There are many reasons why only half of American adults have an education credential beyond high school, and we’re starting to see one of the biggest: Communication.

Too often, we simply talk past each other. Take these points, for example:

  • A bachelor’s degree is worth $2.8 million, on average, over a lifetime.
  • Someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn 84 percent more than a person with just a high school diploma.

But the skeptics note that those are averages. So, yes, people with less education can out-earn those with college credentials, because of occupational differences.

Understandably, there is some doubt today about the value of higher education—that is, its benefits compared to its cost. All of this helps explain why, even though the percentage of people with post-high school credentials—not just college degrees, but certifications and other valuable credentials—has grown substantially, it’s still only at 54 percent of Americans.

The fact is, we haven’t always done a good job explaining the real value of higher education—and of racial equity, which is key to improving our system.

I thought about all of this during a recent conversation with Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

“We’re a bunch of smart people, supposedly, within the walls of these institutions,” said Aaron who, in a higher ed career spanning nearly 30 years, previously served as a faculty member, provost, and university president.

“But we became insular. We became focused on the operational definitions that we use—those terms we use within our walls. We were not really listening to the external voices that have been out there for a while.”

In his view, we shouldn’t be surprised by the growing skepticism.

“We’ve heard those rumblings now for a while, the ‘ivory tower’ remarks,” he said. “We became a great choir, but no one heard our music.”

In other words, those of us in higher education have been good at listening to ourselves but not good at listening to others.

Knowing he needed to hear more voices to understand more fully, Aaron embarked on his own listening tour of Kentucky. He visited with 3,000 people—including parents, students, and leaders in business and academia—to learn what his state needed and how best to provide it.

Listening gave him insight into the thinking of everyday people—and showed him how he and other higher ed advocates should reframe their messages.

Racial equity is one example. Aaron was sure the Supreme Court would eventually overturn affirmative action: “Everybody saw this coming, right?”

He favors a “macro” view when it comes to closing gaps in educational attainment among various demographic groups. That means including, not just Black and brown students, but people from low-income households, first-generation students, and perhaps others—growing the choir, as it were.

“That means, have them with us, not just talking for them,” he said. And to be clear, he doesn’t mean avoiding important conversations about fairness and racial equity.

“I just knew that when the time came, we needed to be able to speak a language that everybody heard,” he said. “We have to do a better job of helping people understand what fairness means—to everyone.”

And to reach that level of understanding, we must be able to define and measure our terms. For example, Lumina Foundation’s view is that racial equity is achieved when a person’s educational and life success cannot be predicted by their race or ethnicity.

Fortunately, we’re having more of these conversations today, in part because technology and demographics are constantly changing the landscape of learning and training. We can no longer live inside our own echo chambers, and I believe we’re doing better, sometimes in spite of ourselves.

For example, a recent Public Agenda/USA TODAY report called Hidden Common Ground found that nearly three-quarters of Americans, including most Republicans, support increased state funding for universities and colleges. And most, including Republicans, agree that higher education needs to do more to help students of color and those from low-income families.

We could also do better if we used plain language to answer one simple question: What is higher education for?

We sometimes call this the “value question.” Students and families are quite reasonable in asking why they should get a degree, a certificate, a certification. We must be able to clearly explain what they get out of this—and what value accrues to society—which is expected to shoulder some of the cost.

As with so many things, the answer lies partly in the question itself: How do we measure the benefits? Income? Social mobility? Economic productivity?

Figuring out what we want out of this system isn’t easy. When Lumina Foundation began promoting the idea of a national goal of 60 percent attainment 15 years ago, the answer seemed self-evident. People intrinsically understood why credentials mattered.

But that broad consensus about the value of learning no longer exists. A big part of our job now is to show the evidence for why learning matters—and for what.

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