Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

Posted on May 5, 2017

I agree with Eric’s observations and will just add a few of the lasting impressions the seminar made on me. As a doctoral student in the Philosophy of Education who focuses on higher education and spends a considerable amount of time reading critiques of higher education, I found the seminar both illuminating and heartening. It was illuminating because I am not privy to what goes on in faculty and administrator meetings, nor have I had extensive conversations with many faculty and administrators about their views on the current state of higher education and their work. Eric and I weren’t sure how many people would attend, so we were delighted that the seminar was filled to capacity (we even had to turn people away). More importantly, it was clear from the enthusiastic participation of nearly everyone in the room that the issues we were discussing are a pervasive concern among faculty and administrators from a variety of institutions. I sensed that the participants were hungry for a space to not only voice their frustration and discouragement but also to work toward solutions. A number of people came up to us afterward, expressing deep gratitude and an interest in working with us to continue the conversation.

Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

Posted on May 1, 2017

First, I certainly felt like everyone agreed that there is a gap between what the public thinks of higher education (for example, a credentialing service that helps to prepare young people to make money) and what academics think of higher education (for example, educating for life-long learning, the production of knowledge, preparation for active citizenship, etc.).

Second, I think there was agreement that the blame for this gap (if, in fact, someone or some group should be considered blameworthy) is not simply the public—that, in fact, both sides are responsible for the gap. For example, one of the reasons that the public might think of higher education as merely a credentialing service for future income is that those of us in higher education have sold what we do in exactly that way: think of the famous and often-cited statistic that college graduates will make a million dollars more over their lifetimes than non-college graduates. There also seemed to be a general recognition that even though higher education is an unusual business, it still is a business of sorts. Academics often fool themselves into thinking that higher education is somehow outside the “real world,” but they could serve themselves well by learning more about the financing and fiscal realities of higher education. A deeper understanding of the “business” of higher education might allow academics to understand better the public’s perspective.

Third, while there certainly was a fair amount of frustration about the gap between the public and academics, I did not sense hopelessness. Participants believed that those of us in higher education could do something to address the gap. In particular, we need to do a better job of providing a more compelling narrative about higher education (including historical perspective and data)—particularly with regard to its public goods and not just its private goods. Participants also recognized that part of their work must be with students—particularly helping them understand and articulate what they are learning beyond the specific content of courses. In many ways, our graduates should become the most effective ambassadors for a more robust public understanding of higher education.

In short, I was heartened by the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants. I also thought that the kind of conversation we had would be one worth continuing at future professional meetings but especially on campuses across the country.

Editors’ Note: This essay is the second in a series of pieces reflecting on a 2017 AACU seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.” This session engaged some important questions about the perception of Higher Education among various stakeholders. We hope you enjoy the sustained conversation.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Eric Bain-Selbo is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University-Kokomo. He also is the Executive Director of the Society for Values in Higher Education. His research spans across the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies, focusing primarily on social ethics, political philosophy, comparative religion, cultural criticism, and issues in higher education.


Higher Education and the Public

Posted on April 28, 2017

For the last several years, the Society for Values in Higher Education has sponsored a seminar session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU). We have explored topics such as the role of higher education in the moral development of students, the implications of free college tuition, the pedagogy of “wicked problems,” and many more. At the 2017 AACU meeting, we facilitated a seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.”

Our proposal (co-authored along with D. Gregory Sapp) described the session this way:

Skyrocketing tuition increases and a soft job market for college graduates have led to increasing public skepticism regarding higher education. Such skepticism has encouraged state legislators to continue to slash financial support for higher education. The loss of financial support leads to further tuition increases. What we have is a vicious cycle of skepticism and economic exigency (both for institutions and for students and their families) that leads to public distrust of higher education. If there is any hope of restoring significant public trust in higher education, academics and the public must have a “meeting of the minds” in regard to the purpose or value of higher education. The facilitators will lead a conversation about what we as academics value in higher education (particularly liberal education) and how to bridge the gap between what we value and what the public expects.

Approximately 25 faculty members, administrators, and even a higher education reporter joined us for an engaging conversation. We decided to structure the conversation around a special issue of The Chronicle Review from November 11, 2016. That special issue was looking at various questions about the central problems facing higher education today. Higher education experts and leaders answered the questions in short responses (no more than a sentence or two). We were particularly interested in two questions that seemed relevant to the perception and/or value gap between higher education and the public: What is the biggest misconception the public has about higher education? What is the biggest misconception that academics have about higher education?