As colleges and their budgets come under attack, higher education needs to do a better job of defending itself, says Timothy M. Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system. When the public criticizes rising tuition and growing student debt, college leaders need to do more to emphasize the long-term earnings potential that comes with a college degree, he says. Colleges’ importance as an economic asset needs to be emphasized and quantified, too, he adds, to make a stronger case for higher education as a public good, beyond just a private one. Mr. Wolfe talks about how he is trying to turn around negative conversations about the value of higher education in his visits to middle schoolers, civic leaders, and employers across his state.
SARA HEBEL: Hi. I'm here with Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri system. Thanks for being here.
TIMOTHY WOLFE: My pleasure, Sara.
SARA HEBEL: You have been traveling the state talking about the value of a public research university like yours. What prompted you to do that? And what opinions are you trying to change?
TIMOTHY WOLFE: Well, in 2011, when I joined the University of Missouri system, a lot of the conversation was questioning the value of higher education. A lot of the media was more negative in terms of student debt and students' spending four years of their lives and not getting a job. And that conversation was translating into a decrease in funding from the state as well as some challenges in college participation by high-school graduates in our state.
So to offset some of that negative conversation we decided to go out on the road. And so in the last two years we've been to 20 cities in the state of Missouri, talking to over 7,000 middle schoolers. We were intentional in talking to seventh and eighth graders. Because that's the time in their academic career or academic life where they're starting to think about what happens after high school.
So we talked to 7,000 middle schoolers. Each of the stops also included conversations with civic leaders about the value of higher education in their community. As well as because we're the public land-grant research institution, we touch all the communities. And our mission is to touch six million Missourians through extension and through our health services.
So we met with civic leaders to just try to get a feel on the pulse of how we're doing relative to the community participation. And then we ended each of the stops with a meeting with a business leader who typically hires a lot of our graduates to again assess: Are we providing enough quantity of graduates? And the graduates that you have employed, do they have the right skills? Are there opportunities to collaborate from a research, or internship, or something like that?
So what's happened is we've increased awareness of the importance of higher education, offset some of the negative conversations with some positives. We've got some great inspirational notes from the middle schoolers. That I'm going to go on to college. I didn't think I could afford it. Now I know that I can. And I know I have a better life and more opportunities ahead of me.
So in each of the stops we feel comfortable with the texting and the tweeting that we've gotten back from the middle schoolers that were inspiring students to stay at it. And make sure that they finish high school and go on to college.
SARA HEBEL: This is, of course, a challenge across the country as public support for public higher education has eroded over time. What have you learned in it that you've been seeing about what colleges might do differently in the future or that they've been doing wrong in the past?
TIMOTHY WOLFE: Well, I think we shouldn't as an industry give ourselves a high grade relative to our reaction or our response to the negative publicity out there about questioning the value of higher education. Yes, it is true that tuition and cost of attendance have gone up exponentially. And we all know that, dollar for dollar, it's been the decrease in state funding that has caused that.
But we have not done a great job of messaging the marketplace that, though there are students that graduate with debt, they still will make $1 million more over their life expectancy than a high-school graduate, which translates into $540 more per week. So the earnings potential of a college graduate exponentially offsets the cost of attendance. And that the majority of our graduates do get employed. So we're not highlighting the positive as much as they're reading about the negative.
So from an industry standpoint we haven't done a great job of it. And just the overall awareness in our state relative to the importance of the University of Missouri system as it pertains to the economy and the importance as it pertains to the community culture is absolutely significant. And it could be parochial. But it could be construed as one of the biggest assets, if not the most important asset, in the state of Missouri. So we have got to learn how to have unified messaging, and getting that awareness up, and the importance of higher education.
And the great thing about what's happened with our state is they've responded. The highest funding from the state in over 30 years relative to operating increases as well as capital increases. So the state political leadership has responded with more support relative to the appropriated dollars to the University of Missouri system, which we're very proud of and thankful for.
SARA HEBEL: That was one thing I was going to ask. A lot of the arguments that are easy to make about the value of higher education amount to an individual private good. How do you shift that beyond what you can earn, what job you can get, to talking about higher education as a public good?
TIMOTHY WOLFE: Well, we have to talk about the service and economic-development component of our mission. Obviously, the four legs of our stool are no different than anywhere else, of academic research, service, and economic development. But when you talk about the public good — which is really the service and economic-development aspect of it — we have to talk about our stats and our facts relative to how many products that we've created, how many new companies, how many jobs that has driven. What are we doing in the communities? How many service hours, how many teachers are we educating and put there? As well as the existing teachers, how we're bringing them back for additional education. And so that service and economic development has to be quantified, qualified, and delivered in a very, very meaningful way.
What we're trying to do for every one of the six million Missourians is take that six-degree-separation analogy down to one. We want to connect every Missourian in some way to the University of Missouri system. And because we're in every one of our counties with our extension services, and we have two million contacts a year, it's pretty easy to get to that one degree of separation. So that services and economic development that is a public good versus individual to the student has to be backed up with facts and examples.
SARA HEBEL: And finally I would ask, what's at stake here in these conversations?
TIMOTHY WOLFE: I believe the future of higher education. More importantly than the future of higher education, the future of our economy in the United States and our competitiveness.
When I was in the search process for this, I reached out to a friend of mine and asked him what his advice to me would be. And he said higher education is No. 1 on a global basis. In the United States it's the only industry that can claim global leadership since its inception. But if it doesn't change, then it too will fall by the wayside. It won't be as competitive as some other countries.
So if change is necessary, then we have to change in everything that we do. The demographic that we're serving from a student now has shifted. And so we have to be responsive to that demographic and make sure that we focus on student success.
We have to increase the amount of research that we're doing. Because industry is dependent upon us. And if we don't have interesting research that creates products, and services, and companies, and jobs, and continues to keep our leadership positions in this knowledge economy, then the United States will suffer because of that. You could parochially say it's just about us. But really it's about the United States. And our important position in the future of the United States is about being better at what we do.
SARA HEBEL: Thanks so much for being here today.
TIMOTHY WOLFE: Thank you. My pleasure.