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Opinion | How to reverse declining confidence in higher education

It is axiomatic that the first step to solving a problem is to admit one exists.

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When I left Mobile, Alabama, in the fall of 1963, to attend Alabama College in Montevallo, I faced a tremendous uncertainty. After all, I was the first person in my immediate family to attend college, so I was entering a brave new world.

What was certain, however, was the realization if I applied myself and earned a degree it would be worth the money, time and effort in career earnings, quality of life, upward social mobility and leadership opportunities. What’s more, I am certain the vast majority of Americans from all walks of life also held higher education in equally high esteem.

Today, Gallup data show less than 50 percent of survey respondents are confident U.S. higher education is worth the investment, down from 81 percent in 2010. Further, a survey by New America reveals that only 58 percent of Americans believe colleges are a positive force on the country, down from almost 70 percent just two years ago!

Why have attitudes toward an institution once revered so highly declined so sharply? We can look to three key areas for the answer:

ONE: Rising costs of university attendance. From 1985 to 2021, the rising cost to attend college has exceeded inflation. As a result, more students—and their parents—borrow money to finance college. Today, student debt surpasses $1.8 trillion.

TWO: Perceived quality issues. Scandals plaguing for-profit universities in recent years have fueled this fire. Accusations of deceptive marketing practices, lying about graduation rates and illegally collecting high-interest loans marketed to students led to the shutdown of several major for-profits, including Corinthian College and ITT Technical Institute.

THREE: The character question. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of a true education.” There is a growing perception, however, that universities are failing to teach the values we once held dear. A 2021 survey by Rasmussen Reports revealed that 78 percent of U.S. voters say it is important for schools—kindergarten through college—to teach the traditional values of western civilization. Another perception that must be addressed is that 60 percent of U.S. university personnel identify as liberal or far-left, compared to just 12 percent who identify as conservative. We have become polarized as a society –and polarization is magnified within the academy.

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But I see hope on the horizon!

Our colleges and universities are taking debt seriously. Three years ago the average per-student college debt was around $35,000; today it’s approximately $30,000. At TROY University, our average debt is $18,608. We encourage our students to take out loans as a last resort—and  as an investment in their futures.

TROY is also fighting student debt by holding the line on tuition for four straight years, which runs counter to recent national trends.  But, it’s not enough to forego tuition increases. Universities must exhibit good stewardship in all areas while focusing on quality and employability of graduates.

If we are to restore public confidence in higher education, when measuring quality, we must take student outcomes into account. While universities cannot be considered “vocational schools,” employability of graduates is essential. Alumni saddled with debt who lack degrees that enable them to get a good job will believe their university failed them.  In turn, confidence in higher education will continue to erode. At TROY we make an internship available in every academic major. Survey after survey of potential employers reveals graduates who have earned practical experience are more employable.

Finally, we in higher education must come to grips with the question of values and culture. Our annual surveys of incoming freshmen reveal 70 percent of them value faith and spiritual development. Consequently, parents want their children to receive a university education without abandoning the values they were taught at home. At Troy University we realize that once-venerated campus institutions that have come under fire elsewhere in recent years, such as ROTC training and the Greek System, still have value.

It is axiomatic that the first step to solving a problem is to admit one exists. The universities that admit a crisis of confidence exists and take action will be the big winners in the coming decades.

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