Our national media largely shapes the public perception of higher education. Out-of-control tuition and crushing student debt are among the most popular topics. In print and on the screen, the flames of fear that the bubble will burst are being fanned ever higher.
When I present about the challenges we face in academic libraries, I often begin by talking about what’s happening to our system of higher education. It helps to put our profession’s key issues into perspective by first understanding the more serious problems with which our parent institutions are grappling. Put simply, if they fail to survive, then whatever our crisis du jour is won’t much matter. Perhaps I am guilty of using the media’s sometimes overly dramatic and often sensationalized coverage of the just-about-to-burst higher education bubble to make a point. One video I use comes from a New York Times report titled “Graduating into Debt.” It features students talking about their enormous college loan debt and it’s emotionally wrenching. That makes it effective for capturing an audience’s attention —especially one that does little thinking about students’ finances. There’s just one thing they need to know.
Not quite accurate
One of the students talks about her $60,000 debt, while another student’s is closer to $100,000. Both question whether they really got much for their money, as neither has a job that requires a college degree. What the video fails to acknowledge is that these students, while their tales of college debt and dead-end futures are tragic, are really extreme cases. The implication of the video is that these are typical college graduates. They are not. In an essay about student debt, also in the New York Times, renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz writes about the cascading consequences of student loan debt on the economy. While he acknowledges its seriousness, he also provides more accurate data. The reality is that only 13 percent of students owe more than $50,000, and only 4 percent owe more than $100,000. Average loan debt is about $26,000: still pretty significant, but nowhere near as dramatic as what the video portrays. Stiglitz continues to paint a dismal economic picture for college graduates and the nation. As have others before him, he likens student debt to the housing loan crisis, and he suggests that student loan debt will be the next bubble to burst. The debt, he writes, is simply crushing out the American dream for a generation. Strong words, and the comments illustrate that this is an issue that really does capture America’s attention.
Making it personal
The way in which the national media handles this story seems almost formulaic. Take an expert, be it a higher education pundit or economist like Stiglitz, have him or her wax eloquently about the higher education bubble, then add a helping of emotional first-hand accounts delivered from the students themselves. Voila. A surefire read that will garner hundreds or thousands of comments and fury targeting higher education. Just two days before Stiglitz’s article appeared there was already an account of exactly how student loan debt is creating a generation that will never achieve that dream. Shane Gill is a New York City high school teacher. At 33 he has a decent job, but with a combined debt of $95,000, Gill tells how he has little hope of getting married, owning a home, raising children or doing any of those things employed Americans always took for granted. While Gill acknowledges the importance of getting his education, the message that readers no doubt take away is how badly American higher education is damaging the lives of its graduates. These two articles, taken together, drive home another message to the public. The net impact of the cost of higher education goes far beyond the story of Shane Gill. It’s about our economic recovery, or rather how student debt is stalling it because so many in their 20s and 30s, like Gill, with so little disposable income, have insufficient ability to buy the houses, furniture, and cars that drive the economy. Given these reports, it’s no surprise that higher education is looking more and more like the housing loan crisis—a big bubble about to burst.
Who knows what to think?
So what are students and their parents supposed to think? When the media focuses its attention on the minority of extreme cases it creates a mix of fear, dread, and hysteria. This affects how the public makes college decisions. The reality is that stories about college graduates who are barely eking out a living while they pay off mountains of debt sell newspapers. No one wants to hear about a student who paid their loan off a year or two after graduation, and is happily settling down. This video might be a good example of the confusion the media spreads. Two well-known commentators on the higher education scene give completely different views on whether college is worth the debt. And despite the media hype about out-of-control tuition and debt, the tuition discount is on the rise, making higher education more affordable at many private institutions. Where tuition is going up, it is occurring at the slowest rates in recent past years. Tuition calculators and Obama’s college scorecard are far from perfect, but they are designed to help students and parents make better college choice decisions—and in its defense, the media helps to spread the word about these tools. But what we primarily get from the media is a picture of higher education destroying the economy, while it is actually attempting to keep tuition stable while being more accessible to all. Try figuring that out.
Getting the message out
The way the media portrays higher education creates challenges for all colleges and universities. Then again, it must hurt our industry’s reputation when The Chronicle of Higher Education releases its latest survey on presidential salaries. While we know the rational reasons for escalating college costs are numerous, intertwined, and complex, all it takes is one story about outrageous spending, like multi-million dollar CEO-style salaries, to create an emotional sensation and backlash.
Despite the media’s portrayal of higher education as an out-of-control spendthrift that is damaging both the little guy and the nation, prospective students and their parent still believe in its value. The industry and its employees must pay attention to the media’s stories about tuition, student debt, and the bubble hype, and consider how we might, individually and collectively, respond with our own story about the value of higher education.
Academic librarians could perhaps play some small part in such an effort. Initially we might simply become more attuned to the economics of higher education in order to share a response to unfortunate stories about college graduates with dim prospects for the future. In our private lives, when the talk turns to higher education, we can offer a more realistic view from what we know about our own institutions. I have a few stories of my own about students. They are mostly success stories. You must too. Let’s be ready to share them. Together we can help fight fear and convert dread into enthusiasm.
|Data-Driven Academic Libraries is a free three-part webcast series, developed in partnership with Electronic Resources and Libraries (ER&L), that will touch on just some of the many areas where libraries are gathering, analyzing, and using data to change how they work—fueling your ability to better put this information to work in your own libraries.|