There are a number of reasons why higher education no longer enjoys the level of status and prestige that it once did in American society.
Public perceptions that confuse sticker price and the cost of attendance, the unwillingness or inability of many American families to share the financial burden incurred by their children, and confusion over whether a college degree translates into a job certainly affect how American families perceive the value of a college degree.
Higher Education as Political Punching Bag
Much of the damage in perception is linked, however, to how politics has intruded into the public mindset about value. Writing for Education Dive, Autumn A. Arnett and Shalina Chatlani quote from the Washington Post: “conservative skepticism around funding for liberal arts education is on the rise, as critics of higher education point out institutions for being ‘elitist’ and ‘politically correct’ centers of student protests that fail to provide skills actually needed for the job market.”
They highlight “growing conservative skepticism on whether institutions are sufficiently addressing student ROI comes at the same time Congress is considering potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which Republicans have already said ought to put the onus of responsibility on institutions to prove they are making college more affordable and worthwhile.”
Many See College as Elitist Bastions of Political Correctness
The reporters argue that many see liberal arts institutions as elitist, teaching students skills that will not transfer to the workplace. They illustrate their point by quoting Donald Trump, Jr., in a speech he gave last year: ‘We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange, we’ll train your children to hate our country . . . We’ll make them unemployable by teaching then course in zombie studies, underwater basket weaving and, my personal favorite, tree climbing.” They also relate that higher education leaders are working to educate Americans about the value of a college degree “rather than a current impression that a liberal arts education only breeds political correctness, hate speech and protests.”
The depth of support among average Americans for this message surprises many of us. Reporting in the Wall Street Journal recently, for example, Doug Belkin discussed the plight of Emily Ritchey, a rural Pennsylvanian attending highly selective Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Ms. Ritchey noted the difficulty she has had adapting to the different perspective and broader worldview at F & M.
Most significant perhaps, however is her report of her parents’ reaction to her studies: “My family asks me all the time if I’m just learning liberal rhetoric. They keep telling me it’s important to learn something practical.”
Has the debate really come down to these arguments? Put differently, has higher education lost the high ground, dragged down into the muck of partisan politics over simple but misrepresented words like “liberal” and “arts”?
Elite Education as Foundation for Unpatriotic Views?
Has America become so anti-intellectual that many of its citizens equate intellectualism with elitist behavior? Further, do they view elitism as the foundation for an unpatriotic view that somehow diminishes the unique history and unparalleled promise of the great American experiment in democracy that higher education once took the lead to foster?
The problems facing higher education mirror other once seemingly untouchable segments of American society. Federal and state employees are often derisively referred to today as bureaucrats. Religious leaders have taken a major hit in their credibility sometimes seeming to get more airtime for their defense of alleged acts by morally-bankrupt politicians than for their efforts to facilitate open discussion and promote understanding and good will.
It is unlikely that Americans view of politicians and the media could drop any lower in national polling.
For more than 70 years, the United States has staked out its claim to be the leader of the free world. It did so at enormous human and financial cost but always with a sense of optimism and self-confidence.
Part of what made America’s world leadership possible is that higher education provided a safety valve that prepared millions of Americans for the change from a manufacturing to a post-industrial global economy.
As America evolves, there is no single straight or even clear path toward the future. Some Americans have been left behind, economic disparity has grown, and a growing split between economic classes – represented by the chasm between the rhetoric and reality in the current national tax plans – are persistent issues. It may be that higher education has lost the battle over the language that describes what its colleges and universities do in this hyper-charged partisan environment.
But the work goes on and higher education can respond better and more nimbly to new changes than any other homegrown industry because it represents the best of what has always fueled the American spirit, shaped its economic potential, and defined its cultural awareness.
A new language of promise and potential must adapt to the global stage on which these institutions play and on which America must lead.
Colleges and universities must explain better what they do while working more efficiently and creatively to do so. It’s important because where the country will head is directly dependent on the leadership, talent, and training available on college campuses. Misplaced political rhetoric and misunderstood cultural motivations do not diminish, however, what colleges and universities contribute to America.
This article first appeared on the blog of The Edvance Foundation.