Public Confidence in Higher Education is Declining. How to Respond?

With tuition costs rising, wages across the country low, and a public deeply divided over the concept of political correctness, Americans’ regard for a colleges and universities has taken a nosedive. This may seem surprising, considering that more Americans than ever before have college degrees. But a survey conducted last July by Pew Research Center revealed that attitudes toward higher ed are shifting ­­– namely among those who identify as Republican. The poll found that only 43% of Republican respondents thought colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 45% answering in the negative. This was down significantly from just two years earlier, when 54% answered positively, 37% negatively.

Both anti-intellectualism and skepticism about the value of a college education are nothing new. But the fact that this poll, among others, showed such a precipitous drop is disturbing to many in the higher ed community. Richard M. Freeland, president emeritus of Northeastern University, explores this issue in a recent column for Inside Higher Ed., “Recovering Our Lost Public Esteem.”

Like perhaps others who work in higher ed, I have trouble approaching this issue fairly. Whenever I hear people expressing skepticism about higher education for one reason or another, I tend to get defensive. My father is a professor at a small liberal arts college, I valued my own college experience and I have spent a large part of my career working in higher ed. I strongly believe in education for education’s sake – not for entry to a career, not for money, not for respect – because learning and growing and challenging oneself is necessary and good. So, when arguing with higher ed skeptics, I can’t help but become slightly angry – particularly when there’s an element of partisan politics (lifelong Democrat here). But buried under what some of us may view as partisan animosity, there are truths that can’t be ignored.

In his piece, Freeland – a more reasonable soul than I – explores the possibility that it’s not just Donald Trump’s debasing influence that’s turning people against higher ed., but larger issues – some very legitimate. He writes,

When I consider the three themes in the “public trust” narrative mentioned above – skepticism about the value of a college degree, belief that academe promotes values at odds with those of many Americans and concern that our institutions are driven by self-interest rather than a commitment to improve society – I see reflections of things I have worried about myself. I also see things that higher education can do, and emerging patterns of change, that can help recover at least some of the public support we have lost.

From there, Freeland looks to ways colleges and universities can address – and are already addressing ­– these concerns. He stresses that there aren’t easy answers here, and that rebuilding public trust is a tricky endeavor. True, higher ed will probably never win the confidence and admiration of every Trump supporter or seasoned critic. But to write off very real concerns about our institutions of higher ed as simple partisan disagreements deprives us all of a real opportunity to fix what’s broken.

Check out Freeland’s full article for Inside Higher Ed.

Photo: Hargis Hall, Auburn University