Addressing the Changing Perceptions of Higher Education:

The Challenges in Public Perception and Exploring Solutions to Ensure Sustainability

Table of Contents

The Changing Perceptions of Higher Education - Perception is everything.

Higher education has long been regarded as a pathway to success and the “middle class,” promising personal and professional growth opportunities. However, in recent years, with the changing perceptions of higher education, the reputation of higher ed has taken a hit – higher ed has not kept up with the changing needs of its “customers,” those people who partake of its services and need its graduates to fulfill its requirements. Coupled with this, the college-age generation is far more “debt adverse” than previous generations, and, despite the evidence that shows that a college degree results in significantly more income over a lifetime, they question the cost of a degree and that it outweighs its benefits. Additionally, businesses have increasingly said that graduates are not ready to step into entry-level positions and are not trained in the areas that organizations need. All these things have led to a decline in public perception.

In this article, we will explore the shift in public opinion regarding higher education, its challenges, and what higher ed needs to do to turn this perception around and ensure its sustainability.

Monumental Shifts in Public Perception of Higher Ed

Up until recently, the purpose of higher education was obvious – it was for both the public good and the improvement of individuals’ socioeconomic status. But beginning in the 1940s with the passage of the GI Bill, there began a shift in people’s perceptions that the benefit to the individual was tantamount. Clark Kerr’s California Experiment exacerbated this in the 1960s, transforming higher education in California and the United States. Higher education, funded by public entities such as the states, made a college education affordable and reinforced the mentality that higher ed was an individual endeavor.

This mentality was furthered when College became a means for avoiding the draft in the 1960s. Finally, the last nail in the coffin occurred due to the Great Recession of 2008 – public funding of higher ed was cut back significantly, transitioning most of the cost of a college degree from the states to the individual. This cemented in place the perception that individual economic gain took precedence over the perception that higher education was for the public good and turned students into consumers.

Questioning the Cost of a College Degree 

The rising cost of a college degree has also caused a shift in public perceptions. Before the Great Recession, states generally provided more than 50% of the cost for an individual to attend college. Now, the average state picks up only 12% of that degree. The actual cost of a degree has not increased significantly since 2010; however, the majority of the cost has shifted from the state to the attendee. This is yet another indicator that higher education is no longer considered necessary for the public good but an individual endeavor.

This shifting of the burden of a college education to students has resulted in them taking out loans to pay for their tuition and expenses. As tuition rates continue to climb, students have taken on more and more debt, especially first-generation and low-SES students. Not surprisingly, the student loan debt in the US exceeds $1.7 trillion.

Today’s students are becoming increasingly wary of taking on large amounts of debt without an expected return on investment. In response to this challenge, institutions have begun offering alternative forms of financing, such as income share agreements and employer partnerships. However, student loans remain the primary way to finance a college education.

Finally, businesses and organizations that employ graduates say that college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in today’s workplace. To better understand this, we need to look at AAC&U’s recent study entitled How College Contributes to Workforce Success published in 2021.

In that study, employers stated that they “believe the outcomes of a liberal education are important for success in the workplace; personal qualities and capacities matter, too.” The top five skills employers state that are needed include (in order) (1) the ability to work effectively in teams, (2) critical thinking skills, (3) the ability to analyze and interpret data, (4) application of knowledge/skills in real-world settings, and (5) digital literacy. However, higher education institutions have not emphasized this, churning out graduates who do not have the skills that employers want and need.

These shifts have resulted in a significant change in the public’s perception of the value of higher education.

In the past, obtaining a degree was seen as a surefire way to secure a prosperous future in the past ten years. One influential moment was the 2012 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which found that 60% of Americans believed a college education was worth the cost, while 12% disagreed. Fast forward to 2023, and these numbers have changed drastically, with 56% believing that higher education is not worth the money despite the wage premium it offers.

This shift in perception is particularly prominent among millennials and Generation Z, with 60% expressing skepticism about the value of a college education. The changing demographics and rising tuition costs have led to an increased demand for a say in what students receive from their educational institutions.

Remember, they are no longer students; they are consumers.

