Alternative Facts In Higher Education

illustration of an article

In higher ed, do we often offer “alternative facts” too, operative myths that don’t accurately reflect the realities of higher education?

The term “alternative facts” used by President Trump’s counselor in an interview about the inauguration crowd size has become a media meme. The idea of an alternative fact being something other than a falsehood has proven amusing to some but quite disturbing to others.

Importantly, the need to judge ethically what facts to report and how to interpret them is not confined to the media. It is part of organizational life, perhaps even more so in higher education. Universities are unique social institutions with the mission to educate, to disseminate knowledge, and to contribute to the common good. The “search for truth” is an embedded core principle of this enterprise, and that search for truth depends on verifiable facts, not on falsehoods or obscurities.

Yet university communities are not immune to embracing alternative facts. It is less likely to occur in academic disciplines because of ongoing scholarship and the crucible of continuous debate. But, as social institutions, universities exist in the public commons, which is much more susceptible to the vagaries of alternative facts.

4 “Alternative Facts” Embraced by Universities

The current media preoccupation with the state of higher education is warranted. There are problems, but the political dimensions and broad nature of the discussion often clouds reality. The following are examples of alternative facts and their corresponding real facts.

Alternative Fact #1

An institution’s US News ranking is a good indicator of the educational quality of an institution. Prospective students and their families pay attention to them, and universities should expend as many resources as possible to increase their ranking.

Fact: These types of rankings primarily depend upon inputs: SAT/ACT scores, class size, student selectivity, and so forth. They do not measure the quality of educational delivery, student attainment, and student success after graduation, among other outcomes. It is better for universities to expend funds to communicate their brand of higher education to their core constituencies. (See CBS’s “Why US News College Rankings’ Hurt Students.”)

Alternative Fact #2

An institution’s heavy emphasis on technology infrastructure enhances educational quality.

Fact: While a robust technology infrastructure is necessary, educational quality increases only when faculty members are willing to use learning technologies and receive effective instructional technology training and support in doing so. (See EDUCAUSE’s “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.”)

Alternative Fact #3

Offering degree programs in an online environment will significantly increase enrollment and net revenue.

Fact: Online programs that are not the result of a significant investment in online course redesign, faculty training, and most importantly, a substantial amount of promotional funds, will either be anemic or will completely fail. (See AGB’s “Online Education: Where is it Going? What Boards Should Know.”)

Alternative Fact #4

Recovering from an undergraduate enrollment downfall and/or increasing enrollment will return an institution to financial security.

Fact: A not-for-profit college loses money on each traditional-age undergraduate student they enroll, from a few hundred to over twenty thousand dollars per student, depending upon the type of institution. The annual endowment spend and other income must make up the difference. In many institutions, annual net revenue losses are increasing, while offsetting revenues are decreasing. (See NACUBO’s Explaining College Costs.)

The Truth About Higher Education

Many other examples of alternative facts could be cited. The point is that these “alternative facts” demonstrate the seductiveness of common sense—the ease with which institutions come to rely unquestioningly on the standard way of doing business and educating students. It is crucial to set aside the biases of past practices and unexamined assumptions; doing so helps clear the fog of obfuscation in order to establish—and act on—actual facts.

Standing upon the veracity of hard facts is a necessary starting point for assessing a university’s organizational health. Otherwise, the determination of how to remediate problems and create new opportunities becomes mired in decision-making that is based upon precarious assumptions of fact (alternative facts) that impair the search for truth. For an institution committed to that search for truth and to the common good, that reliance on alternative facts is not only a strategic but also an ethical dilemma.

Overcoming the Heavy Weight of Tradition: A Practical Approach
The Transformational Small College President

Marcel J. Dumestre, Ed.D. is a retired academic administrator and author. His latest book is Financial Sustainability in US Higher Education: Transformational Strategy in Troubled Times (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).