Saying that higher education needs an image boost, education leaders have kicked off a national effort to explain why colleges and universities matter.

The campaign will include efforts by nearly 400 colleges to reach out to local communities and policy makers and explain their contributions to society. They hope to convince the public that higher education remains essential to the country’s future, and that it should be a state and national funding priority as government support has lagged during the past few years.

“As an industry, we have not done anything like this before,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council of Education, the national higher education association behind the campaign. “Our goal is simply to increase public understanding of the broad role that higher education has played in the past and must continue to play in the future.”

The “Solutions for our Future” campaign will feature national newspaper and television ads. While he couldn’t put a dollar amount on the entire campaign, Hartle says his association will spend $4.5 million during the next three years and the value of the donated media time and space will be in the millions.

Backers say the multi-year effort is aimed at showing how the nation’s colleges and universities provide practical benefits for everyone, not only current enrollees and graduates. According to the campaign, colleges are the source of new technology and medical improvements, the reason there are Internet search engines and trained emergency personnel to respond to medical crises. And they help revitalize communities, advance culture and the arts, and foster tolerance in society.

By highlighting those contributions, the project strives to convince people that they should view higher education as important a spending priority as health care, defense and K-12 education. Even as employers increasingly require a college education, state spending on higher education has declined in recent years.

Meanwhile, the maximum aid for low-income students under the federal Pell Grant has remained at $4,050 a year since 2002, not keeping pace with inflation or tuition increases.

The campaign notes that global competition is growing and that the country risks falling behind without increased financial support. Its print ads note that other countries have boosted their public investment in higher education. But the United States currently ranks ninth in the world for the percentage of high school graduates that go to college, education leaders say.

© 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.