January/February 2008
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What Colleges Must Do to Keep the Public’s Good Will

By Patrick Callan and John Immerwahr, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 11, 2008

Higher education has been lucky—it hasn’t been weighed down by the loss of public trust that’s befallen fields like accounting, professional sports, and politics.  For most people, colleges and universities are worthy of respect. When asked about colleges, focus-group participants talk about medical research, the accessibility of community colleges, and the prestige and tradition of big state schools. Most people also say colleges and universities are teaching students what they need to know for career success. But a sea change could be coming, write Patrick Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and John Immerwahr of Public Agenda in a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The writers, both education policy researchers, report on a gradual erosion of the public’s faith and good will toward higher education. While Americans understand the importance of a degree, they are frustrated with rising tuition costs and worry about being priced out of the system. They’re also becoming more wary about the altruistic position universities have traditionally enjoyed in the community. More than half of people interviewed in recent focus groups said that colleges today “mainly care about the bottom line,” and have “money coming in from everywhere.”

So how can institutions of higher learning stay on the public’s good side? It all comes down to accountability and access, the authors write. Avoid “golden geese” programs and expenditures, like private jets for presidents and sky-high salaries for athletic coaches. Develop new measures of accountability to demonstrate what students are getting for their money. Consider reorganization of programs and departments to serve more students without increasing tuition prices. The traditional deference paid to higher education may not be around forever, the authors warn. Now is the time to consider how to maintain the public’s trust.

The entire text of this article can be viewed at the Chronicle of Higher Education Website. Login or subscription may be required.

As part of its Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative, AAC&U has just released a report on a new poll of business leaders: How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning? Employers’ Views on the Accountability Challenge.


The articles featured in AAC&U News Perspectives do not necessarily represent the views of AAC&U staff, its board of directors, or its membership.