How to reverse the decline in confidence in higher education


When I left Mobile, Alabama in the fall of 1963 to attend Alabama College in Montevallo, I was faced with enormous uncertainty. After all, I was the first person in my immediate family to attend college, so I was entering a brave new world.

What was certain, however, was the realization that if I applied myself and earned a degree, it would be worth the money, time, and effort in terms of career earnings, quality of life, upward social mobility, and life. leadership opportunities. Moreover, I am certain that the vast majority of Americans of all walks of life also hold higher education in high regard.

Today, Gallup data shows that less than 50% of survey respondents are convinced that American higher education is worth the investment, down from 81% in 2010. In addition, a New America survey reveals that only 58% of Americans think universities are a positive force on the country, up from nearly 70% just two years ago.

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Why have attitudes towards a once revered institution declined so much? We can look to three key areas for the answer:

ONE: Rising cost of college attendance. From 1985 to 2021, the rising costs of attending college outpaced inflation. As a result, more students – and their parents – are borrowing money to finance their studies. Today, student debt exceeds $1.8 trillion.

TWO: Perceived quality issues. The scandals that have plagued for-profit universities in recent years have fueled this fire. Accusations of deceptive marketing practices, lies about graduation rates and illegally collecting high-interest loans marketed to students have led to the closure of several large for-profit organizations, including Corinthian College and the ITTTechnical Institute.

THREE: The question of character. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education.” However, there is a growing sense that universities are failing to teach the values ​​we once held dear. A 2021 survey by Rasmussen Reports found that 78% of American voters say it’s important that schools — from kindergarten through college — teach the traditional values ​​of Western civilization. Another perception that needs to be addressed is that 60% of American academic staff identify as liberal or far-left, compared to only 12% who identify as conservative. We have become polarized as a society – and the polarization is magnified within the academy.

But I see hope on the horizon!

Our colleges and universities take debt seriously. Three years ago, the average college debt per student was about $35,000; today it’s about $30,000. At TROY University, our average debt is $18,608. We encourage our students to take loans as a last resort and as an investment in their future.

TROY is also fighting student debt by limiting tuition fees for four consecutive years, bucking recent national trends. But foregoing tuition increases is not enough. Universities must demonstrate good stewardship in all areas while emphasizing the quality and employability of graduates.

If we are to restore public confidence in higher education, when we measure quality, we must consider student outcomes. Although universities cannot be considered “vocational schools”, the employability of graduates is essential. Debt-ridden alumni who don’t have degrees to get them a good job will think their college has let them down. In turn, trust in higher education will continue to erode. At TROY, we offer an internship in every academic major. In survey after survey of potential employers, graduates who have gained practical experience are more employable.

Finally, we in higher education need to grapple with the issue of values ​​and culture. Our annual surveys of freshmen reveal that 70% of them value faith and spiritual development. Therefore, parents want their children to receive a university education without abandoning the values ​​that were taught to them at home. At the University of Troy, we realize that once revered campus institutions that have been criticized elsewhere in recent years, such as ROTC training and the Greek system, still hold value.

It is axiomatic that the first step to solving a problem is to admit that one exists. Universities that recognize the existence of a crisis of confidence and take action will be the big winners in the coming decades.

Dr. Jack Hawkins Jr. is Chancellor of the University of Troy.


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