A new survey confirms what most of us have seen in the last eight years or so: Confidence in higher education is at an all-time low. But there is at least a glimmer of light in the numbers and an opportunity for higher education to show how it is responding to this waning confidence.
The details: A Gallup poll taken last month finds that only 36 percent of us have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. That is a painful 20-point drop from eight years ago.
The sharpest declines are among Republicans, older Americans, and people without college degrees—though support among liberals and other generally dependable supporters of higher ed is also eroding, something new in the latest numbers.
If there’s any consolation in the survey results, it may be this: Americans still rank higher education fourth among 17 trusted institutions—behind small business, the military, and the police.
And another new poll released by Columbia University’s Teachers College found that two in three Americans consider higher education a wise investment.
“We show that most Americans (69 percent) view public spending on higher education as an excellent or good investment, and that a majority of Americans recognize the positive contribution of colleges and universities to individuals and society,” the study said.
Current students seem reasonably confident, as well: Gallup has found that about three-quarters of enrolled and prospective students say a college education is as important or more important than it was 20 years ago.
So what’s going on? Part of the slide in support might be caused by higher ed’s lack of visibility, its tendency to try to “lay low” and avoid controversy. For example, notice that higher education has often been a footnote in—or entirely absent from—the big policy debates of our time.
Think about the recent national debates over big policy issues, including the fight over the debt ceiling. We heard a lot about work requirements, IRS agents, and spending freezes, but not much about higher education.
Before that, we saw the biggest change in industrial policy in 50 years: Congressional approval of more than $2 trillion for infrastructure, climate change, and manufacturing—but next to nothing for education and training.
Often, if higher ed is mentioned at all, it’s framed as a problem that requires solving. Think about the recent Supreme Court cases on affirmative action and student loan debt. The framing is often about higher education’s troubles.
In many cases, it’s not much of a stretch to see higher education as the subject of overt attacks. Case in point: Suzanne Nossel and her colleagues at PEN America have convincingly documented a sweeping effort to stifle free speech on campuses through state laws targeting everything from books to university governance systems and tenure.
It matters how we talk about this. Big-data research supported by Lumina Foundation on media narratives shows that positive stories about higher education frequently go unheard, and damaging narratives have moved from fringe media to the mainstream. The most prevalent narrative, “Woke-ism has come for higher ed,” offers this absurdly distorted view: “The radical left has seized the university system and launched a dangerous campaign of anti-American indoctrination of college students.”
Contrast that with these data points from Morning Consult, the business intelligence company, which looked at attitudes around learning and training beyond high school: Nearly four out of five Americans (78 percent) say completing additional education after high school helps a person’s well-being, including 78 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats. Two-thirds say that education beyond high school is needed for a good life, and 75 percent of Americans hope their child or loved one will go further than a high school diploma.
So how should higher ed respond? Continue the “lay low” strategy, or maybe flip and go on the attack? Both carry risks.
Another option is the one I think makes sense for the moment we are in. Make the case for higher ed—not merely by defending what it is and does, but by showing how it responds to the increasing demands being foisted on it by a society that still believes that higher ed matters. Do more to take on the challenge of delivering real, lasting value. Develop strategies to improve affordability. Focus on the relevance of learning, and how higher education is central to a middle-class life and long-term, shared value for society—both today, and in an increasingly human work-focused labor market.
Meanwhile, we can expect higher ed’s critics to intensify their attacks as the presidential race heats up. Higher education must show what it can do best in an increasingly complex and dangerous world: advance knowledge and innovation; build a strong workforce; foster national prosperity; reduce inequality; uplift communities; and help individuals live fulfilling lives.
It’s time for higher ed to do a better job telling its own story, a sector that responds to society’s challenges by taking them on. That’s how we can restore confidence in higher education—and offer hope for our future.
This article was originally published in Forbes.