“A college education is too expensive …”

Ben Martin, center, a fourth-year student, works on Michael McAteer, a regular patient, while second-year students Jack Edmiston, left, and Ethan Jordan watch him work in 2022 at the University of New England Dental School in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer, File

“Education? More like an indoctrination!”

“Most degrees are useless in today’s job market, anyway …”

Do these allegations sound familiar? They should, because higher education is under attack. And the barrage of criticism facing America’s colleges and universities is having an effect. According to a recent Gallup poll, public confidence in higher education is lower now than at any point since polling on the topic began. Today, only 36% of Americans have strong confidence in higher education, representing a sharp drop from 48% in 2018 and 57% in 2015. This is reflected across all subgroups, but among Republicans especially.

The typical reaction of college administrators like me is to disagree vehemently with the notion that attaining a degree isn’t worth the time or cost, while insisting that a degree continues to offer the best chance for young people to get ahead.

And this rebuttal isn’t wrong. The economic advantages of a college degree are indisputable. According to a recent Gallup/Lumina Foundation survey, U.S. adults with a college degree earn about $1 million more during their careers than those without a degree. Graduates are also less likely to face unemployment and more likely to report high job satisfaction. Having a college education also correlates with living a healthier, happier life across more than 50 different metrics such as increased likelihood to do work that fits one’s natural talents and interests, voting participation, volunteerism and charitable giving.


However, institutions of higher education would be foolish not to listen carefully to these common critiques and take them seriously. They fall into three broad categories. First, academic programs don’t prepare students well for jobs. Second, college costs too much, putting it out of reach for many and saddling others with high levels of debt. And third, colleges have become insular bubbles of ideological conformity in which the free exchange of ideas is discouraged.

There is a grain of truth within each of these criticisms. The reality is that some colleges have not kept their programs aligned with market needs and are consequently graduating students poorly prepared for the jobs in a rapidly evolving marketplace. Likewise, some colleges are too expensive, even when considering financial aid. But more importantly, students and families must consider the cost of college against the return on investment, and some colleges have not made a compelling case for their ROI. Finally, many colleges have indeed become victims of ideological conformity, betraying the academy’s sacred mission of providing an environment in which ideas, including controversial ones, are freely discussed and debated.

By failing to address these concerns honestly and intentionally, colleges are indirectly contributing to the decline in public confidence in higher education.

I’m proud that at the University of New England, we are being strategic and intentional in addressing these issues. Upon my arrival as president in 2017, we began a rigorous review of every UNE major to better align our programs with market needs. And just this year, our faculty completed a revision of our undergraduate core curriculum to ensure students are prepared to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing world. We also provide generous financial aid packages, to the tune of $47 million per year in scholarships, while keeping tuition increases below industry averages. We clearly articulate the return on investment of our degrees. And we consciously foster a robust marketplace of ideas on campus through a wealth of programs that ensure we don’t become an ideological echo chamber.

These efforts help explain why we are thriving at a time when many of our peers are struggling. With robust enrollment numbers, we’re expanding class sizes in many programs, including in our medical college. We’re also creating new programs that address market needs in criminology, aquaculture, special education, computer science, statistics, accelerated nursing and other fields.

Most importantly, our graduates are succeeding. By one ranking, UNE is first among all Maine private or public colleges for positioning its graduates to get jobs upon graduation. The Brookings Institution ranked UNE first in Maine for its ability to increase students’ career earnings. Our student loan default rate of 2.5% is significantly lower than the averages in Maine (9.7%) and nationally (10.1%). And our graduates are doing work that matters to them and the communities they call home.

As it turns out, the best counter-argument to those claiming a college degree isn’t worth the time and cost comes from graduates leading careers and living lives that demonstrate the value of their degrees. Colleges and universities must do everything in their power to position today’s students to reap the return on investment that higher ed has long promised. And that begins with honest self-reflection and taking seriously the claims of those who doubt its enduring value.

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