Public support for higher education is in trouble again (part 1)

This week the Pew Research Center issued a report on the public’s view of higher education in the United States, and the news is not good. The Pew report builds on a similar survey conducted last year, which also found a lack of support for the nation’s colleges and universities.

The Pew Research Center has a very good reputation as a non-partisan organization that conducts well-designed and executed surveys and other research, so I take the results as being a valid and reliable representation of the public mood. This year’s survey, conducted by calling landlines and cell phones, reached about 4,600 adults and is weighted to make it representative of all adults across the country. It has a margin of error of +/- 2.4 percentage points.

The first question in the survey, which was conducted from June 19 to July 2, asked, “Is the higher education system in the U.S. generally going in the right or wrong direction?” Thirty-eight percent of respondents said it was heading in the right direction, and 61% said it was going in the wrong direction (2% did not respond to the question). To someone who has spent his career working in a variety of academic and administrative positions in colleges and universities across the country (and has been either studying and/or working on a college campus for over 40 years straight), these responses are sobering. Historically, colleges and universities across the country have generally been held in high esteem by the general public, both among those who attended college and those who had not. But this has been changing in recent years, and the Pew survey gets at some of the reasons for this change.

The survey respondents were presented with four potential reasons why they may believe higher education is heading in the wrong direction. The reasons and responses were as follows:

Question Major reason Minor reason Not a reason No answer

1. Tuition costs are too high

84% 12% 4% 1%

2. Professors bring their own political and social views into the classroom

50% 26% 23% 1%

3. Colleges and universities are too concerned about protecting students from offensive views

54% 27% 18% 1%

4. Students are not getting skills they need to success in the workplace

65% 26% 8% 1%

Respondents could choose more than one reason. Responses may not sum to 100% due to rounding.

The responses to the first question, about tuition costs, is not very surprising. For decades now there has been much written about the rising price of college and the impact it has on students and families. We wouldn’t expect many people to say that the price of college is too low, so it is not surprising that so many report this as a reason why higher education is going in the wrong direction. Even given this concern, however, both college enrollments and enrollment rates (the proportion of high school graduates who continue on to college) have been rising (see chapter 1 of my book The States and Public Higher Education: Affordability, Access, and Accountability for more about this issue).

The responses to the other questions, though, give me pause. Back in the 1960s, during the protests on campuses over the Vietnam War, the public perception was of student radicals who were leading the charge. Today, however, it appears the perception is that it is the faculty who are the radicals. While the Pew survey does not ask the respondents about which direction they believe professors views tend to lean, it is quite obvious that most believe that professors are too left wing and liberal. Three-quarters of respondents said that this was at least a minor reason why higher education was heading in the wrong direction.

The responses to the third question are undoubtedly influenced by comments of political leaders and the media, most recently as exemplified by Attorney General Jeff Sessions who, at a speech at a meeting of the conservative campus group Turning Point USA, accused colleges of creating, “a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious, snowflakes” (the AG’s speechwriter must have enjoyed putting together that alliterative assault). Many politicians and media commentators have criticized higher education for responding positively to students’ demands for safe spaces, actions against microagressions, and limits on speech on campus.

The responses to the last question are perhaps the most disturbing for me to see. Over 90% of the surveyed individuals appear to believe that students are not learning the necessary job skills for the workplace while they are in college. Again, these responses are likely influenced by what people see and hear in the media, mostly anecdotal, about this issue. While it is hard to categorize the “higher education system” in the country as a homogeneous entity – the 20 million college students attend a wide range of types among the over 4,000 institutions in the country, from community colleges to liberal arts colleges to research universities – I don’t think it is fair to characterize the system as a whole as being lacking in preparing students for their lives after they graduate.

One interesting finding of the survey is that political affiliation is strongly correlated with individuals’ views of colleges and universities. For example, while among all respondents 61% reported they thought higher education was headed in the wrong direction, 73% of Republicans responded in this fashion, while only 52% of Democrats did. On the questions for the reasons for why things were moving in the wrong direction, the greatest split was on question 2, about professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom. While 79% of Republicans cited this as a major or minor reason (among those who answered that higher education was headed in the wrong direction), only 17% of Democrats cited this as a reason. While I would expect some difference between the two parties, given the different leanings in the views of the two, this large gap surprised me.

In my next post I will analyze why I believe so many people hold such negative views of higher education.