A spate of public opinion polls over the past year helps explain the attitudes of many in Congress about the higher education enterprise. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that just 49 percent of Americans believe a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings. Only 25 percent of respondents in a New America poll believe that higher education is fine the way it is, and only 3 percent of millennials believe the same. Most disturbing, a Pew Research poll found that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45 percent the year before. Interestingly, a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed that 68 percent of respondents had little or no confidence in Congress either.
Stories in the popular press about overwhelming student debt, graduates living in their parents’ basements, and free speech being constrained on campus have undoubtedly contributed to these findings. Such narratives are typically based more on the exceptions than the rule, but they nonetheless capture public attention. Moreover, the general decline in trust in society’s major institutions—government, business, the media, religious organizations—has swept in higher education.
As Congress gears up for the major policy debates that will shape the future of our campuses in the coming year through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, how might we rebuild trust in the central value proposition of postsecondary education?
Many individuals, institutions, and associations in the higher education community will have to step up to answer that question. But the sector will not be successful in restoring confidence unless it involves a group whose voices have been largely absent from conversations about value—the 50,000 trustees of the more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions across the United States. The reason is that trustees have a unique status, recognized stature, and societal commitment.