Everywhere you look there are signs that the higher education sector is precariously rocking, such that even a strong jab might take it down. The suicides and resignations of key leaders and the broader mental health crisis are a signal that cannot be ignored. The increasingly aggressive stance toward the sector among both federal and state politicians, growth in faculty departures, ongoing staff burnout, and persistent dearth of enrollment among low-income, rural, and male-identified students are all troubling too. Yet it’s also hard to think of a time when the sector as a whole was really stable (if it ever was). While the biggest problems are directly impacting only a tiny number of colleges and universities, the effects are widespread because, to the public and the politicians, all 4,000+ institutions are part of the same band. And right now, that band has a bad reputation.
Everyone from editorial boards to trustees to state higher education officers to congressional leaders and pundits has an opinion about what to do. Depending on who you listen to, it’s time for more political accountability (or less), more funding (or less), more technology (or less), more students (or less). None of that will work unless we first find our footing, and that requires saying the quiet parts out loud.
Higher education’s fundamental purpose lies in educating the public. That public is diverse along every possible line and far more diverse than today’s college students. But one thing about it is too easily forgotten: it doesn’t think like, or care much about, “academese.” Rather, it is made up of people who want to feel seen and understood by schools, whether they are elementary, secondary, or postsecondary institutions. Those people don’t appreciate jargon, being talked down to, or feeling duped. And right now, that is what too many are experiencing when they interact with colleges and universities.
Reasonable people will disagree over why. Has confidence in higher education eroded because of systematic right-wing attacks on a sector that threatens to create more liberal voters? Sure. Has support declined as more women and people of color gained access to college? Yes. Does the sense that professors are pushing their own agendas rather than meeting students’ needs hurt? Definitely. Has the perceived value of higher education diminished as the price went up? Absolutely.
All of that can be true at the same time and still not help us find ways forward.
Instead, it’s time to embrace that complexity and lean into purpose. With our whole hearts and minds, we’ve got to find ways to understand and connect with the American public. Not just the members who act like our family or friends, or those who like us, or even those who say they want to go to college. Like schools, colleges and universities are social institutions that interact with all other institutions and people — but too often they hide in bubbles and try to pretend the wider world doesn’t matter.
For the last three years, I’ve boxed every week at a Philadelphia gym. One of the fundamentals I’ve learned from my coach, Maleek Jackson, would help higher ed do this work: everything starts with stance.
How the lower half of your body is positioned, where your toes point, how your hips are aligned, even how your knees are bent, all of this forms the basis for the strength of what you do with your upper half. It’s the foundation for both the offensive punches and the defensive maneuvers.
We spend a lot of class time building upper body strength. For a long time, I thought my punches were lacking because I didn’t have much in the way of arm muscle. Even though Maleek regularly reminds us to check our stance, for years I focused on doing more push-ups. Until one day, a few months ago during a 1:1 session, he pointed out that my legs were too close together and oriented too far forward. It took us most of the hour to fix the problem, but by the end I had a new base. My punches suddenly hit the pads with sharp, clear bangs, and I felt that impact in my bones. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Higher education is full of experts with fancy degrees who think they know what their stance should be, or barely examine it, and they don’t take corrections easily. Indeed, while the scientific review process involves feedback, college administration and even teaching involves very little. People tend to be promoted based on time and deliverables far more often than they are elevated based on real leadership, thoughtfulness, or even impact. To be blunt, this stunts our development as a sector.
To remedy that problem, we need to engage in courageous conversations and listening, and come to improve understandings that reflect the here and now. Certainly, it’s harder to do that and think about making changes while already in a crater, but right now there isn’t much choice. As The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis pointed out recently on X, helping people feel like they are heard and belong in the conversation elicits a powerful response: “When people feel known, held, and loved by community they feel responsible for its flourishing — and empowered to make that change.”
What does the public really mean when it says college is too expensive? (It’s remarkable how many leaders are still talking about affordability without mentioning the price of housing, pretending that childcare isn’t an academic expense, and/or ignoring the number of students dropping out or disengaging due to financial emergencies.) How do today’s students learn best, and how many professors are trained to use appropriate pedagogy and assessment? (Might anxiety about indoctrination be fueled by static syllabi and lectures that are set before students walk in the room?).
This work includes seriously investigating a major concern: where do regular people get their information about colleges and universities and who is shaping narratives that inform them? If those purveyors have it wrong, how do we fix that problem? Simply proclaiming that people are wrong — and especially when doing so while perched at extremely wealthy and gated universities — is less than helpful. Treat the public like the humans that comprise it, acting like educators partnering with students to learn, and we will elicit a more productive response.
Humans have endless capacity to learn, adjust, and grow — if only we allow ourselves the space to do it. Rather than protecting the past, let’s move forward. Together the humans of higher education can find the sector’s footing, establishing a better stance and helping us all be more effective. I see so much potential in the administrators, staff, and faculty who are building new ways to gather and analyze data, reflect, pause when needed, acquire new skills, and most of all ask questions. They are learning from past mistakes, willing to break fake rules, and saying the quiet parts out loud. They recognize higher education as a set of practices and norms that must be iterative and evaluated often. They are also learning from other people, sharing, and collaborating. These folks are like the best boxers with power, balance, and mobility to survive by using a range of punches and maneuvers.
Please don’t underestimate the fight higher education is now engaged in or the peril it faces. The sector can’t take any more punches. Instead, let’s embrace the opportunity and step into the ring together with an effective stance.
Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. She is a senior fellow at Education Northwest, an adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.