American faith in higher education is declining: one poll

Last month the Wall Street Journal and NORC ran a poll asking Americans what they thought about their views of the nation, particularly about economics.  One question concerned higher education.  The answers to it are sobering and I’d like to revisit them today.

The results are also behind a paywall, in the WSJ’s case, and not available on the NORC site, as far as I can tell (I emailed them; no response yet), so I’ll try to summarize what I can here, thanks to the help of a fine librarian and some time poking around databases.

The main takeaway is that our view of higher education’s value is souring.  Fewer of us see post-secondary learning as worth the cost, and now a majority think college and university degrees are no longer worth it: “56% of Americans think earning a four-year degree is a bad bet compared with 42% who retain faith in the credential.”

The question was put this way:

When it comes to getting a four-year college degree, which of the following statements comes closer to your point of view? A four-year college education is worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more income over their lifetime or not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off?

Note that this isn’t a one-off finding.  WSJ/NORC have been doing this for a decade, every several years, and the trendline is against higher ed.

In 2013, 53% of Americans were bullish on college, and 40% weren’t. In 2017, 49% of Americans thought a four-year degree would lead to good jobs and higher earnings, compared with 47% who didn’t.

Broken down by gender, women tend to have a higher opinion of higher ed than men do.  Decomposed by age, skepticism is highest among younger people.

The overall negative trend occurs in each population slice, yet to different degrees:

Women and older Americans are driving the decline in confidence. People over the age of 65 with faith in college declined to 44% from 56% in 2017. Confidence among women fell to 44% from 54%, according to the poll.

What can we take away from this single question and its responses?

We can resist the temptation to load it with too much significance.  After all, it was a small poll, reaching barely more than 1,000 people.  It was just one question, not allowing for much nuance.  The other questions in the survey emphasized economics, and in measures allowing for some anxiety, so encouraged a simply ROI view of college.

Some will criticize the poll as coming from the Wall Street Journal, but I don’t think this is a good critique.  The opinion side of the WSJ is definitely on the reactionary side, yet the journalistic enterprise is solid.  The latter is who took down Theranos, for example.  And the article’s author, Doug Belkin, does fine work.  (He was a great guest on the Future Trends Forum.)

Yet I think we can count the results as significant.  I don’t think they’ll surprise anyone who’s been following American opinions about higher ed.  It’s clear that academia’s status hasn’t been trending in a favorable direction for a while.

What’s behind that downward impression?  My readers already know the answers: increasing student debt and its cultural presence; declining enrollment; politically charged critiques, now largely from the partisan right; a low unemployment rate suggesting one doesn’t need a BA/BS to starting working into the middle class.  I’d like to add “bad media coverage” but am not confident in this, because I avoid some media (tv news) and have not found a good study on the point.

It’s hard to find nuance in such discourse.  Most people work from the assumption that published tuition is what people pay, for instance. The huge range of degrees, the variety of degree levels (certificate, bachelor’s, masters, PhD, microcredential), the spectrum of perceived institutional quality, the complexities of labor markets all shape so many different paths through higher education, to say nothing of the varieties of personal human academic experience, notably including preparation.

The non-economic benefits of higher education also fall away.  Personal growth, especially for traditional-age undergraduates; finding purpose in life; exposure to different ways of thinking; immersion in new social contexts: a purely economic assessment ignores these desiderata. The public desire that post-secondary students learn certain things (civics, numeracy, communication, etc.) is also nonpecuniary in outcomes.

A deeper survey would do a better job of accounting for these real details.  But the overall sourness seems to be there and deepening.  And I urge my colleagues to not dismiss this as an economically driven argument, a point I hear all too often, given the real costs and burdens higher education imposes on a substantial number of students.

I’ve previously written about how Americans from the 1960s on were fairly united in their belief that the more post-secondary experience people got, the better. That consensus seems to be fraying now, and a significant loss of faith in higher ed can have major consequences for the academy.

First, since the majority of colleges and universities depend on enrollment for their financial sustainability, declining interest in post-secondary experience means fewer students on campus.  This yields increasing economic pressure on these institutions.

Second, a series of major challenges facing humanity need academic input. The climate crisis might be the most salient of these.  Dealing with technology and disinformation is a leading topic for many people. If enrollment declines, we reduce the number of scholars producing research as well as the number of students educated to handle these crises.  Decreasing support for higher education could also sap our ability to collaborate with communities and influence public debates.

