Is the Purpose of Higher Education Up for Debate?

April 13, 2017  |  Pat McGovern


The case for closing the perception gap

The seventh annual Survey of College and University Presidents from Inside Higher Ed provides a fascinating and depressing look into the state of higher education. As if we needed more bad news about this sector. The findings that are most concerning center on the enormous gap between what college presidents and the public view as the purpose of higher ed.

In the view of many higher education leaders, the general public does not have an accurate view of the purpose of college.  According to the study of 706 college and university presidents:

Only 12% of the presidents surveyed agree or strongly agree with the statement: Most Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of higher education.

That’s shocking.

The survey also indicates that college and university presidents widely believe the public has been led to believe college is less affordable than it is, that institutions are in better financial shape than they are, that colleges have misplaced priorities, and that racial strife on campus is worse than it is.

It’s clear there is a perception problem.  The question is how does each side view the role of higher education?

Terry Hartie, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council of Education provides some insights.  He states, “college presidents tend to view the purpose of higher education as trying to help individuals become educated citizens, be exposed to new points of view, to become lifelong learners.”

But when it comes to the general public Hartie said, “often all they care about is jobs – an occupational focus that has only intensified since the 2008 recession.”

Alison Kadlec, senior vice president and director at Public Agenda provides additional insight. She states, “a majority of Americans say colleges today are more like businesses and care mainly about the bottom line, versus 34 percent who say colleges today mainly care about education and making sure students have a good education experience.”

For years we’ve been told the pathway to the American Dream involves a college degree.  And for years there was a strong case to be made.  Now, the rising costs of tuition, the imminent loan debt crisis and uncertain career prospects are clearly damaging public confidence in the institution.

What Can Be Done? 

At a time in our nation’s history when a highly educated work force is essential to compete in the global market, it is sad to have such a large perception gap between our institutions of higher education and the public. Left unchecked, this is a situation that will only get worse, harming not only higher education institutions but the long-term health of our society.

What steps can be taken? Below are four basic actions that can begin to turn the tide.

  1. Acknowledge the problem: College and university presidents need to take the lead in this situation, by accepting the fact that there is an issue and then going beyond the half-way point at trying to close the purpose gap with the public.  This is not the time to retreat or ignore the situation. Rather, this is a defining moment demanding true leadership.
  2. Reach out for solutions: College and university presidents can’t solve this alone. They need the help and support of many.  They and their staffs would be smart to reach out to business, political and social leaders throughout their communities and set up “town hall” type meetings to get to the core of the issues and start to build an ongoing dialogue.
  3. Create one voice for higher ed: For this cause, colleges and universities need to work together to create a single voice promoting higher education.  For too long this role has been left to the media to handle, and the result has been years of depressing articles.  Schools must find a way to band together to help tell a clear and consistent story for all schools.  Colleges and universities, non-for-profit as well as for-profit all singing from the same hymnal and singing about the good work that is being achieved.
  4. Take back the narrative: Higher Education presidents throughout the country need to use their bully pulpit and the communication channels at their disposal both internally and externally to promote all the good work their institutions have accomplished.  Yes, there are problems and challenges but we need to hear more success stories.  Start taking back the narrative.  Speak out. Be vocal.  Tell the public of all the good that is being generated throughout the halls of academia.  It’s a damn good story to tell.

The problems with higher education will never be solved so long as the public thinks one way and higher education leaders think the other.  No industry can survive if the offerings of the provider are not aligned with the needs of the consumer. And while no one is advocating for complete alignment between both, we certainly need to better than the results from Inside Higher Ed survey.  And college leaders need to play a key role in closing the gap. Because if we can manage to close or even bridge it, other perception gaps (like those involving cost) might go away, too.

Now it’s your turn.  Let us know what you think.

Do you believe this “purpose gap” is an issue facing higher education?
Should college and university presidents be doing more to close this gap?
What are the steps they can take to help close the gap?


is VP at BVK

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