American confidence in higher education hits a new low, yet most still see value in a college degree

Americans’ confidence in the nation’s colleges and universities has plummeted, according to a new Gallup poll. If that lack of support continues, it could have long-term ramifications for both higher education and the U.S. economy as a whole. Fewer educated workers could stymie innovation, aggravate labor shortages and hinder social mobility.

But complicating our understanding of this poll, which was released on July 11, 2023, are several other more sanguine Gallup surveys. Even as confidence in institutions of higher education seems to be in free fall, Americans continue to feel that a college degree is valuable.

Stephanie Marken, a partner at Gallup who oversees its research in education, describes the conflicting polls as an “interesting juxtaposition.”

“Our theory is that people generally believe that higher education will get them a better job or a higher wage,” said Marken, “and yet they feel like the system of higher education is flawed in a rather significant way that’s impacting their confidence in that institution.”

Gallup called a thousand adults across the nation between June 1 and 22, and asked them how much confidence they had in a list of institutions, from the military to Congress. Only 36% said they had a “great deal” (17%) or “quite a lot” (19%) of confidence in higher education. Marken said it’s been a “precipitous” decline since 2015, the first time Gallup included higher education in its confidence surveys. Back then, 57% expressed confidence in higher education. That fell to 48% in 2018 before the current drop to 36% in 2023. At the same time, the number of Americans who say they have “very little confidence” in higher education – the lowest category – has more than doubled from 9% in 2015 to 22% in 2023.

For years, Republicans have been publicly criticizing college professors and administrators for being too left-leaning and confidence in higher education among Republicans sank the most. But confidence also dropped among independents and Democrats. Marken said news stories about higher education have taken a toll. President Biden’s controversial student loan cancellation plan reminded Americans of the high cost of college. The 2019 Varsity Blues scandal, which revealed how wealthy parents cheated and schemed to get their kids into elite schools, also tainted the sector. (Click here for more detailed opinions by political party, education, gender and age.)

People “feel like the system is unaffordable and rigged against most Americans,” said Marken.

To be sure, American confidence in all institutions is deteriorating. Even though the loss of confidence in higher education is notably large, higher education still ranks fourth in confidence behind small business, the military and the police – the same place it had in 2018. Congress, by contrast, ranks dead last.

At the same time, several Gallup polls show that Americans still value a college degree. More than two-thirds of currently enrolled college students (71%) said that they strongly agree or agree that the degree they are pursuing is worth the cost. That survey was conducted in the spring of 2023 and released in June. Another recent survey, conducted in 2022, found that three-quarters of currently enrolled college and prospective college students report that a college education is at least as or more important than it was 20 years ago.

Gallup has been asking Americans about the importance of a college education for 45 years. And while the numbers go up and down, they are strong. In 1978, 82% said a college education was very (36%) or fairly (46%) important. In 2019, the most recent time Gallup asked this question, 88% said it was very (53%) or fairly (35%) important.

Gallup’s Marken likens the contradictory opinions about higher education to what we see in consumer banking. “People are very negative about big banks, but I still have a checking account. It’s the only system I have,” she said. “Post-secondary education is one of the only levers we have for social mobility. They’re still annoyed that that’s not available to more Americans or that it’s not more affordable.”

The crisis in confidence doesn’t appear to be affecting college enrollment yet, Marken said. (Enrollment has been dropping for other reasons, including a strong job market and a declining teenage population in some regions of the U.S.) But Marken worries that a consistent decline in confidence could lead to fewer students wanting to attend college in the future.

The cost of college is the principal reason that people are losing confidence in higher education, according to Marken. Popular perceptions are partly to blame. Rising sticker prices among a few elite colleges get a lot of media attention, she said, while net prices (after individual discounts from grants or scholarships) are confusing. Community colleges may be affordable, but Americans generally aren’t thinking of them when they respond to surveys about college, Marken said.

Still, tuition hikes are real too. “If we don’t really address the root cause of cost,” she said, “we will continue to operate in this environment where people are really frustrated with this system.”

This story about confidence in higher education was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.

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