Claiming Our Story: The Importance of Higher Education to Transform Lives and Society

March 9, 2018

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By Sue Cunningham

To my regret, I am long past the point in life when authority figures are above question. On a 24-hour basis, we are confronted by conflicting opinions—typically voiced in a loud and combative fashion—about the challenges our world faces, including health, the economy, the environment, social injustice, violence, and intolerance. And recent public opinion research indicates that the value of education, which should be regarded as central to devising and delivering solutions to these challenges, is being questioned.

As leaders in education, this should be of immense concern to us, and it is time that we work together to redress the balance.

Although there is plenty of evidence that education is more than proving its worth, there continue to be naysayers worldwide who are uninterested in the facts. Just one example of this comes from Michael Gove, the United Kingdom’s secretary for state for environment, food, and rural affairs and a member of Parliament who, during the Brexit campaign, said “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts.” Expertise, and the research coming out of our colleges and universities does matter.

In this noisy tempest of uninformed opinions, it’s no surprise that 95 percent of college admissions directors assert we need to do a better job of explaining the value of a college education, up from 87 percent a year ago. At the same time, 71 percent of chief business officers believe that media reports portraying higher education as in financial crisis are accurate, a view that has increased over the past two years. And many college and university presidents are worried about their state’s political climate, according to ACE’s most recent American College President Study. It is striking that overall, 41 percent of presidents reported perceiving some level of hostility in the state political climate as it relates to higher education.

A Pew Research Center report from July 2017 showed increasing partisan differences over the impact of major institutions on the country—churches and religious organizations, banks and financial institutions, labor unions, national news media, and colleges and universities. Only 36 percent of those who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning believe that colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, compared to 72 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic, who view colleges and universities as having a positive impact on the country.

While this is rightly the cause for concern, we must also consider what we know about the true impact of higher education.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s January 2018 Report of Median Weekly Earnings from the last quarter of 2017, full-time workers age 25 and over with at least a bachelor’s degree earned significantly more than those with only a high school diploma and no college ($1,278 vs. $714). Among those with an advanced degree, the median weekly earnings was $1,487. Further, according to Current Population Survey Labor Force Statistics, the total unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is an extremely low 2.5 percent. Despite headlines otherwise, even those with degrees in the humanities are employed, earning, and happy with their career choices. I must confess that as a humanities graduate myself, my own experience mirrors this description. And there are other non-economic benefits to a higher education regardless of major that can’t be ignored: College graduates enjoy better health, live longer and are more likely to have retirement benefits and feel good about their life decisions. They also are more engaged citizens, more involved in their communities, and more likely to understand the issues of the day and vote.

Even in the midst of this evidence of a very strong return on investment, the United States is decreasing its public investment in education compared to most of the other 33 countries in the recent Education at a Glance 2017 data set. Fortunately, a portion of that gap is being bridged by outstanding philanthropic support to charities. According to Charity Navigator’s most recent giving statistics, charitable giving in the United States was $390 billion in 2016 —2.1 percent of G.D.P. — greater than anywhere else in the world. And education represents the second most popular cause for philanthropic investment. The recent Voluntary Support of Education study published that contributions to colleges and universities in the U.S. saw a total of over $43.6 billion in 2017, the highest level ever in the 60 years of the survey.

While the evidence for the value and impact of education is clear to those of us working in the sector, it is imperative that we close the understanding gap between those who are already part of our communities and those who currently stand outside of them.

As the president and CEO of CASE, I believe there is a growing urgency in the need to redress the narrative about higher education in this country.

CASE has over 3,700 member institutions (colleges, universities, and schools) in 82 countries around the world. Those working in integrated advancement (which includes the disciplines of alumni relations, communications, fundraising, marketing, and public relations) are in a unique place, working with institutional leadership, to frame the story of the importance of education to transform lives and society. Advancement staff are engaging with external communities, sharing stories of impactful experiences with stakeholders, connecting alumni back with their alma maters, identifying areas of mutual interest and need for transformational support, and communicating the work of their institutions to a diverse set of constituents.

Here are three suggestions for shaping the conversation as to the importance of higher education:

  • Encourage alumni engagement with legislative bodies and the broader community. The U.S. Census tells us that nearly one in three adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Help prime alumni to share their experiences and, more importantly, the impact your institution had on their lives. Alumni advocating for the value of education holds significant potential for communicating the need for investment in your institution and also for building understanding of the valuable societal role education provides. Keep this substantial lobbying group updated with clear, concise, and regular information to communicate the story of your institution and higher education in general in their day-to-day conversations.
  • Reach out beyond your traditional stakeholders. In working with your marketing and communications colleagues, find ways to reach out creatively not just to your traditional stakeholders but also to individuals who might not know how higher education has a positive impact on their lives. It is vital to connect with those who have had no opportunity nor reason to connect with your campus. Encourage “outside in” thinking and listening, and be prepared to adapt and change. In 2017, the University of Melbourne received a CASE circle of excellence award in recognition of their powerful brand messaging that was deployed in various places around the inner city. These were positioned in very public places—train stations, bus and tram shelters. The installations tell stories, simply and powerfully, of the university’s impact
  • Work with your peers and with your membership associations so that we, with combined expertise and wisdom, build strategies to reverse the pervasive and negative trend of disbelief in the value of education. This is something that many in our community are already doing; let’s continue to harness that energy collaboratively.

All is not perfect in the educational sector. There is much we can and must do to ensure that we provide the right environment for our students to thrive and learn. We need to continue to build pathways to provide access to those who seek it. And we must be bold with our research agendas.

While we will never be without our fiercest critics, I am confident we can swing the pendulum to a place where education is once again perceived by the majority as being a public good.

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