Public faith in US universities is fading. We need a new vision

Higher education must meet students where they are and find a way to connect anyone with an education if they are willing to work, says Aaron Basko

October 21, 2022
A DeLorean car in front of a sunset, symbolising future vision
Source: iStock

Recently, I was talking with a childhood friend, whose daughter is a college sophomore. He shared his theory that in the early 2000s, colleges intentionally raised their tuition rates because they knew people would remortgage their homes because of rising values.

“But last year I was still charged full price, even though most of my daughter’s courses were online,” he complained. “I get it. You all are a business and you are there to make money, like everyone else.”

I tried to explain that higher education is a people-intensive endeavour, and that families expect colleges to provide everything – housing, food, entertainment, counselling services and the rest. But I walked away thinking: “People really don’t know what they are getting for their money.”

This shows in surveys. According to a recent survey by New America, public confidence that higher education is taking the US in a positive direction has fallen by 14 percentage points just since 2020. Another recent survey found that only half of Americans think the benefits of a college education outweigh the cost. Our audience sees us as partisan, overpriced and ineffective. Ouch.

We need a new narrative. We need a function in our culture that people can understand and get behind. In recent years, we have reached out to the 39 million people with some college but no degree, but – with some notable exceptions – we have failed because we’ve only invited them back into the same system that didn’t work for them the first time.

In strategic planning, the most important question is what success will look like. Step into my time machine and allow me to show you one flourishing campus 10 years in the future.

The first thing you notice is students’ age range. You meet 17-year-olds in their second year of dual enrolment. They have a full-time coordinator who connects them with the university’s career services office to begin planning their college journey, and they get to pre-plan their schedules if they continue at the university. Some are headed to senior seminars co-taught by local business professionals and underwritten by those businesses in hopes of grooming employable graduates; the companies pay back a portion of students’ debts if they hire them.

You also meet 75-year-old alumni on their annual enrichment week, watching faculty give TED-style talks. Attendance earns alumni a free credit-bearing course during the rest of the year, and they receive access to a range of networking opportunities.

In the classroom buildings, you encounter professionals of all ages attending specific symposia on a variety of topics. You also meet professionals from companies, governments and educational institutions all over the world who are here in six-week cohorts to receive training from faculty and brush up their English.

And you bump into the completer students who have returned to college after time in the workforce. One excitedly tells you they just received their B2 (bachelor, second year) credential; after taking a semester out to save up, they will be back for their B3.

Everything conveys a sense of not just learning but also experience. Art and music are easily available and there are beautiful places to walk and talk, between accommodation of varying levels of luxury and open meeting and maker spaces.

Eventually, you run into the director of auxiliary services. She tells you that over the past decade, her offices have grown rapidly. “We are no longer mostly dependent on 18- to 22-year-olds,” she says. “We are convincing our alumni, parents and friends to study with us for life. We are truly partnering with the business community instead of treating them with suspicion. And we are not just teaching: we are facilitating mutual learning and training for professionals.

“But what about the traditional, four-year liberal arts experience?” you ask.

“That is still at the heart of what we do. These other areas of revenue preserve it by making it affordable and higher quality. Students who need to step off that path, though, can still keep moving forward. And if student preferences change, we have the flexibility to adjust.”

The president joins the conversation. “How did you transform your campus?” you ask.

“It wasn’t easy,” the president says. “We had to confront a lot of our fears and take the critiques seriously. If the public saw us as partisan, we had to prove we could educate everyone, regardless of beliefs or background, without trying to remake them in our image or values. If people viewed us as overpriced, we had to identify alternative revenue models that reduced the cost, partnering with people we had never worked with before. And it meant really listening to new audiences and providing what they were asking for, not what we thought they needed.

“If others saw us as ineffective, we had to demonstrate we could deliver outcomes for students. That meant connecting real scenarios to the classroom and finding reliable ways to lure students back and reward them for progress.”

“That is pretty bold change,” you reply. “How did you start?”

“We determined to meet students where they are and find a way to connect anyone with an education if they are willing to put in the work. When we put that bold statement out publicly, others wanted to be part of it.”

This is just one version of what the future could look like, perhaps not even the best one, but it shows how the vision has to lead. There are universities already doing many of the things mentioned above, but what is missing is the clear public statement that tells our society: “This is what you can expect from us. We pledge to make this contribution to our world.”

Until we can provide this pledge with some semblance of unity, we will continue to be misunderstood.

Aaron Basko is associate vice-president for enrolment management at the University of Lynchburg.

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Reader's comments (2)

I hesitate to write this, but could this author find any more meaningless cliches to link together without making an argument or even a point... and too many contradictions to count.
I'm sorry to say that this leaves me none the wiser. Strip out the cliches and jargon and there's very little explanation of what the actual educational experience is to look like or how we are to get there. Really, this whole genre of article, with the time travel conceit, is tired enough for the knacker's yard. Just say what you want to say.