The Washington Post

Polls find faltering trust in American universiti­es

- 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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