As I have been mulling over what to write about this month, I find myself coming back to recent national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. The results of this survey provided a look into how American’s see higher education today. Overall, the results were optimistic showing 55% of Americans have a positive view on higher education. However, when breaking down that response through the lens of political affiliation or stance, the study found that 72% of Democrats think higher education has a positive impact on the nation, whereas 58% of Republican think higher education has a negative effect.
Now, it is important to examine how the Pew survey’s questions were asked and it is also important to consider the current state of American politics when analyzing these results. Regardless of how you interpret it, I find this gap in perception of higher education concerning, but not shocking. In fact, these were the sentiments of my Ph.D. cohort. The Pew survey was a big topic of discussion in my program’s Higher Education Policy class this summer. The classroom discussions had me thinking about how student affairs plays a role in people’s perception of higher education as a whole.
As a student affairs professional, I am naturally curious about student’s interests. What are they studying? What lead them to their major? What do they want to do after graduating? The answers to these questions alone give me confidence that higher education is a positive influence; however, on their face, these questions put a student into a box and they are so much more than their area of study, their major, and their career. It’s important to dig deeper into the student’s experience outside of the four-walled classroom to really understand the positive impact higher education has on the nation.
As we know, learning does not solely happen in a classroom, a book, or a group study meeting. While these are important facets of learning, it is so much more. Learning extends to the residence halls where students learn how to live with someone different from them. The skills learned here are helpful in the workplace when students will spend most of their days working with someone different from them. The work we do with career exploration allows students an opportunity to learn about different career paths, build and pad a strong résumé, and put into practice the knowledge learned in class. This helps to develop a well-rounded and thoughtful workforce. Our conduct offices also play a vital role in student learning by helping reinforce a community rules and guidelines. Personally, I love the learning process that can occur within conduct offices. If students encounter a conduct officer, they have the opportunity to learn that their behaviors have the potential to impact others, that there are consequences to cheating the system or stealing someone else’s ideas, and that people are fallible and there are paths to redeem oneself. I cannot leave out student leadership, involvement, fraternity and sorority life, and student government when it comes to service, community, and, well, leadership. These areas have the capability to teach students to be active, serving members of a larger community.
I’m sure I’m leaving out other essential student affairs areas, but I believe my point is made. Does higher education have a positive or negative impact on the nation? I am confident that higher education has a positive impact and that impact is only made stronger through the work done within student affairs. Of course, there’s always room to improve what we do and Pew’s survey allows us an opportunity to take a step back, critique our work, make adjustments, and continue to help educate. Don’t let anyone tell you your work does not make a positive impact, because I see the product of our work every day. Keep making a positive impact, friends!