Americans sour on higher education’s future: new Pew survey

What do Americans think about higher education and its future?

PewResearch_logoI’ve been answering this question for years, and so it’s good to get new information. A new Pew study by Anna Brown just appeared, and the results are both intriguing and worrisome.  Among other things, some generational divides are widening.

Let me identify several key details.

First, a clear majority of Americans – 61% – think that “the higher education system in the U.S. is generally going in the… [w]rong direction.”  Only 38% – about one third of us – think academia is headed in the right direction.  (Just 2% had no opinion.) So a solid majority (a landslide, if this were an election) thinks American higher ed is in trouble.

That’s a hugely important datum for those of us in and around post-secondary education.  Bear this majority view in mind when we argue for, say, getting state governments to return to older levels of public university support.

Moreover, the party politics of the survey results are very interesting.   Republicans are really unhappy, with 73% seeing higher ed headed in the wrong direction, and only 26% deeming things to be rosy:


But Democrats aren’t that happy either.  They are split almost evenly, with a statistical majority joining the GOP.  Put another way, Dems can’t muster a majority to be optimistic about higher education’s future.  So yes, a partisan divide does exist over higher education, but at the same time there’s something like bipartisan agreement that higher ed is going astray.

Second, the specific reasons people cite (or select, from a menu) for why American higher ed is in trouble are very interesting.  The polled people had four options to choose from:

  • Tuition costs are too high
  • Professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom
  • Colleges and universities are too concerned about protecting students from views they might find offensive
  • Students are not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace

Identifying responses by party leads to a similar pattern as above: some near agreement (on tuition being too high) and some stark divergence (re: the two political points):


This seems pretty predictable and unsurprising.  High (published) tuition is generally unpopular and the GOP tends to see universities as filled with vile progressives of various stripes, while some Democrats actually approve of said faculty.The workplace skills explanation lies somewhere in between partisan and bi-, with members of both parties expressing concern, but the Republicans more so than their opponents.

Now, if we break down answers by age, we get a third and perhaps most significant set of responses:


Note how older folks (65 and over) are less likely to be concerned about tuition than younger people (Gens X, Millennial, and Z), quite possibly because of very different life experiences.  Note, too, the near-uniformity over college preparing grads badly for the workplace.  I’m not sure why this is less of a concern for people aged 18-34.

The political questions show the greatest variation.  Apparently the older an American is, the more likely they are to be worried that academia is a political problem.  This connects well with the age of Trump voters, who trended older.  The spread of views over professors bringing their politics into pedagogy is especially strong, with just over half of under-35s thinking this the case, while nearly every single senior (96%!) sees this as a key problem.

What can we deduce from this one survey?

Possibly we’ll see Democratic and especially Republican politicians go after higher ed in the pursuit of votes and donations.  We could expect more bills that restrict faculty members’ political rights, for example, or more cuts to state funding.

We could also see bipartisan drives for something around workforce development.  This could take place from federal policy down to local pressure on community colleges to switch up curricula.

In the medium and longer term, if these beliefs hold steady, we’ll see a shift to a nation where the majority accepts (or expects) professors to be political while often shielding their students from challenging views.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

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2 Responses to Americans sour on higher education’s future: new Pew survey

  1. Ken Soto says:

    Bryan – the tuition costs and value provided questions show similar results between Dems and Reps, but diverge on political questions. Do you think there could be a correlation between older/republican views of higher ed and the changing demographics of prospective students over the last few years? Specifically, that as college campuses have seen more minority and international students enroll, these respondents question who higher education is for, and why it should be supported.

    I ask because the debate over professors being too liberal or students being too coddled has been going on for decades. What’s new? My own view is the debate over the political issues isn’t about professors or students, but bringing higher education to heel.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good question about the changing student population.
      The major change has been the boom in Latino students, so that connects well with much of Trump’s migrant-bashing. In addition, some of the more widely publicized stories were about black students (i.e., Mizzou) and that’s clearly a trigger for some in the GOP.
      It’s interesting that the connection hasn’t been explicit. ICE hasn’t been campaigning across American colleges and universities very much. DeVos hasn’t said anything I can find.

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