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Reconciling Contrasting Findings on Perceptions of Higher Ed

For those who are concerned about Americans’ perceptions of higher education, the past few weeks may have been confusing.

A Gallup poll was released, bearing terrible news: only 36% of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down 12 percentage points from 2018 and 21 percentage points from 2015, when more than half of U.S. citizens expressed high confidence. 22% of Americans said that they have “little confidence,” more than doubling the 9% who said so in 2015.

At almost the same time, Teachers College at Columbia University released a survey that seemed to augur much better: 69% of Americans said that they view public spending on higher education as an excellent or good investment, and strong majorities reported that higher education has benefits for both individuals and society as a whole. 72% said that higher education contributes to graduates’ personal enrichment and growth, and 71% said that higher ed contributes to advancing graduates’ wealth and success. 73% agreed that higher education plays a role in national prosperity and development.

Observers were left wondering what to make of the contrast. How do Americans really feel about higher education? And how should colleges and universities respond?

The two polls actually have more similarities than may initially be obvious, especially from reporting that focuses on their extremes. The Columbia study, which had the more positive results, showed that perceptions of higher ed have declined since the researchers did a similar survey in 2017: there was a seven-point decrease in the percentage of Americans who saw public spending on higher ed as an excellent or good investment. Both surveys also found sharp disparities in the views of liberals and conservatives, with Republicans becoming more skeptical. And the Gallup survey shows that although confidence in higher ed has decreased, it hasn’t disappeared: the percentage of Americans who said that they had “some” confidence in higher education grew six points, to 40%. But the differences are still stark.

Experts on American perceptions of higher education said that the polls collectively reveal that American views are nuanced. Zach Hrynowski, an education research consultant at Gallup, thought that Americans were differentiating between higher education itself and the systems that organize it.

“The best that I can make sense of this is that it’s a case of separating the product from the seller,” he said. “Americans generally see value in higher education. Whether [they’re] confident in the institutions that are delivering it is a slightly different question.”

Zach Hrynowski, education research consultant at GallupZach Hrynowski, education research consultant at GallupHrynowski thought that Gallup’s respondents may have been primed to think of higher education as an institution by the context of the poll, which asked about their confidence in a variety of institutions, including the military, banks, and the medical system. The survey found significant declines in public confidence in 11 of the 16 institutions that it tracks yearly, making it difficult to parse whether the effects on perceptions of higher ed were specifically about colleges and universities or part of a more generalized growing mistrust.

If the decline is specifically about higher ed, however, experts had several ideas about what might be causing it. Higher education has been drawn increasingly into the culture wars over the past year, with conservative state lawmakers taking aim at the teaching of “divisive concepts” relating to critical race theory and at diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

“Some of the larger political conversations that are happening in the U.S. right now might be priming people to think about confidence in higher education differently,” said Dr. Noah D. Drezner, a professor of higher education who led the Columbia research.

The recent Supreme Court cases about higher ed may have played a role as well, with the case about race-conscious admissions putting a focus on colleges’ role in societal inequality and the case about President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan highlighting the cost.

Financial difficulty is an important reason that confidence has dropped, according to Sophie Nguyen, a senior policy analyst at New America, a left-leaning non-profit that has done research into American perceptions of higher ed.

Sophie Nguyen, senior policy analyst at New AmericaSophie Nguyen, senior policy analyst at New America“The cost of college, the fact that a lot of students are struggling to pay back their loans, makes the benefits feel far away for a lot of Americans,” Nguyen said. “Americans acknowledge the benefits of college, but they are not happy with the system: the accessibility, the affordability, the outcomes.”

Because the causes of the drop in confidence are diverse, there’s no single simple solution for improving it.

“It’s not something where there’s a silver bullet,” said Hrynowski. “[Administrators] are going to have to take an individualized approach and recognize that we have one challenge among Americans who don’t have a college degree and another set of challenges for those who have a college degree. Same thing on a partisan basis.”

Experts agreed that although the Gallup findings are a cause for concern, there is still reason for hope.

“The results show that Americans want to see changes in higher education, rather than not wanting to have anything to do with it,” said Nguyen. “They still believe that it’s a viable pathway.”

Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected]

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