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What’s AHEAD Commentary [Poll 6]

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Public Perceptions of Higher Education: Is it Worth the Cost?

In our sixth What’s AHEAD poll, we focused on public perceptions of higher education. We invited three leading scholar-practitioners to comment: Dr. Dorcas Colvin, Dr. Sharon DeVivo, and Dr. Peter Jordan.

The Challenge of Finding the Right Balance

Dorcas L. Colvin
Vice President, Leadership Development and Member Services
American Association of State Colleges and Universities


When higher education makes the news, frequently it is the result of reporting the findings of surveys and public opinion polls of various stakeholder groups: employers, policymakers, students, parents, and university leaders. More often than not, these findings identify a gap between the expectations and perceptions of the various stakeholders and university leaders. It is not surprising that these gaps in perception exist given the diversity of interests and the differing levels of information available to various stakeholders. 

Results of the What’s AHEAD poll reveal that university leaders largely agree that various stakeholder groups undervalue higher education and that university leaders should do more to clarify, redefine and better articulate the value proposition. The challenge for university leaders in redefining the value proposition for higher education is finding the right balance among competing stakeholder interests and between championing innovation and preserving tradition. Finding the right balance between responsiveness to stakeholder expectations and the best interests and long-term health of an institution is not necessarily obvious. University leaders want to influence both internal and external stakeholders to move in new directions with the goal of achieving student success in a complex environment that is rapidly changing.

Stakeholders’ expectations, even when appropriate, often compete and conflict with each other and with deeply held values of the academy. While critics abound, very few understand the challenge university leaders face in finding the right balance. We at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) recently conducted research as part of our strategic planning process. What we learned is that our presidents and chancellors recognize the need to get better at persuasion and influence; they seek ways to develop their leadership team as agents of change, they search for successful models and best practices, and they understand that changing public perception is about more than communication. Changing public perception requires both telling the story better and delivering on our promises.

Structuring Cost to Experience Can Drive Value

Sharon B. DeVivo
Vaughn College


The New York Times recently ran an op-ed entitled “Why I Defaulted on my Student Loans,” in which the author encouraged students to follow the same path and renege on paying back the debt that he had amassed attending college. Equally interesting were the 700 comments that it generated. Thankfully, those with the highest “recommends” lambasted the author for his irresponsible behavior. Unfortunately, higher education was once again in the spotlight about cost and not about how we change lives, lift up families, and provide society and employers with a highly educated workforce.

In addition to my day job, I am also the mother of a rising senior. In my visits to campuses the question I heard most was not, “How much is tuition?” but rather, “What is the largest size class?” Parents, myself included, see college as an important stepping-stone to adulthood—a place where my daughter will have freedom and a safety net. I am willing to pay for that, expecting that she will get the education, skills, and career services that she needs to discover her next opportunity. 

A frustrating aspect to the national conversation about cost is that it treats every student who desires higher education the same. I don’t want a competency-based online degree for my 17-year-old, which would be far cheaper than the residential experience she seeks. However, as an industry, we must find ways to reduce costs and deliver an education that is relevant for all stakeholders. Our value proposition is what compels students to invest in themselves and we must speak to every student who desires higher education, not just the diminishing percentage of traditional college-age students. Our success will be based on our ability to provide an experience that caters to the learner: education and services in a format that works for the student and a cost structure based on those desires. Essentially, higher cost for my daughter and less for the adult student.

We want our graduates to leave us knowing that what they received was worth far more than what they paid for it.

Community Colleges: The Nexus in the Education Pipeline

Peter Grant Jordan
Tarrant County College – South Campus


The cost of college, college loan debt, and the need for a better educated and trained workforce are a few of the drivers of the changing public purposes of higher education and its value proposition. Earlier this year, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported that thirty states now employ a performance-based funding formula for public institutions. These formulas tie public funding to institutional effectiveness indicators, including course completion, retention, and graduation.

Not entirely a bad idea. Community college leaders are not happy with the outcomes we experience. We require strategies and solutions that will produce transformative, large-scale change to mitigate longstanding, vexing institutional effectiveness problems. These problems include: pass rates out of developmental courses, course completion, retention, graduation, transfer rates, and reducing college costs.

These are not only community college problems. In fact, improvements in community college course completion and graduation rates bode well for enrollments at senior colleges and universities. This is especially true when the traditional college-age student demographic is on the decline; and college readiness among college-age students from the fastest growing racial/ethnic groups remains low.  

The time is right for educators and the professional associations that serve them to truly partner and address contemporary P-16 education challenges. What can we do together to forge seamless pathways to baccalaureate degrees for nontraditional students?

The community college is at the nexus of the education pipeline and is well positioned to broker relationships that serve the changing public purpose and value proposition of higher education. The changing public policy landscape requires a stronger compact, across the different levels of education and types of higher education institutions in order to advance a more sustainable future for the academy. In the absence of a stronger compact, other forces will continue to determine that future.

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