A coalition of US higher education associations hopes to raise $1.5 million (£700,000) for a campaign to convince people that it is important to support universities.
The three-year public trust initiative, titled Higher Education and America's Future, was unveiled earlier this month at a convention of community college administrators in Boston.
It comes as Congress debates reauthorising the fundamental legislation that governs higher education and as parents and students balk at tuition-fee increases that outpace inflation.
The initiative will use national advertising during televised university sporting events and other programmes to push the idea that universities provide a wide social benefit.
The organisations involved in the effort will ask universities to tell alumni, students and their parents more about the value of higher education in general.
Some officials involved in the plan say universities' traditional means of getting public financial support - simply saying they are entitled to it - is no longer effective.
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said: "If we are to gain the high ground in discussions involving higher education policy in the US, we must move the public beyond the focus on the individual benefit of attending college and demonstrate how our increasingly global society is improved by the work conducted at our universities.
"Our old-style advocacy efforts to build support were clearly falling short of this goal, so the time had come to try something new."
Already, $500,000 has been raised, and organisations led by the ACE have begun to survey focus groups about Americans' attitudes toward higher education.
The campaign will be led by Stanley Ikenberry, former president of both the ACE and the University of Illinois. He said that because Iraq and other issues already occupy centre stage, "the public does not see higher education in crisis".
Lee Richardson, professor of marketing at the University of Baltimore, said: "The economics of the social benefits can be explained simply: People who are college educated are hired at their higher salaries because they can produce more benefits for their employers than they cost those employers. Why else hire them?
"That extra benefit to employers flows to society in better goods and services and the employee spends more as well [benefiting the economy]."