#highered’s perception problem

Let’s take a deeper dive into one of the findings from that Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officers that I blogged about last week. The finding has to do with what Inside Higher Ed called our sector’s “image problems,” which I prefer to think of as problems of public perception.*

From the full report (available for download):

Higher education has come under increased scrutiny amid questions of whether the rapidly increasing price of college is worth the payoff after graduation. Admissions directors appear concerned about the image of higher education these days and the implications of the image concerns on enrollment numbers. And their attitudes are significantly more pessimistic than a year ago.

Fully 95 percent of admissions directors strongly agree (59 percent) or agree (36 percent) that higher education needs to do a better job of explaining the value of a college education, up from 87 percent a year ago. Roughly two-thirds of admissions directors now strongly agree or agree that media reports of unemployed or underemployed college graduates (67 percent, up from 56 percent a year ago) and public discussion of student debt (64 percent, up from 54 percent) discourage students from considering higher education.

Fifty-eight percent of admissions directors strongly agree or agree that public discussion of student debt has discouraged students from considering their college. This includes 78 percent of admissions directors at private colleges. Last year, 47 percent of all admissions directors indicated their institution was losing applicants because of debt concerns.

Admissions directors also doubt that prospective students, or parents of prospective students, understand the value of a liberal arts degree. Sixty-four percent strongly disagree or disagree that parents understand the value of a liberal arts degree, up from 49 percent a year ago. And 69 percent now strongly disagree or disagree that students understand the value of a liberal arts degree. A year ago, 56 percent said the same.

It seems admissions leaders’ perceptions of public perceptions of higher education jibe with the perceptions of a portion of the U.S. population that has become more vocal in recent years: those who lean politically conservative. According to another recent study, this one by the Pew Research Center, “Republicans have grown increasingly negative about the impact of colleges and universities on the United States” in recent years, at a rate the Pew researchers describe as “striking.”

Viewing Inside Higher Ed‘s survey of admissions officers in light of the Pew report may add another dimension to our understanding of higher education is perceived.

Neither the Pew or Inside Higher Ed studies explicitly call out student protests and other unrest on campuses in recent years as a factor for higher ed’s perception problem. But yet another survey — this one by Gallup — does suggest that Republicans and conservative-leaning independents think colleges and universities are too liberal.

Republicans with low levels of confidence in colleges are most likely to cite their belief that colleges and universities are too liberal and political, that colleges don’t allow students to think for themselves and are pushing their own agenda, or that students are not taught the right material or are poorly educated.

In short, Republicans with low confidence tend to see the world of higher education through distinctly political eyes.

Democrats who express low confidence in higher education in the Gallup poll “are much more likely to cite issues dealing with practical aspects of higher education — saying colleges are too expensive, are not well-run or have deteriorating quality, or that college graduates aren’t able to find jobs” rather than express concerns about perceived political leanings.

So there are concerns all around: Political leanings, affordability, the value of a college degree, etc.

A bright spot

But here is a bright spot in all of this angst about the public’s perception of higher ed.

Back to the Pew survey: Among college graduates, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that “their own college education was useful in helping them develop specific skills and knowledge that could be used in the workplace, in opening doors to job opportunities and in personal and intellectual growth.” Moreover, “Overwhelming majorities of Republican (93%) and Democratic (97%) college graduates also indicated their education was useful in helping them grow personally and intellectually.”

Could this be where the common ground lies? College-educated Republicans and Democrats both say their college experience helped them grow personally and intellectually, and prepared them for the world of work.

Perhaps we could burnish our image by focusing more on sharing these messages. Or better yet, involve our graduates of all political stripes to speak up about the value of their college experiences. The next challenge, then, is to transmit those same ideas to those with less than a college education, whose perceptions of our institutions are even more jaundiced.

* NOTE: I may be splitting hairs here in my attempt to draw a distinction between our image as a sector and the public’s perception of higher education. I see image as something we project, whereas perception has more to do with how we are seen. Image is what we put out there; perception is how we are are interpreted and can be influenced by many other sources than our sector, including the media, the economy, etc. Certainly, image and perception are related. But there are some perceptions that are more heavily influenced by sources other than our institutions.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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