Poll: Most Americans See Higher Ed Headed in Wrong Direction

Inside Higher Ed

by Scott Jaschik

A new survey of the U.S. public suggests continued problems regarding the image of higher education — and negative perceptions are not limited to Republicans.

A solid majority of all adults (61 percent) believe that higher education is headed in the wrong direction, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. But that view is much more likely to be held by Republicans or those who lean Republican than by Democrats or those who lean Democrat.

While both Republicans and Democrats express skepticism about higher education, they do so for different reasons — Democrats are more concerned about tuition rates, and Republicans are more concerned about their perceptions of campus politics.

The survey is among a series in the last two years in which the public has been asked about impressions of higher education. The questions haven’t all been identical, so comparisons may be difficult, but many of the findings suggest doubts about higher education.

A year ago, Pew released a survey showing that — in a dramatic shift from past surveys — most Republicans believe higher education is having a negative impact on the United States. A Gallup survey in February found that Americans believe more in “higher education” than in “colleges and universities.” That poll also found that skepticism of higher education is deepest among white men without degrees. A New America survey in May found a partisan divide on paying for college but a generally positive view of higher education.

When Pew analyzed why those who believe higher education is headed in the wrong direction hold that view, the answers were different (generally) for Democrats and Republicans. For both groups, concerns were evident about tuition and about whether students are being trained with the skills they need for the workplace, with Democrats more concerned about the former and Republicans about the latter.

But wide gaps can be seen in the large share of Republicans who believe there is “too much concern” in higher education “about protecting students from views they might find offensive” and who believe that “professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom.” Only minorities of Democrats have those views.

When it comes to the issues of “protecting students” from views they may find offensive and from professors’ politics, the skeptical view among Republicans about higher education gets stronger the older the Republicans are.