College Completion Summit Audio Recap – Panel 5

College Completion Summit Audio Recap
University Marketing & Communications

Public Perception and college Completion

UMC: This is an audio recap of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and the Lumina Foundation. On September 30 and October 1, 2019, the College Completion Summit brought together presidents and senior leaders from public universities that have significantly advanced their college completion rates. Chris Nelson, communications director for the University of Utah, led a panel discussion titled “Completion and Public Perception.”

Chris Nelson: Welcome to the Public Perception and College Completion panel. We had initially talked about making this a media panel, and what we realized is when we talked about public perception of the University of Utah with our communication and marketing team, we do a lot of audience segmentation. So the public is a pretty big, amorphous blob out there and so we had to break down the public. We certainly use the media to reach the public. Media has become a very specific audience for us as well as government officials, at both the federal level and the state level, and we’re talking to donors, other key stakeholders on campus, including students, prospective students, influencers of prospective students. That might be parents, guardians, friends, other family members. So when we talk about public perception, as we get into this, I just want to make sure we’re looking at it very broadly. So not just media perception because again, it’s how we reach the general public as well.

So especially for those students we have in the audience, I know the second half of the panel, the second half of our time, we’d like to spend a little bit of time on some issues that were raised earlier, which is, “How can we better communicate to students and perspective students?” Because that is, as a communications professional, that is a difficult, difficult audience, growing the area, where really all of us are media outlets right now. With my phone and my Twitter account, I can be a media outlet. All of you are media outlets.

UMC: Here’s Kim Parker, director of trends social research at the Pew Research Center.

Kim Parker: I want to talk to you a little bit about broad public views about the value of college and also the role that colleges are playing in preparing this new generation for jobs in this changing economy. And first, you know this, which is to reassure you, Americans place a lot of value on a college degree. They think it’s important for young people to be successful, to have a college degree. College graduates themselves say that their experience was very positive both personally and in terms of preparing them for the workforce. Parents of young children aspire to have their children go to college. It’s still very much a part of the American ethos.

But the same time, there’s a growing sense of discontent about the role that colleges and universities are playing in this country. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction that we’ve started to see in some of our polling. These views are increasingly linked to partisanship. And now it has sort of pervaded views about higher education, which was not the case in the past. And I think that’s interesting and kind of disturbing.

In our recent polling in 2019, we found that only 50% of Americans say that colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country. And that 50% figure is down from 63% just four years ago. That’s a pretty dramatic change in a fairly short period of time. And the increase in negative views of colleges and universities has come almost entirely from Republicans and Independents who lean to the Republican Party.

We found 68% of respondents said they are headed in the wrong direction and that included 73% of Republicans, but also 52% of Democrats. It’s a pretty significant share. And so we ask those people: What are the reasons why you feel this way? Why do you think colleges are headed in the wrong direction? And Republicans and Democrats shared a couple of ideas here. They both pointed to the rising cost of college and tuition cost being a factor and a reason why things are heading in the wrong direction. And they also both talked about job readiness. There’s a perception that colleges aren’t doing a good job of preparing young people for jobs and economy. But after that, they parted ways.

So a big majority of Republicans said one of the major reason colleges are headed in the wrong direction is because they’re too focused on protecting students from views that they may find offensive. And a large majority, I think 79%, also said that professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom and that that’s one of the reasons that their views are so negative about colleges and universities.

Now just a few more thoughts on the value of college. We do find that the public thinks that a college degree is very valuable, but they see it only as sort of a credential that gets you maybe access to the job market. But there’s a very strong sense among the public, and especially among college graduates themselves, that it’s going to be essential for them throughout their careers to keep gaining new skills, keep getting training and sort of reinventing themselves so that they can stay relevant. And that’s something that I think is useful for people at colleges and universities to understand, that the public really thinks the degree is important, but it’s not enough to set me up for success. I’m going to have to go out and keep pushing, taking on new skills, getting training, whether it’s additional educational degrees or perhaps training from an employer. So that’s very much becoming a part of the public mindset.

UMC: Here’s Mushtaq Gunja, vice president and chief of staff at the American Council on Education.

