Polls find faltering trust in American universities
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.