Group touts higher ed with new project

by Cati Vanden Breul

A group of higher education organizations is launching a nationwide public-awareness campaign to showcase the benefits of college to society as a whole, instead of only to students who attend universities.

The project aims to start a discussion with the public about the role of higher education in the country’s future, said Jane Wellman, a consultant for the initiative.

“We need to do a better job of reaching the public,” Wellman said. “Higher education officials are good at talking to one another, and sometimes to elected officials, but not to the general community.”

She said colleges need to strengthen their capacity to serve everyone, not just students.

“The public tends to hear about higher education only when they have a kid in college,” Wellman said.

She said the American Council on Education and other collaborating organizations have been conducting focus groups to see what attitudes the public harbors about higher education.

“We’re finding that we don’t do a great job of communicating about the social purpose or benefit of college,” Wellman said. “We tend to sell college on the basis of what a good job it does for the student.”

The group is learning where the gaps are and is trying to figure out how to fill them in, she said.

Improving public opinion and public investment in higher education is essential, said Bruce Schelske, director of the University’s TRiO Student Support Services program.

It’s important, because college is becoming less of a reality for middle- and lower-class students, he said.

Schelske cited an article from The New York Times, which stated the University of Michigan’s 2004 freshman class had more members with parents making at least $200,000 a year than parents with salaries below the national median of approximately $53,000 a year. This is becoming a continuing trend as tuition increases and public support decreases, Schelske said.

“Public universities can no longer trust (the government) to give the kinds of funds they need to operate, so they become more and more privatelike,” he said.

The state of Minnesota is an example of why a campaign such as this is necessary, said Jon Dean, president of the University’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter.

“With the funding problems, especially in this state, I think it is really relevant,” said Dean, a public relations senior.

Dean echoed Schelske’s point, saying many lower-income students are finding it increasingly difficult to attend college.

“The campaign should go after trying to gear new funding to lesser-privileged teens and adults,” he said.

If he were running the campaign, Dean said, he would highlight the two broad purposes of public institutions: Universities should work to advance research and provide the state with graduates to move it forward, and also benefit students personally.

Wellman said the effort is in the beginning stages of planning and is, right now, “very much of a listening project.”

The group hopes to focus on issues of performance, cost and accountability in higher education, she said.