Mushtaq Gunja: First, the big picture findings are all perfectly consistent with both what Pew found, what Gallup has found: There is a drop in approval that we have found from ’14, ‘15 to ’17, ’18, ‘19. It’s mainly with Republicans, as Kim said, Republicans don’t like the politics that they’re seeing on our campuses. They don’t like the admissions process generally. They especially don’t like affirmative action. And Dems don’t like the admissions process. And in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues, I guess that’s not surprising. But the deep suspicion among Democrats about the legacy admissions and that the whole process is rigged came up over and over, both in our focus groups and in the polling sort of generally. And all—Dems, Independents and Republicans—everybody is worried about costs. So first take away: our findings are perfectly consistent with the other polls that are out there.

Second, I think that what we’ve found is that these worries, especially about cost, have led to some real misperceptions about student debt and the amount of borrowing. So we asked parents and students, “What percent of students that go to college borrow and how much do they borrow?” The public thinks that something like 72% of families and students have to borrow to go to college and that on average they’re borrowing $80,000. On average, completers, those who completed a four-year degree, borrow on average about $30,000. But that gap between $80,000 and $30,000 is enormous.

Maybe the most shocking takeaway from me in our research was that the public does not believe that we have their students’ best interests at heart when it comes to completion. In our focus group, one thing that came up over and over was that people thought that we were intentionally keeping students on campus longer so that we could take their tuition. That we were trying to prevent students from graduating in four years so that if they were there for five or six, they would just pay the public a little bit more money.

We put all of these takeaways together and we tested some mission statements. So we tested one with three messages in particular. One that was about completing quickly with a minimum of debt and allowing students to succeed economically. Let me just read the mission statement to you so that way I can really be accurate with what it was. So X college will help students complete their degree in a timely fashion with a minimum amount of debt to enable them to succeed economically in their lives. The message tested like 75%. 75% of parents said that that would be more likely to send their students to that university. I mean we didn’t get anything else in our surveys that tested nearly as well. So we checked. Our board of directors at ACE is made up of 36 colleges. I went through and I checked the websites of all those schools to see whether or not the schools are doing a good job advertising this on their websites and we are not. Like, not at all.

UMC: Here’s Marjorie Cortez, a reporter at the Deseret News.

Marjorie Cortez: Well, I primarily cover the Utah system and this system is actually in the process, led by the Legislature, of re-imagining. I think all the schools in the system are having to take a really hard look at themselves about how are we meeting students’ needs? How do we help them succeed? What are the barriers?

I think key to telling that story is just really understanding what students are up against. The Utah System of Higher Education is still in surveys of mental health needs. It’s really staggering. That intense anxiety that students deal with. You would think about it, this is the generation, that post-Columbine generation. I’m a mom and I still remember as a journalist I was always schooled by my mentors: never cry at work. Well, I cried the day that Columbine happened because I’m a Coloradan, but also because I knew my kids, who were three and seven at the time, their life was going to be drastically different than mine.

So in a lot of ways I feel like every kid’s kind of a first-gen kid now. There was no FAFSA when I checked in. I kind of had a linear path and I don’t think that’s true anymore. But I also think that students attending colleges now are dealing with things I just can’t even imagine! A third are hungry by many reports. Housing prices are out of control. My youngest daughter just started her master’s degree in public health. Her rent is $1,600 a month. And I go into her apartment and I’m looking like I’m doing some welfare check, like a social worker. Does my kid have enough to eat?

But these are kind of bewildering times for students. I don’t think anyone really argues the value of college education, but we need to show more students, colleges and universities, need to show parents and students, how is this possible for me? How can I make it work when I don’t have enough to eat or when I’m struggling to pay my rent? In the Utah system, 74% of students work at least one quarter and 45% worked full time all year round and try to go to school. If we can demonstrate how we make all those pieces fit together that would be my counsel.

UMC: Here’s Jocelyn Guzman, inaugural member of the policy corps at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America.

Jocelyn Guzman: So I guess starting with one thing too, I know we’re talking about like the perceived perception of the value of a college degree, but I also want to acknowledge that nationally there’s a perceived perception that certain groups don’t value college degrees, right?
Nationally, I grew up in community that was told that they don’t value college by external factors. And that’s internalized, right? And that’s something that when you’re brought up in those communities and you’re constantly hearing the narrative that you don’t care. It becomes something that almost comes to reality. So I’ve acknowledged that we need to challenge those systems on a daily basis. Also, thank you to the theater folks and media folks.