Perception Challenges Faced by Higher Education

Unfortunately, higher education institutions’ actions have contributed to their negative reputation. Higher ed is highly bureaucratic and challenging for someone to understand. For example, transferring credits and recognizing prior learning experiences are often complex and burdensome for students. Moreover, the slow pace of change within higher education, coupled with a lack of input from businesses and hiring entities, further exacerbates the perceived gap between academia and the real world.

The high cost of education and the associated burden of student debt are also significant concerns. The traditional narrative that a college degree is the key to reaching the middle class is no longer believed to hold for many individuals – multiple states, both Republican and Democrat, have done away with the need for a college degree as part of the hiring criteria. Students are entering the workforce with substantial debt, which hinders their financial stability and impacts their purchasing power. This is especially true for Gen Z, who are becoming more unlikely to take on the requisite debt to get their degrees.

Public Perception and Political Affiliation

Like almost everything else in our society today, public perception of higher education is becoming increasingly influenced by political affiliation. Republicans prioritize business and job-ready graduates, seeing higher education as an investment in human capital. On the other hand, Democrats focus on the transformative power of education and view it as a means of empowering individuals. Both perspectives have merit, but much of the “fault” comes because higher education institutions have been too insulated from public perception.

Faculty, “experts” in their fields, are responsible for developing curricula and courses. However, most are more focused on their areas of expertise instead of what businesses need of their graduates. For example,

  • Few university business programs have “advisory boards” that come together to tell faculty what is happening in business and what they see in their institution’s graduates. These boards can inform faculty whether graduates are prepared and, if not, what improvements must be made.
  • Accreditors, before approving new programs, want to know what programs developers used as comparisons – rarely do they use end-user research to justify learning outcomes for new programs. This perpetuates the internal focus of curriculum development and programmatic outcomes.
  • Programs periodically undergo a systemic review of the program outcomes (program assessment annually and program review every five years). Program assessment is generally internal, but program review should have an external component. However, that external reviewer rarely comes from someone (or a group) of business – they come from other academic institutions. Thus, even in the outcomes review cycles, curriculum and the student learning outcomes remain internally focused vs. seeking a broader perspective from business and other hiring organizations.

The Importance of Holistic Solutions

A balanced approach combining elements of both viewpoints is necessary to address the challenges higher education faces today. To reverse the negative perception of higher education, society must shift its focus beyond the monetary aspects, and higher education leaders must be the bellwethers in shaping that mindset shift.  It is crucial to consider the return on investment (ROI) for college education, exploring ways to make it more affordable and ensuring that graduates have the necessary skills to thrive in the job market. Public investment in higher education should be evaluated to ensure it yields meaningful returns and benefits society.

More importantly, colleges and universities need to be more attuned to the public’s changing perceptions concerning the purpose of higher education. The “transformative” nature of higher education is important. However, given that most students must take on debt (and, in some cases, significant debt) to get a degree, this is daunting, especially given the short-term foci that most people have. Their fundamental question is this: Do I take on $30,000 of debt to get a college degree in the hope that I can get a job that pays me a decent wage?

Most people cannot see (or believe), even though they will earn over $1 million more over their lifetimes with a college degree than they would with no degree, that taking on debt is worth it.

Colleges and universities must also do more to ensure the success of their graduates. Institutions should focus on providing comprehensive support to students, including career guidance, internships, and opportunities for real-world application of knowledge. Collaboration between academia and businesses is vital to align curriculum with industry needs and foster a smooth transition from education to employment.

Key Takeaways

The reputation of higher education has undergone a significant transformation in recent years. The rising costs, coupled with changing expectations and concerns about the ROI, have led to a decline in public perception and questioning by a majority of college-age students of the value of a postsecondary degree. And they are right in questioning that – that is what is called critical thinking.

Higher education needs to make significant shifts in developing, updating, and teaching critical business skills by aligning curriculum with industry demands. It is essential to recognize the evolving needs of students and equip them with the skills and knowledge required for success in their careers and personal lives. It must also address affordability issues.

Higher education remains the best way to transform society and its individuals. The statistics indicate, on average, a college graduate will earn $1 million more than someone without a degree over a lifetime. But higher ed must transform itself by taking a page from the customer service manual that says, “The customer is always right.” By doing so, higher education can reclaim its position as a transformative force in society, preparing individuals to navigate a rapidly changing world.

Only by addressing these issues can higher education regain its value and societal trust.


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