Public opinion on higher education takes a turn for the better

Public trust in higher education fell sharply in the second half of the last decade, judging by the steady stream of opinion polls from 2017 to 2019 that showed Americans (especially Republicans) increasingly convinced that colleges and universities were going in the wrong direction, failing. prepare graduates for work and favor liberal over conservative views.

Those attitudes, combined with growing scrutiny from Republican politicians in numerous states on campus governance and curricular issues, prompted nearly eight in 10 respondents to Within higher educationRecent survey of college and university presidents to agree that they were “concerned about growing Republican skepticism about higher education” and that “the perception of colleges as places that don’t tolerate conservative views is having a big impact negative in attitudes about higher education. education.”

Public opinion polls on higher education appeared to decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, so there have been few ways to assess whether Americans’ impressions of colleges and universities have continued to deteriorate or have begun to change. New survey data from the Winston Group, conducted for the American Council on Education and shared with attendees at its annual meeting last week, provides an initial answer to that question.

Advocates of higher education will find the results relatively encouraging, especially if your baseline is the pre-pandemic levels to which historical support for higher education had fallen (since the current numbers are less than ideal).

Twice as many Americans (38 percent) said they believed higher education was “generally on the right track” than thought it was on the wrong track (19 percent), with a plurality (44 percent) saying they didn’t know . That’s comparable to how respondents answered the same question in 2019 and somewhat better than the answers in 2017, when 27 percent of Americans said they thought higher education was on the wrong track.

Officials from ACE, the largest and broadest association of university officials and the industry’s leading lobbying group, were motivated to survey the public largely to try to assess whether the growing rhetoric questioning the value of going to college college was contributing to declining college enrollment. and universities collectively have suffered in recent years.

If this survey is indicative, the answer seems to be no. More than a third of those surveyed, 36 percent, said they believed the financial value of a college degree had increased in the past 20 years, while 38 percent said it had decreased and 19 percent said it had increased. had kept the same. That’s a marked change from 2018, when 27 percent of respondents said the value had increased and 48 percent said it had decreased.

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The survey results also suggest that the public is less supportive than before of another emerging criticism: that colleges and universities are churning out graduates who are unprepared for today’s economy.

As with the answers about economic value, college leaders are unlikely to jump for joy over this finding: Americans are equally divided when asked if they think most graduates are ready for the workforce, with 44 percent agree and 45 percent disagree. But when asked a similar question in July 2018, 34% of Americans said they believed graduates were ready for work, and 53% disagreed. (A year earlier, in March 2017, 49% answered yes and only 34% answered no.)

The final question the survey explored was about the political environment on campuses, which has gained increasing attention amid state legislative action restricting the teaching of critical race theory and other supposedly “divisive” topics.

In July 2018, only 28 percent of Americans agreed when asked to respond to the statement “Liberal and conservative views are equally respected on campus,” and 51 percent disagreed. agreement. When the Winston Group surveyed them for ACE this February, 41 percent agreed and 40 percent disagreed.

The partisan divide

What is the opposite of a positive side? Whatever it is, there is a big question about the answers to all these questions, and that is the growing political divide in the US. In all these cases, there are significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, and increasingly independents.

That’s no surprise on the question about the campus environment for political views, and the parties don’t disappoint, as seen below. Democrats agree that liberal and conservative views are equally respected to about the same extent that Republicans disagree, with independents in the middle but slightly more aligned with Republicans.

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Roughly the same split emerges on the question of whether higher education is on the right track, with 55 percent of Democrats agreeing that it is (28 percent disagreeing), while 25 percent of Republicans agree and 58 percent disagree. Independents are again in the middle, with 31 percent agreeing and 48 percent disagreeing.

The “economic value” question referenced above produced perhaps the most surprising result of the entire survey. The partisan divide appears as elsewhere in the survey, with Democrats nearly twice as likely to say a title’s value has increased over 20 years than say it has decreased, and Republicans slightly more likely to Say it has decreased.

But on this question, independents have the most negative opinion, with twice as many saying the title’s value has decreased (50 percent vs. 25 percent saying it has won).

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What to do with the results

Several analysts who reviewed the results of the American Council on Education survey said they thought the results were encouraging for higher education, especially given that public opinion results generally showed that Americans were dissatisfied with many aspects of society. (Another question in the ACE poll found that only 17 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction the country is headed.)

“People are very testy in general, so it’s hard not to see these results as quite favorable for higher education,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education and policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank. in Washington, DC, which has conducted its own survey of higher education.

She said she was particularly surprised that “only” half of Republicans “think both sides aren’t respected in higher education, given that 70 percent of Republican voters don’t think the election results are real.”

Will Doyle, a professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, has followed public surveys of higher education for nearly 25 years. The data reinforced for him “the general level of stability in the way the public views higher education,” Doyle said.

“What’s really important about colleges and universities is that they are the main places you can go to get a good job,” he said. That’s important, because another question in the ACE survey found that about half of Americans said the main reason for going to college is to “prepare for a job,” a consistent finding over the five years of ACE polling. , and also going further back, Doyle noted.

Doyle said the survey evidence of continued polarization across political parties in their views on higher education remains troubling. But while prominent conservatives continue to fire at universities and academics with rhetoric and restrictive bills, both Republican- and Democratic-led legislatures continue to support higher education financially, he said. “Even if they’re not happy with some things, they continue to realize that their states need a group of well-educated people to be competitive.”