By Richard D. Legon
In a recent Washington Post column, ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote, “There are countless stories of how a college degree is the spring board to economic success and social mobility for millions of Americans”—and that the tax proposals currently being considered by Congress would, “…in one fell swoop, set back by decades the effort to make the cost of college more affordable for individuals from all walks of life.”
Congress’s most recent attempt to hammer our nation’s universities and colleges is emblematic of the widespread skepticism facing higher education today. Countless other examples—news stories focusing on soaring student debt with few job prospects to show for it, controversies involving free speech on campus, dwindling support for state funding for colleges and universities—reinforce the public’s notion that higher education has become unmoored and is no longer worth the cost. What was once accepted as the most reliable and available avenue to a successful future is seen in a far different light by too many of those whose opinions shape public attitudes. And frankly, our institutions are increasingly losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our citizens.
New research from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB)—the AGB-Gallup 2017 Trustee Index—reveals that most trustees acknowledge this decline in public attitudes toward higher education. However, the index also demonstrates that few trustees are seriously advocating on behalf of the sector. Overall, only 23 percent of board members have personally contacted a member of Congress about a policy issue concerning higher education. College and university trustees—often focused on their fiduciary responsibilities and the success of their own institutions— traditionally have not been engaged in the national discourse about the enduring contributions of higher education to the advancement of both individuals and our nation as a whole.
Reclaiming the Public Trust
As skepticism towards the sector grows—whether manifested in negative media coverage or legislation that seriously harms the sector—AGB believes that the current circumstances demand a change. That is the clarion call behind The Guardians Initiative: Reclaiming the Public Trust™, which seeks to harness the collective strength of some 50,000 college and university trustees—both as fiduciaries and citizens—to play a more active role as advocates for the value of higher education. To the trustees reading: We need your help, now more than ever. To higher education leaders: Get your trustees involved. They are an untapped resource with enormous potential to change the dynamic of the debate.
To aid in this effort, AGB is developing a series of information briefs and other resources to educate our member trustees and institutional leaders about higher education and the complex challenges we all face. Each brief addresses issues that animate national discussions about higher education and is designed to help board members engage in national and local conversations about the value and the benefits of our industry.
Our first briefing, “The Business of Higher Education,” focused on the prevailing business model in higher education, with an emphasis on price, cost, and affordability. Our most recent briefing, “Return on Investment in College Education,” discusses both the personal and social benefits of a college-educated society. Future papers will address issues such as the importance of university research, the college as citizen, and state and federal regulation.
AGB wants board members speaking out to the media, business and community leaders, and ultimately the public about the benefits that higher education provides to the country—advocating not only for their specific institutions, but the entire enterprise. AGB has tools to help. Trustees can visit www.agb.org/guardians to find advocacy resources such as a toolkit for boards, examples of effective trustee advocacy in the media, talking points, and the informational briefs mentioned above. In addition, they can listen to Higher Education Nation, a podcast that provides perspective on the concerns facing the nation’s colleges and universities.
American higher education isn’t perfect, and we welcome constructive debate on issues like college affordability, quality, and accountability. But such critiques—valid or not—should not be allowed to obscure the overarching value of our institutions. There is so much more to the higher education story, and who better to tell it than our trustees?
For nearly 100 years, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) has had one mission: to strengthen and protect this country’s unique form of institutional governance through its research, services, and advocacy. Serving more than 1,300 member boards and 40,000 individual citizen trustees, AGB is the only national organization providing university and college presidents, board chairs, trustees, and board professionals of both public and independent institutions as well as institutionally related foundations with resources that enhance their effectiveness.