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?