Polls find fal­ter­ing trust in Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties

The Washington Post - - METRO - Jef­frey J. Selingo

A study re­leased last week by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that 58 per­cent of Repub­li­cans and right-lean­ing in­de­pen­dents think col­leges have a neg­a­tive im­pact on the coun­try. Dis­trust in higher-ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions among those on the right has risen con­sis­tently since 2010, when it stood at 32 per­cent.

While Democrats were much more op­ti­mistic in their view of col­leges — only 19 per­cent had a neg­a­tive per­cep­tion — the Pew study is one of sev­eral in the past few months that raise ques­tions about pub­lic con­fi­dence in the fu­ture of Amer­i­can col­leges. The bot­tom line of the find­ings from the Pew sur­vey, as well as those from Gallup and New Amer­ica, is this: Al­though Amer­i­cans think a de­gree is more im­por­tant than ever for eco­nomic suc­cess, they seem to be in­creas­ingly pes­simistic that col­leges can de­liver on that prom­ise, given their ever-ris­ing costs and grow­ing dis­tance from the ev­ery­day con­cerns of par­ents and stu­dents.

This marks quite a shift in pub­lic opin­ion. Over the past sev­eral decades, even as the pub­lic’s faith in in­sti­tu­tions such as churches, me­dia and gov­ern­ment plunged, higher ed­u­ca­tion main­tained a high stand­ing. But the re­cent New Amer­ica sur­vey found that onethird of Amer­i­cans think col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties put their own needs be­fore those of their stu­dents.

Where did higher ed­u­ca­tion go wrong?

Twenty years ago, when I started writ­ing about higher ed­u­ca­tion in the states, I would of­ten find res­i­dents who loved talk­ing about the value of their pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties. This was par­tic­u­larly true in states with land-grant uni­ver­si­ties, such as Iowa and Ne­braska, where farm­ers or may­ors of small towns would tell me about how a univer­sity re­searcher as­sisted them on a prob­lem with their crops or helped with eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. In places with large pub­lic-univer­sity sys­tems, such as North Carolina and Cal­i­for­nia, I of­ten heard from peo­ple who didn’t go to col­lege them­selves but thought their kids had a de­cent shot at at­tend­ing one of the state’s cam­puses at a rea­son­able cost.

But those at­ti­tudes started to shift in re­cent years. Cam­puses that once felt ac­ces­si­ble, and that served mostly the sons and daugh­ters of state res­i­dents, sud­denly seemed out of reach. Tu­ition rates at pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties — which en­roll 80 per­cent of stu­dents in U.S. higher ed­u­ca­tion — have risen by about 30 per­cent since the Great Re­ces­sion. Just be­fore the re­ces­sion, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies paid for about one-third of the cost of their ed­u­ca­tion at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, and now they are on track to pay for most of it. In more than half the states, they al­ready do.

Be­yond rais­ing tu­ition rates, pub­lic-col­lege lead­ers in many states re­sponded to cut­backs in tax­payer ap­pro­pri­a­tions by in­creas­ing the share of out-of­s­tate and in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, who pay higher tu­ition. That fur­ther frus­trated state res­i­dents who saw the ad­mis­sions process was a zero-sum game, with ev­ery new out-of-state stu­dent mean­ing one fewer spot for their sons and daugh­ters.

In some cases they were right. One study in Wash­ing­ton state found that among ap­pli­cants on the mar­gin of be­ing ac­cepted to the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, out-of-state stu­dents had a slight edge. An­other study found that a 10 per­cent re­duc­tion in state ap­pro­pri­a­tions at pub­lic re­search uni­ver­si­ties was as­so­ci­ated with a 17 per­cent rise in in­ter­na­tional en­roll­ment.

Col­lege lead­ers main­tain that they have no choice but to in­crease en­roll­ment of out-of­s­tate and in­ter­na­tional stu­dents to re­main com­pet­i­tive with in­sti­tu­tions around the world. Higher ed­u­ca­tion is now a global game, even for state in­sti­tu­tions, of­fi­cials say, and states can’t con­tinue to de­pend on their col­leges to res­cue their economies, es­pe­cially with fewer state dol­lars.

The pub­lic’s ex­pec­ta­tions when it comes to higher ed­u­ca­tion are im­mense, so we shouldn’t be sur­prised when in­sti­tu­tions fall short. Amer­i­can higher ed­u­ca­tion was never de­signed to serve as many stu­dents of vary­ing aca­demic ca­pa­bil­i­ties and pro­fes­sional in­ter­ests as it does to­day. Nor was it in­tended as the sole train­ing mech­a­nism for a job. Col­leges in­her­ited that role when the econ­omy tran­si­tioned away from man­u­fac­tur­ing and to a di­verse, in­for­ma­tion-driven econ­omy deeply in­ter­twined with the rest of the world.

When the Pew sur­vey re­sults were re­leased last week, high­ere­d­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials were quick to blame Repub­li­cans’ neg­a­tive per­cep­tions on wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age this past year of stu­dents who ac­tively and some­times vi­o­lently protested conservative speak­ers. Still, the re­sults should give col­lege lead­ers pause, given that Repub­li­cans con­trol the pres­i­dency, both cham­bers of Congress, and the ma­jor­ity of state­houses and gov­er­nors’ man­sions — and that no mat­ter what, higher ed­u­ca­tion de­pends on the GOP to sup­port col­leges and stu­dents at the fed­eral and state lev­els, at least for now.

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