(Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash)

What Colleges Don’t Get About the Public

Misunderstanding Each Other

Andrea (the intern) here. Scott and Sara turned the newsletter over to me this week and then sent me to my first big higher-ed conference — the Association of American Colleges and Universities down the street from our office.

I went to ask people about how colleges and the public misunderstand each other.

Let’s start with the stereotypes. First, imagine the basic college student. Mainstream media would tell you that my fellow students and I are snowflakes, social justice warriors, and kids whose egos inflated after they went off to school. (As a sophomore at the University of Southern California, I’d say that’s, maybe, 18 percent accurate.)

That question of what a college student looks like was a focus point for an opening panel at the conference. And while panelists agreed stereotypes are often rooted in some truth, they also hoped to show outsiders that their students are thinkers, volunteers, and leaders.

So how can colleges better communicate their message to the public and start to bridge the gap between stereotypes and the real deal? A lot of the people I spoke with gave a similar response: Get out in the community.

Not just fancy advertising campaigns, not just service projects. The key is making community engagement a central part of the curriculum, people said.

F. King Alexander, the departing president of Louisiana State University (and soon-to-be president of Oregon State University), said colleges often misunderstand how place-bound many students are — and therefore don’t focus as much as they should on serving the needs of the public who live just down the road.

So let’s focus, he said, a lot less on worries about “undermatching” and a lot more on whether public institutions are doing enough to help students who live right outside their doors.

Carra Hood, an associate provost at Stockton University, told me it’s important for students, faculty, and administrators to go into the communities they serve because many outsiders find it “intimidating” to walk onto campus, even if they’re invited.

Atlantic City, N.J.

She said Stockton’s mission changed around fall 2018 to center on community engagement and investment when it opened a campus in Atlantic City, where nearly 40 percent of residents live in poverty. And she thinks those community efforts — in public health, the arts, and other areas — have helped Stockton maintain its enrollment.

But I also heard higher ed isn’t so good at talking about itself to people outside the liberal-arts bubble.

Universities are too insular, Stacey Robertson, provost of SUNY-Geneseo, said. She wants schools to train faculty, students, and others on campus to be “advocates” for the liberal arts, so they can head to the surrounding community or back to their hometowns and tell people the value in learning critical thinking skills and global issues rather than just training for a specific job.

Maybe before we send an army of liberal-arts “advocates” out on the streets, colleges should start with more courage — more courage to put a stake in the ground on the principles they believe in. That was Mariko Silver’s argument. The former president of Bennington College and now the president of the Henry Luce Foundation, she said much of America’s divisive dialogue confuses principles with politics. College leaders, she said, must identify the principles they stand for. “Let’s have a real conversation about the future that we want to build,” she says. “Where’s the moral leadership?”

What do colleges get wrong about the public? What does the public misunderstand about college? Let me know at andrea@opencampusmedia.org.

— Andrea Klick

Spotlight

Universities That Are Engines of Social Mobility Are Getting More Expensive

Shrinking higher education budgets and skyrocketing tuitions are jeopardizing the ticket to social mobility that institutions like Stony Brook provide. (The Hechinger Report)

Students Struggle To Find Mental Health Support on Campus

The Daily Michigan examined its university’s mental-health services and efforts in this three-part series, which also compares the university’s mental-health resources to other colleges and off-campus alternatives. (The Michigan Daily)

Internal NCAA Report Reveals Worries Over Athlete Pay, Lawsuits Amid Amateurism Debate

The Los Angeles Times obtained a document that provides a rare look into the unfiltered thoughts of college leaders on key issues facing the organization. (Los Angeles Times)

Recommendation Corner

Andrea: Before I arrived in DC, I mapped out a list of all of the museums and monuments I needed to see throughout the semester. This weekend, I came across the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which highlighted works from female artists across generations and racial and cultural identities. It was inspiring to see so many works featured in a field mostly dominated by men and made me even more excited to continue exploring this city.

Sara: New years are for trying new things, right? Here’s something I did for the first time in 2020 and would gladly do again: Attend an RV show. It’s a fascinating world that broadened my thinking about travel, tires, and the use of tiny spaces.

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