Re-Claiming Our Narrative

By Richard Ekman

Clayton Christensen has famously predicted that up to half of America’s private colleges and universities will close in coming years. Specifically, at occasional intervals since 2011 he has estimated that in “ten or 15 years” a significant percentage of institutions will fail due to technology-driven disruption of higher education’s current business model.

Those of us who know the vitality, resilience, and excellence of private colleges and universities first-hand may feel we are regularly and publicly hit over the head with this prophecy. Too often when a college closure or merger is announced, media coverage frames the case as fulfilling the prediction that “half of all colleges” will close. Story by story, a dire prediction becomes an inevitable expectation, despite the fact that Christensen’s ten years will be completed in 2021 and no mass extinction seems imminent.

Those closest to private colleges—their faculty members, trustees, administrators, students, and alumni—have wearied from defending these demonstrably effective and innovative institutions. How many readers of the Independent newsletter have tried to explain to a neighbor who is considering educational options for a daughter or son that private colleges not only offer superior educational outcomes but also are an affordable option and a great value? Or to assure a nephew or niece that studying the humanities can lead to rewarding, important, and financially viable career options? Or to convince a community organization that in fact private colleges welcome students from all backgrounds and walks of life?

It’s easy to imagine a faculty member responding to a neighbor’s question about why colleges cost so much with a lighthearted “not because I’m overpaid!” missing an important opportunity to be helpful. Instead, that neighbor might be interested to learn that 30 percent of private college graduates have no debt at graduation, while another 22 percent have debt of less than $20,000. Or neighbors may wish to know that a higher percentage of private college students receive Pell Grants (41 percent) than do students at public universities (38 percent).

A niece or nephew might balk at considering the liberal arts college recommended by an aunt or uncle because “I don’t want to have to be a barista!” She or he would probably be surprised to hear that data show that average starting salaries of private college graduates exceed those of public university graduates by more than $4,000 a year. And a high school counselor might ask a parent whether students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds can “really” be comfortable at a nearby private college, not realizing that African American students represent 12 percent of enrollments at CIC member institutions, compared with 10 percent at public four-year colleges and universities.

Soon a new CIC program, Talking about Private Colleges: Busting the Myths, will help participating faculty and staff members, trustees, and administrators articulate the truth about private higher education more forcefully in just such everyday interactions. In regional workshops held on member campuses beginning in fall 2019, facts and figures drawn from publicly available data will provide surprising and even counter-intuitive evidence for responding to a question such as “Of course I’d love to send her to a private college, but can I possibly afford it?” Participants will learn that data support a view of private colleges as powerful and cost-effective engines of academic and professional success, institutions that punch far above their weight in student outcomes.

This evidence for the effectiveness and excellence of private colleges is just one part of an alternative story about higher education that isn’t told nearly as insistently as the story of disruption and demise. This story presents private colleges and universities as affordable and student-centered options that consistently produce leaders in all professional realms. In the current climate, we can’t count on the media to defend our institutions. We must become more adept at spreading the word ourselves, both in public media and, crucially, in conversations with friends and neighbors. Participants in the Talking about Private Colleges workshops will practice doing just that.

Any veteran of institutional change knows that lasting transformation requires well-informed buy-in from all constituencies, including the non-academic public. Constructive discussion of the value and the future of our sector of higher education requires us to counter the prevailing myths about private colleges. The Talking about Private Colleges workshops will help participants in their efforts to present, directly and personally, the true success story of independent higher education.