But for me, I have really thought, from those time I was born, that college was important. Not because someone told me, it just, it’s what you see on TV. You got to go to college, you got to do it. My parents, on all sides of my family, we come from laborers who are primarily agro laborers, shout out to the people in Hawaii.

Philipino ancestry who went to the rice plantations there. People in the Central Valley in California, doing all the agriculture there. And so when you come from a family of laborers like myself and my mom was 15 whenever she was pregnant with me, right? So she actually graduated a year early from the same high school that I ended up attending and graduating from with all these honors.

It’s these factors that you’re told, right? You’re using data in interesting ways. We were told that I wasn’t supposed to succeed, and a lot of students in this room probably share this narrative as well, but the value of college was always in my household.

And so whenever I was asked to speak today on this panel, as I do before, I’m asked to speak at any event, I talk to my community about what they would say if they were invited to speak at the panel, right?

A lot of things that I heard amongst people in my community, a lot of whom are the “some college, no degree” folks, right? A lot of whom have a lot of debt that they can’t pay back, that they’re struggling to pay mortgages or their rent payments, they’re facing eviction notices. And a lot of what they said was that people just don’t care about them, right? There’s this lack of care. And I know it’s very simple and a principal, but this idea that if you care about people and you make them feel like you care, they’re going to succeed. That’s one thing I faced. Also, from a person who goes to these events, studies the topic, is very well aware of the data. I also struggle sometimes to see the value, right? Because I’m facing these struggles that you’re seeing in your thing.

So actually I started at Claremont graduate university and my first day was also my first day of work at the institution. So I was thrown on to start doing all these initiatives and to start being a student myself. I almost did not return. I took a trip back home. Well, first of all, I had to move out on the train, which involved me taking two bags on the train, you know, just to figure out how I’m going to move into a place that doesn’t have an oven, by the way. So that’s fine. It’s just a stove top. It was promised as a full kitchen. Whatever. And I just felt very like it’s a hard place.

It’s also this existence in this space. I still struggle with it. I face the imposter syndrome on a daily basis.

And I’m a very well knowledged person. I know how to navigate institutions, and I imagine for my colleagues that don’t, how difficult that is. And so I understand why students aren’t completing.


Chris Nelson of the University of Utah asked the students in the audience:

Chris Nelson:

Where do you consume—Like what, what would it influence you with your college choice, your family and where does that college degree completion perception coming from in your personal world?


Hi, I’m Sydney, I’m from Wayne State University. I’m someone that actually uses Twitter as a way to get news. But in terms of like deciding on what university I wanted to go to as you spoke about, campus tours are huge. So like having campus tours from people who are non-faculty, or… I don’t think faculty does them. But like having people who have went to the university for a very long time ad can speak about the pros and cons honestly without having to hide their truths and hide the flaws of the university’s been really helpful. And especially when I did my campus tours, it was more of a feel, an environment and then if I didn’t feel invited in that environment, when I went to the students center, when went to where most of students congregated, then it wasn’t like I was drawn to that university.
So outside of just the campus tours it was like actually being in the environments that students house.

Chris Nelson:

At what point did they talk about completion? So it that some need for the school to be accessed, but it’s also, I’m curious in your personal experience, when completion, I assume you just assume you’d complete when you got in or…?


It was always just an assumption. You go to college tour and they are under the assumption that you’re going to be done in four years.

There’s not, at least from my point of view, there wasn’t a lot of talk about that fifth year. There wasn’t a lot of talk about that summer class. It wasn’t a lot of talk about, whether or not it might not be the school for you. And things like that.

So of course she wants you to advocate for your school. You want us to persuade people to come to your school. But at the same time you have to be realistic or the fact that there are choices to make when you start school. And so like I said, I didn’t feel it was very present.

Also, over retention rates where I really expressed, or at least I don’t remember, they were expressed fully. We saw what they did to work on retention rates were what I saw or what didn’t make me want to choose that school more. It was more so what the university could do for me.


Thank you for listening. Find the audio recap of the next panel discussion, “What’s Next to Move the Needle on Completion?” and other summit proceedings at