Public confidence in higher education plummets by 20% in 8 years

Leading the charge among the skeptics are Republicans, who recorded a 37% decline in trust in higher education in that time frame.

A new poll by Gallup has discovered a hard-nosed truth among today’s American public: Confidence in higher education is at an all-time low.

Specifically, only 36% of Americans today have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the institution of higher education. These numbers pale in comparison to those in 2018 (47%) and 2015 (57%). In just eight years, American trust has dropped an astounding 20%.

On the flip side, those who trust in higher education “very little” has grown by 13% since 2015 for a total of 22% of respondents. While more than a fifth of Americans today hold relatively no regard for the institution, 40% have “some” confidence.

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Higher ed faces universal distrust

Not only has confidence in higher education sunk, but it has also done so among every subgroup Gallup took into account: party identification, gender, age, and even education level. Regard among bachelor’s degree holders has fallen 10% since 2015; for postgraduate degree holders, confidence has dropped by 17%. The more education one receives, it seems, the less confident one becomes. However, no college degree holders remain the second-lowest demographics to distrust the institutions.

Leading the charge among the skeptics are Republicans, who recorded a 37% decline in trust in higher education over the past eight years. While 56% recorded “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institution in 2015—8% more than Independents—they now sit at 19%. More than half of recorded Democrats still trust the system (59%), but it’s still dropped by 9%.

All in all, confidence in a college or university system has dropped by double-digit numbers among all demographics, save Democrats, who were just one point shy.

Making sense of the decline

While the report did not ask specifically what led to individuals’ lack of confidence in higher education institutions, other resources help paint a comprehensive picture.

For example, another Gallup poll discovered that among party lines, Republican trust has declined due to the perceived liberal agenda present on campuses inhibiting independent thought. This does seem to be playing out on the national stage as GOP lawmakers in several states have decried diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for pushing its potential to indoctrinate and exclude students.

On the other hand, confidence among Democrats has lowered mainly due to the burdensome costs a degree carries and the lack of successful student outcomes. Again, this sentiment seems to manifest itself among its lawmakers: Democrats favor free tuition programs (like in Minnesota) and President Biden’s crackdown on student loans and the for-profit colleges who’ve exacerbated the problem.

The traditional college cohort (those aged 18 to 24) seems to share the same rationale as Democrats for its distrust. One report discovered that students in all but three states would have to work more than 40 hours a week at a minimum-wage job to adequately pay for school and living expenses.

The bigger picture

This poll is part of a broader Gallup survey asking Americans to rate their trust across various American institutions. Comparatively, trust in higher education (36%) is better than 13 of the 16 industries listed. The lowest performers are television news (14%), big business (14%) and Congress (8%).

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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