Higher Ed Leaders Aim to Restore the Public’s Trust

Carol Quillen and other leaders sit at panel

President Carol Quillen (r) joins higher ed leaders at the Milken Global Institute Conference to discuss how higher ed can regain the public's trust. Adam Harris, The Atlantic (center); Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University (left).

LOS ANGELES – Davidson College President Carol Quillen and a panel of postsecondary education leaders this week volunteered as the repair crew to mend the public’s deteriorating trust in higher education.

The panel, convened at the annual Milken Institute Global Conference, highlighted the drubbing that their sector has taken for high tuition, Hollywood-tinged admissions scandals and doubts about the value of what their institutions do.

Then they outlined ideas, not just for fixing the damage, but reshaping higher education.

Quillen emphasized that most college students now don’t fall into the traditional 18 to 22-year-old group seeking a four-year residential college. They are starting college later or returning for a career change. They work or have a family, or both.

“How do we diversify the postsecondary educational sector so that we are meeting the needs of the learners who are coming to us to gain the skills for the careers that they want?,” Quillen told the conference of business, technology and political leaders.

The makeup of the panel represented a step in that direction. The group, moderated by The Atlantic’s Adam Harris, included:

  • Quillen, who leads a leading residential liberal arts college;
  • Holden Thorp, provost of Washington University, an AAU-member research university;
  • Paul LeBlanc, president of online Southern New Hampshire University; and
  • Daphne Kis, president of WorldQuant University, founded in 2015 initially to provide a free, online master’s degree in financial engineering.

“The postsecondary education sector has an opportunity to rethink what our collective obligations are to a country that is asking us to do things we’ve never done before,” Quillen said. “How do we create that ecosystem, where employers and governments and institutions and disruptive startups are working together to make sure that all people have access to the particular educational opportunities they need and want?”

Thorp encouraged traditional, selective institutions to build stronger collaboration with less selective schools that are helping move lower income students into the middle class, and the panel uniformly endorsed efforts to ensure that online degrees receive the credibility they deserve and that credentialing is diversified and transparent.

“Traditional universities are not going to go away,” LeBlanc said. But, “we’re going to see the rise of different kinds of providers. You’re going to see a much more robust set of options.” 

The group suggested higher education should:

  • Be honest about how its high cost can perpetuate structural inequality.
  • Square external claims about preparing students for jobs with internal descriptions as arenas for free thought and tenure-protected research.
  • Ensure an environment where all ideas are freely expressed.
  • Offer transparent and clear claims about their students’ outcomes.
  • Create new opportunities for ways to learn.
  • Build an environment for addressing a trust gap in not just colleges and universities, but government, banks and corporations.

“How do we create a context,” Quillen asked, “in which we collectively are meeting the aspirations of all learners so that more people can build the lives they want for themselves and their families?”