Yale president: How to fix higher ed's image problem

A rift has opened between higher education and the American public, writes Yale University President Peter Salovey in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Just over half of Americans have a positive view of higher education, according to two recent surveys cited by Salovey. (Though it's worth noting that community colleges do fare slightly better in public opinion polls than four-year institutions.)

Contributing to this skepticism are stubborn myths about the cost and value of a degree. Tales of climbing walls and grads forced to work as baristas persist.

In short, higher education has an image problem.

To improve the situation, Salovey argues, institutions will need to look both internally and externally.

Externally: Explain the truth about the value of a degree

Public concerns about higher education largely focus on cost and post-graduation outcomes. But on both topics, public perception tends to be skewed.

In a 2015 survey, almost 75% of respondents undervalued the earnings premium of a higher education degree, and about 60% overvalued the price of attending college.

Despite skepticism about "return on education," Pew Research Center analysis has found that "college-educated millennials [are] outperforming their less-educated peers on virtually every economic measure." In 2012, median earnings for bachelor's degree holders were $17,500 higher than those of high school graduates, Salovey notes.

To educate prospective students about the value of a degree, some institutions have begun emphasizing post-graduation outcomes in their recruiting materials and on their websites.

For example, Luther College highlights graduates' 99.4% employment rate, high average alumni salaries, and individual student stories. American University created a website to showcase outcomes by major, allowing prospective students to review outcomes at specific employers and graduate schools.

Learn more: How American University reclaimed the career outcomes conversation

Internally: Continue innovating on cost and quality

It's not enough to focus on external communications. Salovey urges higher education leaders to take public concerns seriously—and to continue seeking ways to expand access, improve quality, and support student success.

Salovey acknowledges this is challenging and that solutions will look different for different institutions. But "part of the answer," he writes, might be "greater collaboration among colleges." He encourages leaders to look at all types of institutions for inspiration.

For many institutions, improving retention and graduation rates is the best way to grow enrollment, increase net tuition revenue, and reduce the cost of education and debt burden on students, writes David Attis, managing director of strategic research at EAB.

Reducing the barriers to enrollment that students face—beyond increasing financial aid—is another strategy that colleges have used successfully. Everything from recruiting strategies to the cost of textbooks to campus climate can be critical to creating a welcoming and supportive environment for students from diverse backgrounds, Attis explains (Salovey, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/27).

Read more: The top 5 threats to financial stability—and how to prepare for the decade ahead

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5 ways to tell students from Day One: We've got your back

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