It is anything but hyperbole to say that American higher education is home to some of the most important and impactful institutions ever created. And yet, public opinion about higher education tells a different story. Current polling indicates that American confidence in higher education is at its lowest in recent memory. Rather than dismissing the findings or picking them apart with highly sophisticated methodological critiques, we choose to accept the reality that public confidence in our industry is suffering despite the impressive accomplishments of its institutions and their promise for even greater impact. 

This mismatch between how a public-serving industry is appreciated and how it actually performs is characteristic of “public value failure.” While its roots are academic, the concept of “public value failure” is far from esoteric scholarly jargon. Described by our colleague, Barry Bozeman, as instances where neither the market nor the public sector provide the goods and services society agrees should be available, public value failures are the tragic everyday experiences of nearly everyone. We believe that accepting the reality of this moment as a public value failure may accelerate our ability to identify solutions and chart paths for improvement. We’ve seen this happen in our own work, especially at Arizona State University, where one of us, Crow, is president, and both of us are professors. 

How religious universities can help restore the promise of American education

Anyone who believes in the uniqueness and power of the American experiment with democracy is compelled to acknowledge the significance of American higher education. Not only did its early graduates and faculty contribute to the design and establishment of this great system, but its institutions have been deeply involved in the system’s continued refinement, improvement and implementation. From the Declaration of Independence to the development of Covid-19 vaccines, American colleges and universities have played outsized roles in fostering social and economic progress in this country and beyond. Data on the benefits of higher education show that completion of a college degree is a reliable and consistent predictor of upward socioeconomic mobility. Completion of a college degree is associated with improvements in mental and physical health. Cities with colleges tend to be more economically competitive. Nearly every member of Congress and almost all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have college degrees. And it’s not just degrees from elite private institutions that predict success. CEOs at 14 of the top 20 companies have degrees from public universities. 

Current polling indicates that American confidence in higher education is at its lowest in recent memory. Rather than dismissing the findings, we choose to accept the reality.

Despite compelling arguments and an abundance of evidence in support of colleges and universities, public confidence in the sector is weak and seems to be weakening. A June 2023 Gallup poll found that only 36 percent of Americans had either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. Less than a year earlier, in July 2022, progressive think tank New America found that the number of Americans who believed that higher education was having a positive effect on the country had dropped to 55 percent, down from 69 percent in 2020. Experts rightfully observe that public confidence is also declining in many other institutions, including small business, big business, the military, police, banks, courts and health care. And we should appreciate all these findings in the context of historically unprecedented efforts by a small but influential number of elected officials who have worked openly and effectively to erode public trust in these institutions. 

Despite these caveats, the data is consistent — American confidence in higher education does not match its impact. This means that despite the obvious general and individual benefits, many people feel that higher education hasn’t worked for them, or it will not work for them. This conclusion is not altogether unreasonable. Consider that less than half of Americans have attended college or are on track, through the current way of doing things, to do so (the 2021 enrollment rate of 18- to 24-year-olds is less than 40 percent). And of those who attend, many will not graduate (the most recent overall six-year graduation rate at bachelor’s degree granting institutions in the U.S. was 64 percent). If we assume that the portion of Americans who are optimistic about the sector is concentrated only in the subset of the population who participated in college and completed a degree, we might prepare for disappointment. The challenges then become to engage more learners, help those who start to finish, and help everyone believe in the general benefit of the sector.  

Pushing back against the pressure to conform

How do we improve a public-serving sector that seems to be neglecting so much of the public? When economists examine large-scale private sector industries and observe inefficiency in the delivery of value to consumers, they often describe the situation as a market failure. Due to years of accumulated insights, we understand a lot about market failures and how to fix them. This concept can be applied to public-serving industries such as higher education, where free market reckoning doesn’t fully apply but failures still occur. In the case of American higher education, we can see several interrelated public value failures at play, such as benefit hoarding, provider scarcities and poor timing. 

Benefit hoarding in higher education is seen in systematically unequal outcomes. Access to and success in higher education remains highly correlated with factors such as race, where a person lives and how much money their family has. Benefit hoarding is not the fault of learners but the fault of institutions that prioritize the engagement with only the most prepared students, as well as the culture of higher education that has longstanding and deep tendencies toward exclusivity. Many institutions and individual leaders are committed to addressing these issues, but resistance is strong. 

Provider scarcity in higher education is not so much about a shortage of colleges and universities as much as it is about a shortage of necessary experiences and services offered at colleges and universities. Our country is home to about 4,000 regionally accredited degree-granting institutions. With innovations in online learning, access to these institutions is becoming more and more universal. But access is only part of the public value proposition. Public value is also tied to the affordability and relevance of learning experiences. We’ve understood for a long time that not every learner needs a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts, but much of higher education still struggles with creating new offerings that not only allow learners the opportunity to keep up with changes in the world, but to thrive by getting ahead of those changes. 

Poor timing is not just about when colleges show up (or want to show up) in learners’ lives; it’s also about the role that matters of time play throughout learners’ journeys. The organization of credentials into how long it takes the ideal learner to complete them (two-year degrees or four-year degrees) is just an example. Many who need higher education cannot reasonably finish a two-year credential in two years, resulting in a feeling that immediately upon starting a degree, learners are already behind and therefore failing. Also troubling is the idea that colleges and universities organize their activities into semesters and their courses into credit hours, as if knowledge exists in well-defined units that can only be transferred from professors to students at certain moments in the calendar year. 

It’s time to rethink incentives for higher ed

Every university serves a community that constitutes its “public.” For state and community colleges, publics are geographically defined. For private and religious colleges and universities, publics can be globally distributed communities of people with shared identities or beliefs. In any case, a university’s public has shared goals and aspirations that can be used as inspiration for the creation of designs and strategies. This is more than merely being responsive to consumer demands; this involves sincere efforts to understand the aggregate hopes that individuals have for themselves, their families and their peers for today and for generations to come. 

Anyone who believes in the uniqueness and power of the American experiment with democracy is compelled to acknowledge the significance of American higher education.

The creation of public value then comes as universities work to magnify those shared goals and aspirations. The ASU Charter includes the discovery of public value as a priority: 

“ASU is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.” 

Through its charter and culture, the university is working to minimize the disastrous consequences of public value failure. To address failures of benefit hoarding, ASU accepts all qualified applicants and works to have a student body that is representative of the demographics of the state. To address failures of provider scarcity, the university offers a range of educational opportunities including primary, secondary and nondegree credentials. To address failures of poor timing, it offers six start dates throughout the year in addition to many courses that are self-paced, meaning a learner can start anytime and take as long as they need to complete. 

ASU is not alone in its focus on creating public value. There are many universities working to address the failures of benefit hoarding, provider scarcity and poor timing. There are many universities whose unique missions compel them to think carefully about the specific needs of their universities. 

Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University and former executive vice provost of Columbia University. Derrick M. Anderson is senior vice president of Education Futures at the American Council on Education and an associate professor at Arizona State University.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.