Universities Are Unpopular Because of Bad News from Ivy League Schools

In the last two months, reports by both the Pew Research Center and Gallup show a distressing decline in the American public's confidence in higher education.

Media reports of skyrocketing tuition, students graduating with more than $100,000 of debt, bloated bureaucracies, and admissions processes skewed in favor of the wealthy have undermined the view of higher education as accessible and important to our nation's future.

While I share some of these criticisms of our nation's colleges and universities, I fear that the portrayal of higher education by mass media has an insidious effect on how the general public understands the true value of a college degree.

For too long, the media discussion of higher education has been dominated by a small number of institutions which are unrepresentative of U.S. higher education.

Across the U.S., more than 20 million students attend more than 7,000 colleges and universities. These institutions and their students represent a dizzying array of educational, financial, and cultural histories and traditions.

Graduating Ph. D. students celebrate at Harvard University's commencement ceremonies June 5, 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Robert Spencer/Getty

Unfortunately, very little of this variety is reflected in the national discussion about higher education. Much of the media, and far too many policymakers, focus on the behaviors of a small group of "selective" institutions.

Consider the college rankings published by U.S. News and World Report . Their annual review represents the benchmark for "elite" status for the nation's colleges and universities, but it's critical to realize that the top 50 schools in the most recent report enroll less than 4 percent of the nation's undergraduate students.

By a factor of 3 to 1, American undergraduate students attend public institutions, which are less expensive, more diverse, and more accessible. That is where the America of the future is being created.

Let us assume a set of expectations or responsibilities for higher education consistent with our nation's values. That includes equal access to the opportunities afforded a college graduate and success at improving an individual's place in society.

Consistently, the "highly selective" institutions such as those in the Ivy League perform very poorly, while many of our public universities—including many of those not considered the elite "public Ivies"—are performing very well.

Economist Raj Chetty of Stanford University and his colleagues recently reported that Ivy League schools enroll more students from the top 1 percent of income-earners than they do from bottom 50 percent. This doesn't leave much room for social mobility.

Chetty compares this outcome to a school like SUNY-Stony Brook, which enrolls a much larger percentage of low-income students, yet its graduates earn as much as Ivy League graduates.

Despite this vast difference in profile and impact, it is the behaviors and practices of select private colleges and universities that dominate national discussions. To that point, some now are calling for greater scrutiny of legacy admissions—the policy of giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni.

But while this may be a serious issue at those few institutions, it is not a national problem because the vast majority of institutions have no such policy. Nonetheless, it is likely that debate over legacy admissions will clog our discussions of higher education for months to come.

A much more consequential change would be the restoration of state funding cut from higher education budgets over the last decade. According to data released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for higher education last year was nearly $9 billion less than where it stood in 2008, a development that threatens both college affordability and accessibility.

America envisions itself as a land of opportunity. Historically, much of that opportunity has been catalyzed by our colleges and universities. A diverse public research university can provide students with exactly those experiences needed to make a difference in our future.

Unfortunately, our continued national focus on a small set of schools does little to support a national agenda for change, and undermines appreciation of higher education.

We must prioritize that which is already creating more opportunities for American students—the public higher education system.

Until the mass media, policymakers, and cocktail conversations refocus on issues important to that sector of U.S. higher education, we risk continued deterioration of trust in our colleges and universities.

Kim Wilcox is chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.