Want to improve higher ed’s public perception? Start here.

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Want to improve higher ed’s public perception? Start here.

A recent poll by Gallup shows that less than half of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education.

I recently attended a conference hosted by Inside Higher Ed, and the public’s eroding trust in higher ed was a central theme. In one of the sessions, Stephanie Marken, the executive director of education research at Gallup, and Jason Owen-Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and author of Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future, sat down with Inside Higher Ed‘s Scott Jaschik to discuss how colleges and universities can combat higher ed’s image problem.

The answer, they determined, was to focus on the long-term benefits of higher ed.

Marken suggested that even if college graduates had a positive experience during their time on campus, they still tend to be skeptical of higher ed as an institution. Other graduates doubt the value of their higher education entirely, either because they didn’t get their dream job right out of college or because they are grappling with the reality of paying back their loans, she added.

In fact, a separate 2015 poll by Gallup, Purdue University, and the Lumina Foundation suggests that just 38% of recent grads who entered the job market between 2006 and 2015 strongly agreed that college was worth the cost.

With this data in mind, Marken suggested that recent grads may not agree that higher ed was worth the cost because there isn’t a strong enough public narrative surrounding the long-term value of a college degree.

Owen-Smith agreed, adding that the value of higher education can’t be measured by a grad’s first job out of college. The value of higher ed is in a grad’s ability to learn across settings and make career changes, for example. And these skills take a while to accumulate, he argued.

For instance, while recent grads are more likely to say that their degree wasn’t worth the cost, older grads are more likely to see the connections between their degree and their professional success or career trajectory, said Marken.

“We have to be able to tell the longer term story,” said Owen-Smith.  And that includes the long-term benefits to society, he added.

A college degree isn’t just a private gain for students, argued Owen-Smith. A more educated populace benefits the public good, and investing in higher education is “investing in a value beyond the paycheck of the individual,” he added. For instance, higher education is associated with declines in crime, better health, and an overall rise in earnings.

Learn more: Land-grant universities and the public good

Owen-Smith also pointed out that ideas flow out of higher education institutions—and research universities, in particular—and touch every part of society. For instance, the medical research coming out of the University of California, Los Angeles or the University of Wisconsin-Madison could directly benefit you or someone you know. But, Owen-Smith adds, universities aren’t always successful in “translating from here’s what we spend to here’s how the spending works and here’s what it lets us do” for you and your community.

In other words, although colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to solve many of society’s problems, as a sector, they generally do a poor job of selling their value, noted Owen-Smith.

So to regain public support for higher ed, he recommended that higher education institutions meet people where they are. Instead of speaking in esoteric language about a department’s latest research, university leaders should go into the community and tell people how they’re touched by the institution more broadly, said Owen-Smith.

And as institutions face more pressure to prove that higher education is a sound investment for individuals and the community, colleges and universities must make the public recognize that as a society, we make investments today even though we don’t necessarily know what we will need in the coming years: Higher ed is really just a “social insurance policy against an uncertain future,” concluded Owen-Smith.