Perceptions of Higher Education

Watch ''Perceptions of Higher Education: What It All Means, and What Are We Prepared to Do About It?'' - a panel discussion around higher education’s value that explores the challenges for the future and discusses collective actions that have made a difference in past campaigns.

Discover the Next gained important momentum in early February, when leaders of the campaign’s three organizing associations — CASE, ACE and AGB – gathered with higher education advocates to advance a collective strategy for advancing public perceptions of higher education.

“We need to listen to the language the public uses about us and focus on the goals the public recognizes as the right goals for us,” ACE President Ted Mitchell said. “Talking louder isn’t the way. We need to listen first, then share the stories that meet their concerns.”

Mitchell offered his observations as part of “Perceptions of Higher Education: What It All Means, and What Are We Prepared to Do About It?”, a panel discussion moderated by CASE President and CEO Sue Cunningham and co-located with the CASE District VIII conference in Bellevue, WA.

Cunningham and Mitchell were joined on the panel by University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce and Microsoft Corporate Vice President for Technology and Corporate Responsibility Teresa Hutson. AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever offered closing remarks.

More than 300 higher ed supporters around the world participated in the event via livestream, joining an onsite audience of 350. Discover the Next, which is generously supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is addressing issues of trust in higher education by amplifying the positive impact of colleges and universities in their cities and regions. Through social media, op-eds and related outreach, the campaign will expand the reach of members’ stories—about alumni accomplishments, student life, research outcomes, and community engagement – to national media and columnists, legislators, the business community and prospective students and families.

Citing increased public concern around student debt, the marketability of a degree, and perceptions of ideological indoctrination and ideological arrogance, panelists each noted that reversing such mistrust requires long-term commitment.

“Trust is lost in buckets,” Mitchell observed, “and regained in drops,” a theme that resonated throughout the event.

Moreover, Mitchell noted, reversing mistrust lies not only in communicating differently but in aligning institutional actions to address public concerns. The disconnect with the public, he said, “has a grain of truth. We can’t turn it around by shouting louder.”

Cauce concurred. “Presidents who are working very hard to make their institutions more accessible get angry and defensive,” she said. “But there are truths in those perceptions and we need to own up to them and be accountable.”

Cauce and fellow panelists also highlighted positive public views of higher ed, noting that even individuals who say they don’t trust universities “want their kids to go.” And trust remains high for constituents’ hometown institutions, particularly community colleges. “Community colleges don’t have a trust problem,” Mitchell observed. “They’re local, and their mission is good. We can learn from them about how they are communicating their value.”

Cauce and fellow panelists cited the 2019 Yes, It’s Possible campaign in Washington state as a model for the power of collective action to improve access to higher education. A joint effort among the state’s public and private campuses, legislators, and leading employers, including Microsoft, the campaign resulted in passage of legislation funding a dramatic expansion of financial aid to state residents known as the Washington College Grant.

Hutson, of Microsoft, who spearheaded the participation of business and industry in the Washington state campaign, said the rationale for the initiative was clear. “Businesses need predictability. And it’s expensive to hire talent. As a business, you want to know you can continue to grow. Knowing this state was going to invest in the people who live and learn here makes good sense.”

Throughout the discussion, panelists offered practicable actions college and universities can take to meet societal needs and advance public appreciation of their value, including:

  • Smoothing the transfer of credit among institutions
  • Making financial award letters easier to understand, by clearly distinguishing between grants and loans
  • Strengthening academic advising
  • Introducing students to career advising early
  • Targeting fundraising around identified public priorities, such as paid internships

To communicate higher education’s value more effectively, panelists advised, institutions need to recognize the public’s concerns and respond collectively.

Cunningham emphasized the importance of participation from colleges and universities across the higher ed sector. “Even the strongest institutions’ efforts can be diminished,” she pointed out, “if their efforts are mistrusted.”

“We have an opportunity to build up from the bottom and tell our story,” Mitchell said, “creating a positive ripple, a groundswell, about institutions that Get It.”

“It’s not about inputs,” Stoever noted in his concluding remarks, “it’s about outcomes.”

More resources about the event: