Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

First, I certainly felt like everyone agreed that there is a gap between what the public thinks of higher education (for example, a credentialing service that helps to prepare young people to make money) and what academics think of higher education (for example, educating for life-long learning, the production of knowledge, preparation for active citizenship, etc.).

Second, I think there was agreement that the blame for this gap (if, in fact, someone or some group should be considered blameworthy) is not simply the public—that, in fact, both sides are responsible for the gap. For example, one of the reasons that the public might think of higher education as merely a credentialing service for future income is that those of us in higher education have sold what we do in exactly that way: think of the famous and often-cited statistic that college graduates will make a million dollars more over their lifetimes than non-college graduates. There also seemed to be a general recognition that even though higher education is an unusual business, it still is a business of sorts. Academics often fool themselves into thinking that higher education is somehow outside the “real world,” but they could serve themselves well by learning more about the financing and fiscal realities of higher education. A deeper understanding of the “business” of higher education might allow academics to understand better the public’s perspective.

Third, while there certainly was a fair amount of frustration about the gap between the public and academics, I did not sense hopelessness. Participants believed that those of us in higher education could do something to address the gap. In particular, we need to do a better job of providing a more compelling narrative about higher education (including historical perspective and data)—particularly with regard to its public goods and not just its private goods. Participants also recognized that part of their work must be with students—particularly helping them understand and articulate what they are learning beyond the specific content of courses. In many ways, our graduates should become the most effective ambassadors for a more robust public understanding of higher education.

In short, I was heartened by the enthusiasm and commitment of the participants. I also thought that the kind of conversation we had would be one worth continuing at future professional meetings but especially on campuses across the country.

Editors’ Note: This essay is the second in a series of pieces reflecting on a 2017 AACU seminar entitled “An Unbridgeable Gap? Challenges and Opportunities in Restoring Public Trust.” This session engaged some important questions about the perception of Higher Education among various stakeholders. We hope you enjoy the sustained conversation.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Eric Bain-Selbo is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Indiana University-Kokomo. He also is the Executive Director of the Society for Values in Higher Education. His research spans across the disciplines of philosophy and religious studies, focusing primarily on social ethics, political philosophy, comparative religion, cultural criticism, and issues in higher education.


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One Response to Reflection: Higher Education and the Public

  1. Fiona Tolhurst says:

    One form of data one could collect would be the percentage of our university graduates who go into careers that make communities stronger: social work, teaching, health care, etc. One could show how humanities majors tend to choose careers that help other people, and compare that percentage to students majoring in preprofessional fields such as business.

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