Monday, October 22, 2012


Telling the Right Story

Some movies don’t impress me much in the moment I’m watching them, but age well in the recollection.  (“Fargo” was like that.)  They typically have more going on than meets the eye, and the first impression doesn’t do them justice.  

The CASE conference was like that for me.  I enjoyed the conference, but one lesson from it has stubbornly stuck in my mind ever since.  I don’t think I fully appreciated it in the moment.

It’s about telling the right story.  

It’s hardly news that public higher education is under unprecedented scrutiny.  Years of a rough job market for new graduates, combined with tuition increases, combined with a lingering sense that colleges are job programs for aging hippies, have put public colleges and universities in an unaccustomed spot.  And I’m embarrassed to admit that the shift caught many of us off-guard.

The sector has fought political battles before, but they were different, and the scripts we developed back then don’t work now.  In the 70’s, I’m told, the issues were about hippies and protests generally.  In the 90’s, they were about diversity and multiculturalism.  (Anyone remember the “culture wars?”  Back when conservatives believed that the humanities mattered enough to fight about?  Good times...)  Now they’re about cost.

As a sector, we’re having a hard time finding the right script for this one.

The stories we told in past conflicts don’t help.  “Free speech” is a fine defense when you’re accused of harboring liberals, but it doesn’t do much to address tuition increases.  “Teach the conflict” may have been a useful way around the definition of the literary canon, but it’s pretty off-point when discussing budget cuts.  

The first impulse is usually some variation on denial.  “We’re just making up for state cuts” is true in the short term, but only partially true over the long term, and not helpful for students facing increased loan burdens and a tough job market.  And given the reputational nature of higher ed, there’s a limit to how much bragging you want to do about austerity.  (“Come to Compass Direction State.  We’ve reduced the humanities to an online video!”)  

We’ve used the “lifetime payoff” argument for a long time, generally to good effect.  But that argument gets less convincing when the cost to the student goes up and entry-level opportunities go down.  Yes, you may be better off in ten years, but if you need to the rent now, that’s of little comfort.

“Inspiring stories” are always good; the fundraisers are especially fond of them.  They put a human face on success, they make abstractions accessible, and they give warm fuzzies all around.  But the last few years suggest limits to the strategy, and it can inadvertently play into the myth that superpeople don’t need institutions in the first place. It can also inadvertently feed some pretty negative stereotypes about public colleges, especially community colleges.  In the American political imagination, institutions that are closely identified with the poor quickly become poor themselves.  Let’s not paint ourselves into a corner here.

President Obama is fond of the “educated workforce” argument, which is compelling to people who major in public policy.  So we’ve locked up that vote.  But it reduces education to training, and it makes us even more vulnerable to blame when a graduate crashes into a recession.  I’d like to see much more focus on the “transfer” story, but we haven’t developed a good hook for that yet.  And stories like “the second chance reverse transfer” are much too complicated to sell to a skeptical public.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?  Ideally something pithy, clear, true, and unlikely to bite back?

“Come to Compass Direction State. We’ve reduced the humanities to an online video!”

I think you mean "Come to Compass Direction State: We have solved the cost disease for humanities instruction!"
have you seen or heard a better story for demonstrating the value of public higher ed to the public?

I think a lot of the problem is that "the value of public higher ed" increasingly depends on the major that one picks and the amount of work that one does in college. People who major in comm and minor in beer pong aren't developing important skills and may come out only marginally more employable than they were when they went in. Chemical engineering and computer science are the opposite. As Academically Adrift demonstrates, a lot of students simply aren't learning that much in many majors.

If they out of college and end up in jobs that don't require a college degree, then perhaps they shouldn't have gone to college in the first place. Universal college isn't a panacea, especially for people who enter without the skills, motivation, or inclination to succeed. Not everyone does well sitting in a classroom and manipulating abstract symbols.

I don't think you'll hear "a better story" until we, collectively, acknowledge this reality and look much more closely at how lifetime income varies by major. Clever stories can't hide hard truths.
I agree 100% about the right story. It is probably also important that everyone tell the same story, or one of a few stories, on "Why should I attend (or support) Your College?"

I wouldn't let the long-term history of the budgets of SOME universities intrude on the discussion of the budget of YOUR college. This needs to be backed by data, which you should have. For example, I know of some schools that have less to spend per student today despite massive tuition increases. The state cuts were even bigger, too big to cover without creating sticker shock.

BTW, it was about cost even in the 70s, because protests often led to budget cuts or other intrusions into college management! The difference is that the base budgets were hugely different back then so the effects look marginal by today's standards.

IMHO, articulated here and elsewhere, the biggest problem with the current cost argument is a lack of long-term (4 or 5 decades worth) data on the costs of higher ed that somehow digs through the morass of accounting processes, which change a lot over time, and institutional mission creep. (Example: allocating salaries between instruction, research, and teaching without using anything resembling "billable hours". What did faculty and grad TAs and undergrad TAs actually do back then and now?) Even comparisons across sectors are difficult as institutions themselves change sectors.
"a lingering sense that colleges are job programs for aging hippies,"

Very pithy. Appropriate for so many schools.

Higher Ed has a terrible excess capacity problem. It won't be easy to shrink it, but it will happen. You regularly demean "training" as opposed to "education," but training is what most students and their parents really want to buy.
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