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Politics and Perceptions: Are Colleges Alienating Students?

With rising student debt, why should students attend college and earn a degree? Universities need to do a better job answering this question, or they could see enrollment declines and funding losses well into the future, experts say.

Learn about public attitudes toward higher ed and how politics is shaping perceptions. Also, consider whether your local institution is welcoming to all students and providing them the support necessary to succeed.

Photo credit: Iryna Imago/Bigstock

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Colleges and universities could face increasing skepticism about the financial and societal value of higher education, leading to negative effects on enrollment in the years ahead. 

The sector needs to better explain the benefits of a college education and degree – beyond just a higher paycheck – and make more people feel welcome at what otherwise can seem to be elite, exclusive campuses. 

That was the takeaway from a Jan. 26 session at the Education Writers Association’s Higher Education Seminar: The Covid Generation in Alexandria, Virginia.  Panelists at “Confidence Game: The Public’s Support of Higher Education” expressed both fears and optimism about public and political perceptions of college campuses and how that could impact attendance and funding.

Speakers focused on a dichotomy: Those who believe a college degree increasingly leads to higher lifelong earnings and better career positions and those who question the need for higher education and even see it as a destructive force in American life. The panel also grappled with how higher education institutions can get the message of personal and societal benefits across.

Colleges and universities must more aggressively address that issue, according to Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.  

“Higher education is losing that narrative right now,” Van Der Werf said. “And the way for colleges to gain control of that narrative is to start to talk about its value in a lot more specific terms.”  

Van Der Werf discussed results of a report from his think tank: The median lifetime earnings for someone who holds a bachelor’s degree is $2.8 million, compared to $1.6 million for someone who only has a high school diploma. Earnings also increase for those who attain an associate degree, or even attend some college but do not obtain a degree. (This report also includes other interesting information for reporters.)

EdSurge Editor and Senior Reporter Rebecca Koenig moderated the session. Other speakers included Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and former president of Mount Holyoke College; and Sophie Nguyen, a senior policy analyst with the education policy program at New America, a public policy research organization.

Public Opinion About Higher Education

Polling shows interesting opinion splits that higher education leaders should take note of, said Nguyen, citing New America research.

To better understand perceptions of education after high school, the organization interviewed 1,517 Americans ages 18 and older for “Varying Degrees 2022: New America’s Sixth Annual Survey on Higher Educati­­on.” (The wealth of data included is useful for reporters and editors.)

About 75% to 76% of poll participants agreed that education beyond high school offers a good return on investment for the general population and students, figures that have remained relatively stable for years. However, a partisan divide emerged: 85% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans believe higher education offers a good return on investment for the public.

More worrisome, Nguyen said, is that only 55% said they thought higher education had a positive impact on how things are going in the nation, and that dropped 14 percentage points in the last two years.

Not much policy or practice has changed recently to significantly alter “the landscape of higher education,” particularly in making it more affordable, Nguyen said. If the sector “continues with the status quo,” she said that can mean trouble ahead: “Will people start to get impatient, and then will their opinions of higher education start to get worse?”

How Colleges Should Communicate to the Public

While there is still a lot of confidence in higher education, criticism is rising that it “is too expensive, too difficult to access and does not teach 21st century skills,” Pasquerella noted. 

And, in what she described as a “post-truth era,” some conservative politicians are trying to portray academia as being “filled with progressives who are going to brainwash the next generation of snowflakes.”

Colleges should continue to stand up for their roles in educating citizens “for democracy” and being places for the “unfettered pursuit of truth and the free exchange of ideas.” Still, higher education needs “a better narrative,” she added.

Colleges and universities also need to “talk more explicitly about how students are actually prepared and how curriculum connects to careers,” according to Pasquerella.  

Higher education should stress to employers (and students’ parents) that graduates are taught to write and think “with precision and clarity” – important skills in nearly every career. Students are exposed to diverse groups of people, learning to work together and preparing them for similar experiences in the workplace. The goal is to make them “resilient, adaptable and flexible in a time of rapid change,” she told seminar attendees.

For young people – or even adults – who are trying to decide whether to attend college, institutions must explain how a course or major can help them and how college learning can address  “real world problems and how it matters to society.” 

How Universities Can Avoid Alienating Students

Moderator Koenig and journalists in the audience raised questions about how high school students may feel alienated by colleges; these students may be unlikely to attend after seeing too many relatives and friends drop out without finishing but still carry high debt.

Van Der Werf said colleges should pay more attention to getting students to complete their degrees and, in other cases, develop more positive “exit strategies” for students who cannot finish because of family or financial crises or other problems. 

Those students should be offered alternative credentials or shortened pathways to certificates for the work they have finished, he suggested. Colleges should be more flexible in awarding “alternative minimum credentials” – usable and solid recognition of their completed coursework short of an associate or bachelor’s degree. Those would help former students in the job market, even if they didn’t get as far in their education as they originally planned, he added.

Pasquerella said campuses need to connect more with businesses in developing programs that lead to good jobs in current industries. At the same time, she added, college faculties and staff need to provide access to students whose families may not have experience with college and help more of them succeed and graduate. 

Particularly for students from rural areas and from underrepresented racial and minority groups, colleges should work to become less intimidating and to “create spaces of welcome and belonging,” she said.

The New America poll, Nguyen noted, shows that a majority of Americans believe colleges are providing enough financial aid, counseling and basic needs support to their students. 

However, members of Generation Z – many of whom are in college now – are the least likely to think such support is enough, she added. That shows there is “a gap of communication between colleges and students,” and students may not be aware of some services available to them.  

So to attract and keep students, campuses must let students know about potential support and make sure “they have access,” Nguyen said.

Speaker Presentation