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News Editorial Other Voices Interview


Innovation and Public Trust

The public perceives colleges and universities to be
unresponsive to their needs


PUBLIC SUPPORT for the educational missions of higher education is at unprecedented high levels. But confidence in the leadership and management of colleges and universities has deteriorated substantially.

These finding are from Squeeze Play 2010, a recent report on public views of colleges and universities from Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The erosion of public trust in the leadership and values of colleges and universities is not an anomaly of the recession but continuation of a trend that has been documented over at least a decade. Americans want higher education and recognize its importance in the knowledge-based economy—the proportion that believe college is “necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world” has increased dramatically, from 30 percent to 55 percent since 2000. But 60 percent say that “colleges today are like businesses and care mainly about their own bottom line,” while only 32 percent believe that “colleges care mostly about education and making sure students have a good educational experience.” Sixty percent believe colleges could spend less and still maintain high quality. Almost two-thirds of Americans say that federal stimulus support that states and colleges received for higher education should have been used to hold tuition increases down.

Public opinion research measures perceptions, not realities. But perceptions are one part of political and financial reality. For example, even as the economy and eventually state revenues begin to recover, how likely is it that state appropriations for colleges will be a high priority if the public lacks confidence in the management of higher education and in its commitment to effective use of resources?

It is predictable that the responses of some higher education leaders to these findings will be that the public just doesn’t get the severity of the budget cuts and the magnitude of the problems confronting colleges and universities. Similarly, the lay public may believe that state and college leaders don’t understand or are indifferent to the financial hardships that families and students are experiencing. Both points of view may reflect realities beyond the purview of public opinion research.

But the series of studies of public attitudes towards colleges of which Squeeze Play 2010 is the most recent does suggest that what Americans are looking for is not a free ride but indications that colleges and universities share their concerns for protecting access and affordability to quality education and for using whatever resources are available for that purpose more effectively. Tuition increases and enrollment caps, as the public sees it, should be the last resorts, not the first. As difficult as institutional choices are, they are not as difficult as those faced by students and their families: Can I afford college at all? Must I select an institution based only on price rather than a fit with my interests and qualifications? Until colleges and universities realign themselves with public priorities and revamp the ways they serve students, including their costs and prices, the perception of unresponsiveness will only grow. Yet in the face of unprecedented and draconian budget cuts, most state and institutional leaders have relied on conventional approaches—raising tuition as much as the market or the politics permits, and emergency managerial strategies that implicitly assume eventual restoration of the status quo ante.

What is most striking and most disheartening is the absence of innovation. But there are exceptions, and this edition of National CrossTalk focuses on some significant programs, policies and proposals to improve college access, student learning and cost effectiveness, even in the face of trying economic circumstances. Each represents a challenge to conventional wisdom about policy and practice. Each has the potential for application on a scale that could have a major impact on the accessibility and performance of higher education.

There is, of course, no guarantee all these efforts will succeed, but there is much that can be learned from each of them about educational improvement and about policy and organizational strategies that stimulate, support and reward innovation. Commitment to innovation and to replicating successful experiments in the interest of educational improvement and cost effectiveness is a step on the road to restoration of public trust and public investment. Innovation is not a substitute for renewed public support, but it may be a precondition.

But the financial devastation that the economy and the freefall of many state budgets has visited upon higher education has not yet moved strategic consideration of public priorities or issues of productivity improvement and educational innovation to center stage for most public policymakers and college and university leaders.

—Patrick M. Callan

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National CrossTalk May 2010

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