intrinsic value, not just instrumental value. If we remain stuck in the kind of means/end argument that is dominating the conversation today, then we will lose. We increasingly will have our missions and curricula diminished by calls for narrower educational opportunities with better cost-benefit analyses (at least in terms of dollars). Take the issue of general education, which tends to be under assault on campuses across the country. In many cases, there are professional programs that seek to reduce general education to as little as a quarter of the current graduation requirement. These programs are pitted against defenders of liberal education who see a college education as more than just preparation for the work world. In such a conflict, advocates for liberal education can fall prey to the dominant paradigm and try to make the case that nurses will nurse better for having read Proust, or that engineers will engineer better for having grappled with Kant. While these claims might be true, defenders of liberal education will lose this debate. We sound silly to our colleagues in the professional programs, silly to the students, and frankly like charlatans to parents. So what can we do? I will address that question in the second installment of this article. But what do you think we can do?

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indiana University Kokomo

[1] Gallup-Lumina Foundation, Americans Value Postsecondary Education: The 2015 Gallup-Lumina Foundation Study of the American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: Gallup, 2016), p. 8.

[2] Fishman, Rachel, and Manuela Ekowo and Ernest Ezeugo, Varying Degrees: New America’s Annual Survey on Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: New America, 2017), p. 7.

[3] Fishman, et al., Varying Degrees, p. 7.

[4] Gallup-Lumina Foundation, Americans Value Postsecondary Education, p. 9.

[5] Eagan, Kevin, et al., The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 (Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, 2016), p. 17.