It’s time for higher ed to stop playing defense

We need to tell the story of all that colleges and universities do for people and society

AS COLLEGE FOOTBALL SEASON heads into the playoffs, I’m reminded of the old adage: The best defense is a good offense. And when we look at the state of higher education today—particularly its public perception—it’s time for college and university leaders to follow this simple advice from the gridiron.

As a sector, higher education is increasingly unpopular. According to the latest polling from the advocacy group New America, the percentage of Americans who believe higher education is a positive force in the country is now at 55 percent, down from 69 percent just two years ago.

While the numbers are dropping across the board, it’s certainly true that Republicans are much more skeptical than Democrats. Only about one in three Republicans (37 percent) think higher education has a positive effect on the country; among Democrats it’s 73 percent. Republicans’ concerns tend to focus on “woke” campus politics and curricular wars, while Democrats zero in on cost and student debt.

Simply put: The right thinks we’re brainwashing a generation and the left thinks we’re bankrupting a generation.

Studying hard. (Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)

American higher education is far from perfect, but it’s time for us to get off defense and remind people of the immense value colleges and universities provide—for individuals and for society as a whole.

On the education side of the ledger, the facts are clear. According to Georgetown University’s The College Payoff study, the average college graduate earns $1.2 million more over the course of their lifetime than a high school graduate. Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article with a persuasive longitudinal look: “In 1980, young, college-educated Americans made 23 percent more than high-school graduates, and by the end of the decade, the college-earnings premium had doubled. By 2019, it had stretched to 77 percent.”

And these practical career metrics don’t take into account the intangible benefits of being an educated person. It’s impossible to measure the advantages of understanding today’s tumultuous world through the lens of history. There’s no way to quantify how an architecture course can enrich a family vacation.

Of course, educating students is just one facet of what universities do. They not only transmit knowledge; they also add to the world’s stock of ideas. It would be difficult to get through a single day without the benefit of university inventions. From pacemakers to plexiglass, from GPS to Gatorade, discoveries that originate in university labs enhance every corner of life. This includes medical breakthroughs from anesthesia to the mRNA vaccine platform, which was the single best weapon in controlling COVID.

Beyond the so-called hard sciences, it’s important to note that Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita while he was a faculty member at Cornell. Maya Angelou penned some of her best poetry while she was based at Wake Forest University.

Colleges and universities are also economic engines, especially in their home communities. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former US senator and Nixon’s ambassador to India, famously said, “If you want to create a world-class city, build a great university and wait 200 years.”

Moynihan’s quip is backed up by facts. An exhaustive study examining the economic impact of 15,000 universities across 78 countries found a direct correlation between the presence of universities and increases in GDP per capita. Some of these benefits are direct in the form of employment and local economic activity, but the study also points out: “Part of the effect of universities on growth is [the result of] an increased supply of human capital and greater innovation.”

Yes, colleges and universities can do better when it comes to providing financial aid. The college debt crisis is real. We can also do better at educating students on the perils of “convenience borrowing,” and help them to choose schools that fit their family’s financial circumstances.

It’s also true that we should strive for political balance on our campuses and in our classrooms, particularly because a diversity of viewpoints sharpens student learning. Educating students in a cocoon of homogenous thought does not prepare them for life after commencement.

But imperfections should not put the whole sector in a defensive posture. Playing offense will likely mean spending less time burnishing our individual brands and more effort advancing a collective message of impact. Our institutions coordinate on many other endeavors—from collaborative research projects to flooding the Supreme Court with amicus briefs about admissions policies.

Articulating a compelling story on the benefits of higher education should also be a team effort. After all, a coordinated offense will always beat a series of Hail Mary passes.

Michael Armini is senior vice president for external affairs at Northeastern University.  

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