OPINION: With a skeptical public, higher education must do a better job explaining why college is worth the investment

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If asked to assess the current posture of higher education leaders across the nation, it would be reasonable to describe it as a “defensive crouch.”

Brought sharply into focus during the 2007-8 Great Recession — and seemingly every month since in the news and on social media — the U.S. higher education debate circles around whether college degrees are worth students’ and their families’ investment of time and money, or whether marketable, job-friendly skills can be more efficiently acquired elsewhere.

Reflecting the pressures on campuses today, a recent study indicates eroding confidence in higher education: In late 2022 only 55 percent of Americans surveyed said that “colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the way things were going,” compared with 69 percent in early 2020.

How do we reverse this crisis in confidence?

Related: How higher education lost its shine

The saying “where you stand depends on where you sit” is apt in this debate; I’m executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, and I’m struck by how infrequently colleges of arts and sciences are factored into the conversation.

It’s time we got off the sidelines to better explain and market to the public the prodigious value to teaching, innovation and the greater good that we offer.

We have a responsibility as leaders to stand up and be counted if we seek to increase confidence in our sector. Deans like me not only need to better explain what schools like ours do, and where and how we add value — we need to better relay to the public what we are.

So, what are colleges of arts and science? In one sense, they’re schools that hide in plain sight on many university campuses. The actual names may vary: We have the College of Arts and Sciences, while Stanford — where I earned my Ph.D. in particle physics — has the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Colleges of arts and sciences are the beating hearts of many universities.

Generally, colleges of arts and sciences are large academic units within a university that offer a range of department-led majors and areas of study, research and creative activity: from the arts (e.g., dance, film, theater) to the humanities (e.g., English and other languages, history, religious studies), the social sciences (e.g., economics, political science, sociology) and the natural and mathematical sciences.

Many observers categorize such schools as “liberal arts” institutions, and much real and virtual ink has been spilled on the value of a liberal arts degree. Compounding the challenge to stand out for schools like ours is that few students identify with their college of arts and sciences; rather, they tend to identify with their home departments — their majors.

Unfortunately, schools of arts and sciences also have much less brand equity than graduate and professional schools (e.g., business, engineering, public health).

As educators and administrators, we must address this public perception issue because colleges of arts and sciences are the beating hearts of many universities.

How so? Schools of arts and sciences are typically the homes for pre-med and pre-law undergraduate tracks, enrolling scores of students on campuses around the country and putting them on paths to rewarding and fulfilling careers. We are also — given the breadth and depth of how schools like ours are structured — hubs for innovation within and across disciplines, including through pedagogy and faculty research.

An example: In the shifting economy of the 1990s, schools like ours were preparing students for the “jobs of tomorrow” — today’s bioethicists, digital designers and DEI managers.

This future-looking function remains true as we consider, for example, the rise of ChatGPT and other AI-fueled programs. We will need the next generation of graduates to contend with the ethical, scientific, political, economic and sociological issues that AI raises and deal with how this new technology will affect our lives, our society and our economy — while anticipating what it will be like to live and work in this yet-to-develop world.

Further, in the debate about the return on investment for a college degree, arts and sciences deans need to better communicate and market our critical value to students and to the public.

First, generally: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), thus far in 2023, the unemployment rate in the U.S. for civilians over the age of 25 with only a high school diploma was 3.9 percent, but for those with a college degree, it was just 2.1 percent.

In addition, the median income for U.S. workers with a college degree in 2021 was approximately $69,000 per year; those with just a high school diploma earned roughly $42,000 annually, according to BLS.

Of course, your mileage may vary depending on a number of factors, from the state of the economy to the robustness of local job markets, but these statistics demonstrate a valid point: For most Americans, college is worth it.

Related: OPINION: Despite public skepticism, higher education can still change lives for generations to come

Second, specifically: Deans of arts and sciences schools should also talk about how we improve career readiness — including through our increasing numbers of dedicated career resource centers, our integration of career-readiness courses into curricula and our teaching of critical thinking, networking and other marketable skills.

And, like business and law schools, we should provide real-time data online about our graduates’ career and salary outcomes, so consumers can better understand how liberal arts and sciences degrees help make students “robot-proof” — and pay off.

We can also improve how we share the ways in which our sector advances research and development (R&D). Schools of arts and sciences are often the homes for Ph.D. and master’s degree programs that draw significant research funding, the benefits of which touch millions of Americans across nearly every sector of society. R&D performed by the entire U.S. higher education sector amounted to $80.8 billion in 2020 —11 percent of America’s total, according to the National Science Foundation.

At IU Bloomington, the College of Arts and Sciences was the destination for over half the research grant dollars on campus.

As a sector, we must continue to innovate and adapt in uncertain times. But deans of colleges of arts and sciences will serve their institutions more effectively by getting up from that defensive crouch and developing plans to more clearly and successfully engage with students, policymakers and the public to convey how important our schools are in improving our graduates’ lives, our economy and our society as a whole.

Rick Van Kooten is executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington and a professor of physics.

This story about colleges of arts and sciences was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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