This could be a challenging year for the 4 million or so people just graduating from college: While the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that most employers say they will maintain or increase hiring, sizeable job cuts elsewhere mean an overall decrease in hiring.

The job market aside, higher education has a serious perception problem. Confidence in the system is at an all-time low, with only 36 percent of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, according to Gallup polling. That is a 20-point drop from eight years ago.

Damaging narratives that have moved from fringe media to the mainstream are feeding this perception. The most prevalent is what we might call “Woke-ism has come for higher ed.” Online, you’ll find headlines such as, “Rolling Back Woke Higher Ed” or “Reversing the Woke Takeover of Higher Education.”

But the idea that universities and their faculty are indoctrinating students seems overblown to many, including Cornell Professor Glenn Altschuler and Hamilton College President David Wippman. Writing in The Hill, they note that education always involves a point of view.

“It is not indoctrination, for example, for a biology professor to teach evolution while rejecting creationism,” they write.

“Nor is it indoctrination to cite Jim Crow laws, segregation of schools and public transportation, grandfather clauses for voting, and the complicity of public officials in violent acts of intimidation against Blacks as evidence of systemic racism in the post-Civil War South.”

In fact, there is data showing a lack of overt bias. A study of the University of North Carolina system, for example, found that direct discussion of politics comes up in only 8 percent of classes. In the University of Wisconsin system, “students reported substantially more frequent encouragement than discouragement of exploring a variety of viewpoints.”

Let’s accept the fact that quality learning beyond high school needs to improve—in many ways—even as it remains the surest route to economic security. We should also acknowledge the broader benefits:

  • Higher education gives people the economic and social capital that allows them to be successful.
  • It is the linchpin for giving people agency and the opportunity to navigate through change and complexity.
  • Education is especially critical during a time when democracies are increasingly on the defensive and authoritarian systems are on the rise.
  • Learning promotes critical and independent thinking, inquisitiveness, and curiosity. It helps people deal with complexity and differences in society. And it teaches them that resolving disagreements through compromise is not capitulation—it’s healthy.

Authoritarianism, meanwhile, often represents an individual worldview to which everyone is susceptible to some degree. Research suggests that those with a greater preference for group cohesion are more inclined to feel threatened by diversity, be intolerant of outsiders, and support authoritarian leaders.

As Pew Research found, about a quarter of Americans with a high school diploma or less say “military rule would be a good way to govern our country.” Only 7 percent of college graduates expressed this view.

The value of education in protecting democracy is a familiar idea to those of us who work in higher education. But this part of our mission has been understated, undervalued, and underinvested. Our task now is to more clearly highlight the continuing economic and social benefits of higher ed while also making the case that it’s one of our best bets to help protect our democracy. Increasing college attainment alone will not solve all our nation’s challenges with cohesion and democratic vitality, but the sector can do more to play a positive role.

There’s an opportunity now to build bridges—despite the many signs of increased polarization. Among the reform efforts needed in higher education, we must reimagine higher ed’s role in preparing people for active, informed citizenship.

It’s not just about voting, as important as that is. Active citizenship requires us to be truly engaged in our communities and society. And to support that effort, educators must connect learning with the persistent issues that confront individuals and their communities.

Of course, we know that higher ed’s core contributions via teaching and learning need to evolve and expand. Colleges also need to get serious about fostering greater social engagement—both locally and nationally.

Every American college or university could name important efforts they’re making, but these are often disparate and disconnected. They’re often accessible to only a handful of students with the time and personal passion to participate. Moreover, higher ed lacks a cohesive national strategy and is often disconnected from broader democratic movements. Though several national initiatives exist, most were designed and launched after World War II or at the turn of the 21st century, times when democracy was on the upswing and national confidence was high—a very different context from today.

Responding to all this means answering tough questions, including:

  • What do people actually need to learn and experience to prepare them to be responsible active citizens today?
  • How do we respond to the torrents of misinformation in ways that allow us to work across our differences?
  • How can we reckon with America’s troubled past and present, particularly as it relates to race, while also working toward a brighter future?
  • What motivates Gen Z, and how can we help them get excited about this work?
  • How can we show them that education can equip them to have a real impact on the problems they see around them?

Thinking about why higher ed is so valuable—and what education is for—points us in the right direction. It can lead us to the most productive responses, at a time when such responses are desperately needed.

Students with immersive experiences in problem-solving, communication, digital literacy, critical thinking, teamwork, and other foundational skills are the best defenders of democracy. We need to give them every chance to succeed.

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