American views on higher education worsen, again

Just a quick post, as I’m on the road:

Americans now view higher education less favorably than we used to.

That’s the finding of a new Gallup poll.  Gallup has run this poll several times in recent history, and the results show a depressing downward curve. The number of people who view academia very positively has been declining.

Americans’ confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, sharply lower than in two prior readings in 2015 (57%) and 2018 (48%).

Gallup American attitudes to higher ed to 2023

“Some” is growing, which is better than it could have been.

I am also concerned by how these attitudes break down by groups, including political party, age, gender, and educational attainment.  The decline occurred across every one, albeit to different degrees:

Gallup American attitudes to higher ed to 2023_by party age gender

(The numbers are for “% of U.S. adults with ‘a great deal’ or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education”. I couldn’t fit that legend into a screengrab.)

As you can see, Republicans, men, people over 55, and and those without a college degree are the most skeptical.  Democrats, women, people under 35, and folks with postgraduate degrees are the most favorable.

This decrease in attitude may shape various aspects of academic-community relationships.  Governmental funding (city, county, state, federal) comes to mind, especially as those entities juggle multiple funding demands. Declining faith in higher ed might discourage some would-be students from applying to study.  This development might also point the way to more attacks on the academy.

Yet we should place this poll in one context. Gallup asked people about their attitudes towards a range of institutions, and those results indicate widespread skepticism about all kinds of them:

Gallup American attitudes to various institutions 2023 July

I have many thoughts here – note the high positions of military and police – but wanted to locate higher ed on the list, because we look pretty good, compared to the rest.  Ahead of public K-12 and tech companies, to say nothing of big business and Congress.   So for academia, it could be worse!

There’s so much going on here, from the dread of student debt to right-wing politics to connections with general economic anxiety. but I need to stop now.  Over to you all for your thoughts.

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6 Responses to American views on higher education worsen, again

  1. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Wow, thanks Bryan for this update. That’s quite a decline. I was curious to see how the rate of decline from 2015-2023 compared to the other institutional categories and found that Gallup provides the trend data on page 3 of their report (under Gallup – Q.7 CONFIDENCE IN INSTITUTIONS – RECENT TREND (COMBINES “GREAT DEAL” AND “QUITE A LOT”)). After a quick fiddle in Excel, it appears the news for Higher Ed is even worse — of the 17 institutional categories tracked, Higher Ed has *the worst* rate of decline from 2015-2023 at -36.8%, followed closely behind by Big Business and Television News, tied at -33.3%. Here’s the full list, sorted from worst performing to best.

    Q. Higher education -36.8%
    H. Television news -33.3%
    N. Big business -33.3%
    M. The criminal justice system -26.1%
    F. Newspapers -25.0%
    A. The church or organized religion -23.8%
    J. The presidency -21.2%
    P. Tech companies -18.8% (2020 – 2023 only)
    K. The police -17.3%
    B. The military -16.7%
    E. The public schools -16.1%
    C. The U.S. Supreme Court -15.6%
    L. The medical system -8.1%
    D. Banks -7.1%
    O. Small business -3.0%
    G. Congress 0.0%
    I. Organized labor 4.2%

    That almost every category has declined is almost equally shocking. These numbers bring two things to mind:

    1) Climate-change tie-in: collapsologists have been forecasting a breakdown in institutions as our ecological overshoot progresses, as the on-the-ground experience diverges from tidy media narratives and citizens discover that help is definitely not on the way from the authorities. Are we starting to see that unfold?

    2) In Dmitry Orlov’s essay on living through the fall of the Soviet Union, he remarked that a precursor for the collapse was that people simply stopped believing in the USSR. Even “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us” was a kind of agreement that kept things running. I imagine there must be some tipping point up ahead, as the decline in confidence in our institutions degrades the ability of those institutions to function, and the feedback loop accelerates an overall process of institutional/societal breakdown.

    Anyway, we have some work to do in Higher Ed to be sure.

  2. Rodney Grunes says:

    To be expected given the GOP (especially DeSantis) attack on liberal (woke) education.

    • Yes, but then what did we expect? Conservatives correctly realized that the vast majority of those in higher education are their enemies, to the point of making academia a hostile environment for heterodoxical views, rather than a societal institution dedicated to the ongoing continuance of the Great Conversation. Is it so surprising they’d respond in kind?

      And I say that as someone who is not a conservative.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    It’s only a matter of time before more working-class and middle-class Democrats get the message: that higher ed is a risky financial bet (that too often does not pay off).

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