Fortifying Our Colleagues with Facts

Richard Ekman headshotBy Richard Ekman

Every college president has an elevator speech—a short promotional statement about the campus and why it is worthy of the audience’s consideration or support. Other college personnel, however, are usually not as well prepared to deliver a brief pithy case for the institution. Faculty and staff members should be able to answer skeptical questions from neighbors and friends about the cost of college, the usefulness of the liberal arts, or the presumed political correctness on campus. All campus community members need to be conversant with the facts in order to make the case and correct the prevailing myths about CIC colleges and universities—whenever an opportunity arises.

This problem became clear during CIC’s eight regional Securing America’s Future workshops that were held on campuses across the country in 2016–2017. The workshops allowed teams from colleges—usually consisting of the president, a faculty leader such as an elected senate chair, and two or three senior or mid-level administrators in finance, academic affairs, or development—to discuss possible innovations amid changing contexts. In advance of the workshops, CIC sent to all 500 participants from 120 colleges and universities a large packet of data documenting the national averages of performance by private colleges and universities in comparison with public universities and for-profit institutions. The comparative data covered enrollment, graduation rates, and the composition of the student body by race, gender, and family income levels. In addition, the data documented post-graduate success in employment, starting salaries, salaries after five years in the workforce, and alumni satisfaction with their education. By almost every indicator, private colleges and universities outperformed public and for-profit institutions.

For the presidents and many provosts at the workshops, none of this information was new. For almost all the faculty leaders, almost everything was new. CIC staff expected that presidents would be familiar with the trend data and that faculty members would not be. What did surprise us, however, was the large percentage of mid- and senior-level administrators who were unfamiliar with the data and, like the general public, found some patterns counterintuitive.

CIC produces, collects, posts on its website, prints, and distributes a wide variety of data, briefs, and reports in support of private higher education and the liberal arts. CIC staff also brief journalists and government officials, give speeches to business groups and other influencers, and use the data everywhere possible. The results of these efforts, however, have been uneven. For example, after CIC released a report on student debt that showed conclusively that private colleges are not responsible for most of the nation’s student debt and that CIC college graduates have much lower loan default rates than graduates of other higher education sectors, journalists wrote about student debt with reasonable accuracy for about six months. But after that period, journalists seemed to forget the facts, and hyperbolic headlines about student loans reemerged. And with regard to the usefulness of studying the liberal arts, we have yet to succeed in stopping politicians and others from taking cheap shots at majors in philosophy, French, or anthropology—despite clear data that these fields of study help people obtain and succeed in jobs.

In talking with participants in the Securing workshops, we realized that few college and university employees were equipped with the facts to respond to questions based on common misunderstandings. For example, if a faculty member goes to a neighborhood barbecue and someone asks why college costs so much, the faculty member needs to know the true costs in order to respond. The faculty member could note that most students pay far less than the full cost of a college education—thanks to generous financial aid from the institution itself. In fact, the average college graduate’s debt is less than the price of a modest automobile. And students at private colleges are much more likely to graduate on time than students at state universities.

Here are some exemplary figures that every college employee ought to be able to cite in casual conversations. The average net price that students pay for one year at a private college is about $14,530—not $50,000. Fully 30 percent of private college graduates attain a degree with no student loan debt at all. The average amount of debt of a private college graduate is $19,900 compared with the average debt of a public university graduate, which is $15,800. Only 60 percent of public university students graduate in four years, however, compared with 78 percent of private college and university students. So the opportunity cost, expressed as lost income during the additional year or two of being enrolled in college, of going to a public university is a lot more than the $4,100 differential in debt upon graduation. If, for example, a new college graduate has a starting salary of $33,000 before taxes, the income lost from not being in the workforce is closer to $33,000 or $66,000—much higher than the $4,100 difference in debt. If every college employee were able to cite only these few facts, the myths about the high cost of college would soon be dispelled.

No one college by itself can change public perception, nor can one national association. But the combined efforts of over 250,000 full-time employees of CIC colleges and universities—faculty members and administrative staff—might succeed. The conversations among neighbors and friends at meetings of school boards, town councils, Rotary Clubs, block parties, and on the sidelines of kids’ soccer games may begin to clarify that “private” higher education serves the general public more effectively than “state-supported” higher education.

Is this an impossible goal? I don’t think so. People who work in other industries often know the basic facts that influence the public’s perception of their fields. Autoworkers can recite the performance metrics and creature comforts of the vehicles they are building. Lawyers can recount the pass rates for the state bar exam and which judges to try to avoid. If our campus colleagues are willing to do the same, comparative information on the strengths of private colleges is readily available from state associations of private colleges and from CIC ( Meanwhile, CIC is deploying considerable resources to improve and update its collection; a revamped, interactive Charts and Data web section will be available later this fall.

Everyone who works in private higher education has a stake in this issue. We need to prepare to make the case ourselves.