Three ways to combat skepticism of higher ed’s value


Today’s strong job market, coupled with the rising cost of higher education and a multitude of online certificates, has intensified doubts about the value of – or need for – a higher education degree.

Results of a Gallup poll released in early July show that Americans’ confidence in higher education has hit a new low, having dropped to 36% in 2023 compared with polls in 2018 (48%) and 2015 (57%). Conversely, the number of those who indicate they have very little confidence has more than doubled since 2015 (9%), rising to 15% in 2018 and 22% in 2023.

While Gallup didn’t delve into the issues behind the decline, it suggested cost was a contributing factor. Other top arguments against pursuing a postsecondary degree are the opportunity cost, or time commitment, and the lack of practical skills needed for success.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges, while less expensive than their four-year counterparts, are not immune to this growing skepticism. The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37%, or 2.6 million since 2010, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Here are three easy yet effective approaches that, used consistently, can help lower skepticism and combat concerns about the lost opportunity cost of a postsecondary degree or credential:

Data and statistics

Providing clear and transparent information about what students will get in return for their investment by providing workforce data, employment rates, average salaries and statistics on student outcomes.

At Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Ohio, this information appears on a number of the program pages of its website.

“We have some great examples,” said Katie Utrata, Tri-C’s web and user experience manager. “The challenge is doing it across the board, in a consistent format and keeping it updated.”

That will change this fall, when Tri-C launches a new career exploration system that will offer an option to embed a widget throughout the website. The system will allow users to complete an assessment to align their interests with occupations and Tri-C programs, helping them enroll and pursue a degree or credential with confidence.

“The widget will be unique to each Tri-C program – both credit and non-credit – and will show the careers students can pursue after completing the degree or credential, median salary, current job openings, top skills required by that industry and projected job outlook,” said Natalie Harrington, director of student learning and career development.

Success stories

Showcasing success stories of alumni who have achieved significant accomplishments after obtaining their degrees. Real-life examples of graduates’ success provide tangible proof of the value of a degree or credential.

One way Tri-C showcases these stories is through Tri-C Times, the college magazine published three-times a year.

“Every issue includes an in-depth story on a successful alum that illustrates our brand promise – that Tri-C is where futures begin,” said Anthony Moujaes, Tri-C public relations manager magazine editor.

For example, as part of the college’s 60th-anniversary series, Tri-C Times profiled a nursing alum from the ’80s who is now chief nursing officer for Cleveland Clinic London.

Curating the stories is one thing. Getting them out there is another. Approximately 30,000 copies of the magazine are distributed to the greater Cleveland community through a polybag arrangement with a popular local magazine focused on northeast Ohio, Moujaes said. The stories then get a second and sometimes a third life. The college promotes the features on social media and on the college’s website; and they’re among the most liked, viewed and shared stories.

Another approach is to feature profiles of graduates within a program’s web page.

“Our Auto Tech program took an interesting approach by adding a section called Women in Auto Tech,” said Utrata, the web and user experience manager. “It uses a Q-and-A approach, asking questions ranging from ‘Why Auto Tech?’ to ‘Why Tri-C?’ as well as advice for women considering this career.”

Promoting flexibility

Not all students can or want to commit to a traditional two-year degree program, or even a 16-week class. Promoting flexible options – such as online courses, compressed schedules or fast-track certificates – will appeal to a broader audience and help counter concerns about the investment of time required to receive a degree or credential.In August 2022, Tri-C launched a campaign called FlexEd – Learning that Fits your Life. 

“It’s an umbrella term used to promote the many flexible learning options the college offers,” said Lisa Dobransky, director of strategic communications at Tri-C. “This includes credit for prior learning, hybrid, fully online, real-time and on-demand classes, as well as different term lengths ranging from five to 16 weeks.”

The modest campaign, which relied primarily on paid digital ads and social media, drove almost 6,000 people to the webpage in the past year, Dobransky said.

Thanks to FlexEd, the college has seen more people register for eight-week courses and non-credit certificates, said Angela Johnson, Tri-C’s vice president of access and completion. “(FlexEd) tapped into a desire for flexible options that allow students to enter the job market more quickly,” she added.

About the Author

Jenny Febbo
Jenny Febbo, APR, is vice president of integrated communications at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio and an annual recipient of multiple District 3 Medallion Awards and national Paragon Awards.