Public attitudes toward higher education:
Gauging the climate through the media

By: Jonathan Rossing

For AAC&U members to succeed in advancing the values and issues important to us, it is crucial to understand not only our institutional constituents but also the public view of higher education. Accounting for the predominant attitudes toward higher education in society, we are better equipped to adapt our goals of liberal education for broader, public audiences. One strategy for analyzing our public audience is to take stock of the ways media institutions discuss higher education.

On Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, Comedian Stephen Colbert bemoaned contemporary higher education after he met a college intern taking “whatever courses look interesting.” Colbert joked, “It turns out these days they let college kids do anything they want. They live in co-ed dorms, make friends with people from different backgrounds both in the real world and on ‘The MyFace.’ And they can even eat cereal for dinner. It is chaos and we need to address this crisis.” Colbert’s satire successfully reflects for his audience common public attitudes and discussions about higher education.

But we need not turn to comedy for our snapshots of cultural trends. News institutions offer strong indicators of public orientations toward higher education. David Glenn from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Doug Lederman from Inside Higher Ed, and Mary Beth Marklein from USA Today discussed some trends emerging from the media.

Given the economic downturn and the financial constraints at many institutions, concerns percolate more frequently over the continued quality of higher education. With the real threat of program cuts, the quality of general education may decline. And with increasing numbers of underprepared students entering postsecondary education, particularly due to the economy, many worry about the consequences of cutting support services necessary for high student success rates.

Race and class in higher education also remain much-discussed, hot-button issues that illicit strong reactions and emotions. In particular, Marklein noted, stories about immigration and undocumented students garner significant attention and response.

In addition to recognizing hot topics, we must listen carefully to the silences in the media. Glenn and Lederman explained that the major publications and news outlets report principally on elite institutions such as Ivy League schools and well-known research institutions. Smaller schools and community colleges receive little air time, their innovations and concerns ignored. Consequently, national discussions and attitudes toward higher education are often framed according to a narrow, incomplete portrait of higher education institutions.

These hot topics and silences represent only a sample of the lessons to be gleaned from the media. In order to encourage the public to embrace the liberal education that members of AAC&U champion, we must take cues from media voices. These cues may help us better adapt our goals, messages, and education to our contemporary cultural climate.

Jonathan Rossing is a Rhetoric and Public Culture Graduate Student at Indiana University. Rossing received the 2010 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award during AAC&U’s 2010 Annual Meeting.

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