College Presidents on Value: Tone Deaf or Lacking Confidence

Say you asked the CEO of any major company whether they believed their products were worth the price customers paid.

Think two out of five of them would answer no? Probably not.

Yet that’s exactly what college presidents said about the educational product of higher education in a poll released this month by Time magazine and the Carnegie Corporation. Forty-one percent of higher-education leaders agreed that “at many colleges, the education students receive is not worth what they pay for it.” Let’s hope they weren’t thinking about their own institutions when they answered the question.

More worrisome is that in the same survey, college presidents were far outnumbered in their opinion by the public: Eighty percent of the general population said the education at many colleges wasn’t worth the price. This value gap between presidents and the public is similar to one The Chronicle and the Pew Research Center found through companion surveys in 2011.

In the debate over the price of higher education, college leaders still seem to be missing the point: The public is willing to pay somewhat higher prices if they think that what they’re buying is worth it. In the corporate world, Apple figured this out a decade ago by selling tech products with prices that are typically higher than competitors’ and still lead the market.

But rather than figure out ways to prove their value to students and parents, colleges instead trot out reports on how their tuition increases are not as bad as people think, especially given student aid—just like the College Board did last week.

What we still need are better ways to measure quality in higher education than a rankings system produced by a magazine that doesn’t actually publish a print edition anymore (U.S. News & World Report) or some exclusive club based mostly on research dollars (Association of American Universities).

It’s an issue the Spellings Commission tried to solve six years ago without much success. Instead, we’ve had more than a half a decade of half-hearted efforts: Web sites created by higher-education associations that purport to give useful information to prospective students but fail to include details on critical measures, such as job placement, or allow comparisons between public and private colleges.

Sure, more than 1,000 colleges now offer one of three tests to measure what students learn between their freshmen and senior years, but good luck in finding those results, or for that matter other measures of student learning, graduate debt, or alumni success in the labor market on college Web sites. After all, this first point of contact most prospective families have with a college is a sales tool designed by marketers, not a disclosure statement designed by educators.

Still, some see the strides of the last six years after the Spellings Commission as a giant step in the right direction. “We’re trending here to a profile of college that looks like the annual physical of a patient, where you’ll see some score well on some [measures] but not others,” David Paris tells me. Paris is executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, a coalition of higher-education leaders and foundations. His organization wants to recognize colleges for “doing certain things better” by giving them a certification, much like new buildings get LEED-certified for their environmentally friendly design.

Whatever tools we settle on, the efforts to measure value start at the top of the institution and the groups that represent higher education. And right now, college presidents are either tone deaf to the concerns of the public or they don’t believe in their own product.

Higher education is in desperate need of a third group of leaders who will recognize both the public anxiety and where their institutions fall short in proving value for what families are paying. Presidents will no longer be able  to simply defend price increases as the cost of doing business.

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