Ohio State U.

The public has soured on higher ed. Now what?

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.


No One To Blame But Ourselves

A crisis in confidence. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Even suspicion. 

That’s how places like Gallup and the Pew Research Center have summed up Americans’ views on higher education. In short, the surveys of recent years have shown, public sentiment about college has taken a clear turn for the worse.

Stephen Gavazzi, a human sciences professor at Ohio State, and E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, wanted to probe what could be done to reverse the decline. For their new book, “What’s Public About Public Higher Ed?,” they surveyed more than 5,800 people about how well colleges are doing their jobs.

One thing that struck them was this, Gavazzi says: A lot of people don’t have an opinion one way or another about how well universities are responding to the issues of the day, like covid or the Black Lives Matter movement.

“That’s a symptom of a much larger problem,” Gavazzi says. “Universities are not doing a great job of communicating what they are doing.”

There are issues, he says, in both who they are communicating with and what they are communicating about. 

An Echo Chamber

College leaders have a tendency to talk to the same groups: state legislators, donors, other boosters. So they’re in a bit of an echo chamber, Gavazzi says. “That’s not really a good cross-section demographic of the country or, more specifically for public universities, the constituencies of their state.”

Colleges, he says, should be talking with a wider range of people and also measuring the effectiveness of their relationships. Are your internship programs meeting the needs of students and local businesses? Are teacher preparation programs providing the right kinds of professional development? How are your social-work programs working with local nonprofits so that students get the right training?

Also, Gavazzi points out, many universities have the capacity to conduct their own surveys and public-opinion research. So they shouldn’t be in the dark about what their communities think about them.

A Contradiction in Positioning

In terms of what they like to talk about, Gavazzi says, universities often are touting roles that the public doesn’t actually care as much about. In their surveys, Gavazzi and Gee asked people how they would spend $100 of public money for higher ed across these categories: teaching, research, and engagement. No matter your political party, Gavazzi says, the results were the same. People tended to put $50 toward teaching and $25 each toward engagement and research. 

“That really represents a contradiction in how universities like to position themselves,” he says. You’re more likely to hear about their research than anything about their teaching. Research has come to be more of a status symbol and the arena in which they see themselves competing with one another.

But not talking about teaching or what you are doing for the community misses an opportunity to be talking to the public about other university roles they value as much or more. 

“All of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that happened when states really started to cut back on their spending is going to look like a walk in the park if colleges don’t figure out really quickly how to turn public sentiment around,” Gavazzi says. “And we will have no one else to blame other than ourselves.”

— Sara Hebel

Our New National Reporters

Nick Fouriezos | Naomi Harris | Charlotte West

We’re excited to welcome our first cohort of national reporters, who will focus on three under-covered areas of higher education. They’ll report in-depth stories, publish regular newsletters, and collaborate on projects with our local network of higher ed reporters.

Nick Fouriezos will be covering the role of colleges in rural America. Nick is an experienced enterprise and investigative reporter with bylines in The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Daily Beast, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and USA Today, among others. As OZY Magazine’s Washington correspondent for six years, he wrote stories from six continents and covered two presidential elections. In 2017, he created and led “States of the Nation,” a year-long reporting project where he spent a week each in all 50 U.S. states to spotlight under-covered communities and reintroduce people to their neighbors. (Read more about Nick.)

Send Nick a note. | Follow him on Twitter. | Sign up for his newsletter.

Naomi Harris will be covering higher education and racial equity. Naomi has been part of our Open Campus Local Network for the past year, covering higher education in Pittsburgh for PublicSource, one of our partner newsrooms. In that role, she established a track record of elevating the voices and experiences of people who have often been overlooked in coverage about college. Previously, she covered education for The Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, where she focused on systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities in the school system. (Read more about Naomi.)

Send Naomi a note. | Follow her on Twitter. | Sign up for her newsletter.

Charlotte West will be covering the future of postsecondary education and prisons. Charlotte has more than a decade of experience writing about education, housing, juvenile justice, and politics. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Hechinger Report, USA Today, Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Fortune, and CalMatters, an Open Campus partner. She’s passionate about working with college journalists, and her most recent newsroom position was as a reporting coach with the CalMatters College Journalism Network. (Read more about Charlotte.)

Send Charlotte a note. | Follow her on Twitter. | Sign up for her newsletter.

+ Stay informed on our new national beats. Sign up here to connect with our reporters and get their newsletters.

Work with Us

Come help us achieve our ambitious fundraising and expansion goals. We’re hiring for these two revenue jobs:

Reach out to Maria Archangelo with questions.

Become part of our Local Network. Our partner newsroom, PublicSource, is hiring a full-time higher ed reporter in Pittsburgh through a collaboration with Open Campus. Apply here by Oct. 15.

Reach out to Sara Hebel with questions.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Noel Martin is studying at El Paso Community College and was just accepted to New Mexico State University. She relies on child care for her daughter so that she can work and attend classes. Photo: Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters

In El Paso: Child care is vital — and in short supply — for El Paso moms pursuing higher education. Half of El Paso Community College’s students are parents. The college is working to assist more of them by building family-friendly spaces at all of its campuses.

In Northeast Ohio: As emphasis on transfer students grows, Cleveland State and Cuyahoga Community College streamline the process. There is wide acknowledgment, a Cleveland State vice president said, that colleges dependent on traditional first-time freshmen will “need to look beyond.”

In Work Shift: The auto workers of the future. Ford this week announced an $11 billion investment in new production facilities for electric vehicles and batteries. The move will create 11,000 jobs in Kentucky and Tennessee—and require new training at a major scale.

In Next: Knowing the why of admissions. Every heartbroken applicant denied by their dream school thinks they deserve to know why. How transparent should admissions be?

In latitude(s): A ban on agents in international-student recruiting could move ahead. About half of colleges surveyed this year by the American International Recruitment Council and the National Association for College Admission Counseling said they used agents as part of their strategy.

In The Job: Should colleges be doing more to prioritize career development? All four-year colleges should have a strategic plan to integrate career education, one associate vice provost said. “Workforce needs and the future of work require nimble and rapid adjustments to strategies and approaches.”

+ Hear Molly Minta, our reporter with Mississippi Today, talk about the importance of state coverage of higher education on this week’s episode of Future U., a podcast hosted by Jeff Selingo and Michael Horn.

++ Read Charlotte West’s story, produced by The Hechinger Report and supported by an Education Writers Association grant: 3 Native American women head to college in the pandemic. Will they get a sophomore year?

Keep in Touch

Apply for our jobs. Join our revenue team, or cover higher education in Pittsburgh. Get the details.

Support our work. We’re grateful to our donors, who help us add thoughtful reporting on higher ed to communities across the country. Here’s where to give.

Got a story tip or a question? Please send it along.

Run a newsroom and want to improve your coverage of higher ed? Let’s talk.

Please share. Forward this newsletter to colleagues, family, and friends who might be interested. They can sign up for their own copy here.

Our Local Network locations: California | Cleveland | Colorado | El Paso | Mississippi | Pittsburgh | Santa Cruz

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