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. 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.” That percentage goes up to 84 percent among Generation Z (those students just about to enter college or in college now). 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. 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.