Third, higher education depends financially on public goodwill to a significant extent.  The roughly two-thirds of American institutions which are public receive some (albeit too little) funding from their respective state governments.  Public and private institutions alike can draw funds from state and federal government grants.  A public which is skeptical of how these campuses operate is not likely to support spending more on them.

Further, we depend on public goodwill in non-financial ways. A public who thinks academics do valuable work might be less likely to want to control our research and teaching. A hostile population may be more willing to, say, cut tenure for the dwindling proportion of faculty who have it.

Again, this is all about one question in one poll with a small n. But it points to directions higher ed and its national setting are headed in, and we should think hard about how to respond.

(Many thanks to the Georgetown University library staff for helping me track down this story.)

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7 Responses to American faith in higher education is declining: one poll

  1. Lisa Stephens says:

    It may also be helpful to have a companion graph of earnings over time contrasting degree vs. non-degree, parsed out by type of credential. I recall being surprised during doctoral studies (admittably a couple decades ago) by the extent of positive ROI for degree(s), even when accounting for delayed workforce entry.

  2. Caterina L. Bristol says:

    Thanks for the post. Memories are short regarding affordability. When enrollments were booming, women and POC were being “guided” into the “suitable” professions, and colleges were growing in a way such that the government decided to update financial aid availability and states could begin to divest in the public good of support for higher ed as students and families shouldered more of the costs, people loved higher ed. Now that most of the public and private institutions are tuition-driven, there are increasing admin costs related to maintaining Title IV. i.e. regional accreditation requirements (the very program that is killing future prosperity for graduates and non-graduates), more women and POC are choosing to study beyond their expected educational roles, families now realize that loan debt extends to even the 40%+- of students that do not complete degrees (the attrition has been there for a long time, but when people were paying out of pocket they just dragged their child back home and made them get a job), people are suddenly losing their religion on the importance and relevance of higher education (Discussions regarding the future impact of AI notwithstanding).

  3. Victor Villegas says:

    Another result of this that not many are talking about is the effect on hiring for higher ed, especially for supervisory/managerial positions, many of which universities require at least a four year degree. We are seeing many more multiple failed searches now as higher ed is competing with businesses that are doing away with degree requirements. I have already seen instances where the best and most qualified person for the job was not able to be hired for the job solely because they did not have the “right” degree, which in reality, was not really needed to do the job. The hiring pool will only keep getting smaller and smaller, and that pool will not always have the best or the most experience.

  4. From my perspective, listening to and advising teens and their families now for 20 years, the efforts many teens (supported by their families) believe need to put forth in order to “compete” for admissions, including taking AP or IB courses in subjects uninteresting to a particular individual questing for the highest weighted GPA, hours spent in outside school activities (one HS junior this fall estimated her average work week during tennis season given the workload of 4 AP courses = 60-70 hours/week) + the concomitant expenses paying for year-round activity, only to be ultimately waitlisted or denied admissions, in some cases, is not only dismaying, many students can enter a cycle of prolonged grief.

    The seeming broken promise of the modern academic meritocracy can often exacerbate the frustrations of having seeming compromised their unique curiosity and aptitude, to conform to the required classes and activities necessary for college admissions, only to be denied the “prize” seemingly promised if they did so. Their angst is beyond what those of us who’ve worked our entire professional lives with teenagers, know is typical teenage angst.

    Additionally, when the New York Federal Reserve Bank consistently reports underemployment for new college grads lingering around 40%, then people may pause about making the investment in higher education.

    Furthermore, Gen Z is also generally a generation who’ve believed the environment is degrading at degrees greater than human survival, and their words can be violent so are careful creatures, as well as lived a public existence, yearning for privacy, yet FOMO crave the consistent belonging of social media. Thus, many are not sure why they’re seeking higher education, thus the expense becomes a convenient excuse for their lack of valuation.

    Thus, students and families and teachers and possibly university officials themselves may need to revise understanding of the benefits of a higher education, beyond “getting a good job”, which seems to diminish the enlightening aspects of critical analysis and tolerance from greater experience with diverse people with diverse views and backgrounds.

  5. Michael Hauge says:

    “It’s hard to find nuance in such discourse.”

    Thank you for providing it!

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