American views of higher education continue to worsen

What do Americans think about our higher education sector?

Greetings from the road – the railroad, to be precise.  I’m traveling from Washington, DC to a series of in-person and online meetings.  That means a very busy few days, but I wanted to blog this story before the mass of news swallowed it up.

Gallup has been polling on the question of American attitudes towards academia for some time. I’ve written about them in 2015, 2019, 2020, and 2023. The polling agency just published new findings and the results aren’t good news.

Overall, positive views stabilized, while negative ones have deepened, yielding a very divided population.  As Gallup summarizes, “An increasing proportion of U.S. adults say they have little or no confidence in higher education.”

Americans are now nearly equally divided among those who have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence (36%), some confidence (32%), or little or no confidence (32%) in higher education. When Gallup first measured confidence in higher education in 2015, 57% had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence and 10% had little or none.

American views of higher ed overall Gallup_2015-2024

You could say roughly one third of Americans likes higher ed, one third abhors it, and one third is “meh.”

If we decompose the polled population, we see this:

A review of the historical trends shows that confidence has dropped among all key subgroups in the U.S. population over the past two decades, but more so among Republicans. Americans who lack confidence in higher education today say their concerns lie in colleges pushing political agendas, not teaching relevant skills, and being overly expensive.

Focusing on party differences yields this:

American views of higher ed by party Gallup_2015-2024

“In 2015, 56% of Republicans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence, and 11% had little or none. Now, 20% are confident and 50% have little or no confidence.”  So the partisan aspect is very strong.

Yet it’s not just the GOP who has issues with academia. Other political identities also see less approval for colleges and universities: “Republicans are not alone in having reduced confidence in higher education, as 35% of independents, down from 48% in 2015, and 56% of Democrats, down from 68%, are confident.”

What did respondents dislike?  Gallup helpfully broken down a bunch of reasons for the negativity:

American views of higher ed_what we abhor Gallup_2024

Note that political and/or content concerns top the list, followed by cost.  Quality, free speech, and inequality all trail.

On the other hand, what do the minority of Americans who love higher ed appreciate about it?

American views of higher ed_what we like Gallup_2024

These results are all over the place, neatly reflecting the varied purposes Americans think higher education should fulfill.

Gallup also surveyed attitudes towards two different types of colleges and universities, two-year institutions (community colleges) and four-year ones.  The result: we’re much friendlier to community colleges.

americans-more-confident-in-community-colleges-than-four-year-universities

One interesting difference among respondents is that people of color had a somewhat higher (38% to 30%) approval rating for two-year colleges than did white folks.

Why does this matter?

First, these attitudes might shape governmental support and oversight.  Roughly two-thirds of American academic institutions are public, and so growing dislike of their work might prompt states to cut budgets or impose new policies.  Further, private and public institutions alike can receive federal funding from research grants to student loans; accepting the latter entails some federal policy oversight.  Voters and donors changing their minds can lead to alterations to that support and policy-making.

Second, an increasingly skeptical public might send fewer students to enroll in our classes.

Third, that public is sometimes the neighbors of a physical campus.  Growing dislike can chill town-gown relations.

Fourth, that stark political party difference suggests we might see academia become an election issue over the next few months.  We should prepare for that possibility.  Moreover, some academics might want to reform our institutions in response to those changing attitudes.

Now, back to Amtrak.

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One Response to American views of higher education continue to worsen

  1. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    To some extent, the partisan divide in “confidence in higher ed” is due to its role as a tribal flag, where it functions as a boundary marker that mirrors increased polarization along party lines. These trends need to be seen in that larger context.

    That’s the first thing.
    But notice how populist attacks on colleges and universities are aimed at the elite schools — but not community colleges. That’s because support for CCs is more local, and not exposed to the class war raging higher up on the food chain. I agree with Michael Lind, “The New Class War” (2020) that the underlying bifurcation can be viewed through the lens of a class war between the “left behinds” with no degree, and those with degrees. It remains to be seen whether Sean Speer’s conjecture that unemployed and under-employed college graduates will gravitate over to populism is true, despite their initial voter preferences.
    I accept the idea that the landscape for higher education — the cultural context — is changing. I also agree that this is significant (but not directly) as a slow process of de-legitimation or de-institutionalization, perhaps even extinction. Certainly, as I discussed in my earlier comments, the sector is shrinking. Just how much it will shrink, and what emerges in response to these changes, is a matter of speculation at this point. In any event, we need to be talking about What Comes Next. https://kivu.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/overshoot-carrying-cap.jpg

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