Inside Higher Education and Gallup have released a poll of attitudes toward higher education among parents with school-age children. The main finding is that most parents see higher ed as path to good jobs rather than an exercise in personal cultivation. They also see vocational and pre-professional training as more likely to lead to that outcome than study in the liberal arts. Finally, the poll found that parents care a lot about price. 68 percent of parents with high-school age children reported that they will be very or somewhat likely to restrict where their children apply to study based on the tuition they’ll be charged.

A representative of private liberal arts colleges quoted in the companion piece calls these results a “wake-up call”. If that’s what they are, members of the academic guild, which includes administrators and fulltime faculty, must be the only ones who are still asleep. As another Gallup poll showed earlier this year, Americans almost unanimously agree that it’s important to get a post-secondary degree or certification. The cause of this consensus is simple: Americans know that completing some form of higher ed has become a de facto requirement, although no guarantee, of decent employment. Mass enrollment in higher education, in other words, isn’t indicative of broad interest in the  life of the mind. It’s a response to economic conditions.

Indeed, the structure of American higher education has been tied to the economy for decades. Although we prefer to remember it a reward for service, one justification for the 1944 GI Bill was that encouraging returning servicemen to go to college would prevent them from swamping the labor market. It’s possible that many Baby Boomers, who had grown up in the unexpected postwar boom, enrolled in higher education without thinking much about their futures. By the 1970s, however, students in a cooling economy were mostly concerned about jobs, as they have been ever since.

Rather than documenting a change in public opinion, then, the poll reflects an old disconnect between the guild and the public.

Administrators and fulltime faculty tend to see undergraduate education as just one part (and not necessarily the most important part) of higher education, which also includes research and graduate education. What’s more, they generally understand undergraduate education in terms of knowledge and skills that can be put to use in the classroom and evaluated by tests, writing assignments, or other academic measures.

Most parents and students see things differently. In their view, undergraduate teaching is the core of higher ed. And the success of that teaching should be measured by its contribution to economic success after graduation. That’s why parents and the politicians who represent them are so interested in tracking the careers of majors in different subjects.

Some of the distance between these views could be closed by better information. For example, parents tend to overestimate the importance of specific qualifications, while employers are often more interested in general abilities in reading, writing, and quantitative reasoning. Parents need to know that.

Academics could also do more to respond to economic concerns. Since many employers value analytic ability over job training, why not work to restore the integrity of classroom grades, which would allow outstanding students in the liberal arts to distinguish themselves from the pack? The institution of exit exams would also contribute to this goal.

Finally, the high-tuition, high-aid model in which the “sticker price” is considerably higher than the sums most students actually pay must be replaced with a more stable and transparent pricing system. If colleges and universities want to avoid scaring off parents, they must stop treating sky-high tuition fees as a starting point for negotiation.

Even these reforms, however, would not eliminate the fundamental disagreement between the guild and the public. The underlying issue is not the value of particular degrees or the price it’s reasonable to pay for them, but rather the purpose of post-secondary education. For decades, academics have assumed that their understanding of higher ed was, if not obviously true, then convincing to anyone exposed to the facts of the matter. Although it contains little news to off-campus readers, the new poll will be useful if it helps shatter that illusion once and for all.