Positive View of Higher Ed, With Lots of Caveats

Inside Higher Ed

By Scott Jaschik

National poll finds more appreciation of colleges than other surveys have. In some areas, including affirmative action, sexual assault and mental health, the public isn’t impressed. Public institutions earn more confidence than private ones.

In 2017, national surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center found significant public doubts — more than in previous years — about higher education and its role in American society. While the questions in the two polls were not identical, both polls pointed to doubts about how higher education is run. And the skepticism was greatest among Republicans (although there were also doubts among Democrats and Independents).

Today, WGBH (Boston’s public radio station) is releasing a national survey of adults (conducted with ABT Associates) that generally finds a more positive outlook among the more than 1,000 people surveyed. But in key areas, such as the use of affirmative action, the public does not support the policies favored by most higher education leaders.

And the survey found doubts on how colleges respond to sexual assault and student mental health issues. The survey found the public thinks more highly of public than private institutions, and that Ivy graduates are seen as elitist. The public is split on the idea of taxing the endowments of wealthy private colleges.

In the Gallup and Pew surveys, partisan divides were evident in many of the key responses. WGBH released such data on some, but not all questions, in its survey, and not for some of the top-line questions.

Favorable Views

On a number of broad questions, the survey featured answers that may reassure educators. (Totals do not add to 100 percent as “don’t know” and non-answer percentages are not included here.)

  • 41 percent of those surveyed said that they had a strongly favorable view of American colleges and universities, while 26 percent had a somewhat favorable view, 11 percent had a somewhat unfavorable view, and 11 percent had a strongly unfavorable view.
  • When the question was rephrased to be about “the college or university nearest to where you live,” the percentage with a strongly favorable view went up to 46 percent.
  • 77 percent said that colleges and universities have a positive impact on society, compared to only 14 percent who see a negative impact.
  • 81 percent said that colleges and universities have a positive impact on their local community.
  • Asked whether, “considering the costs,” college was worth attending, 43 percent said they agreed strongly, and another 25 percent agreed somewhat.

Despite those generally positive views, only a minority of those polled said that graduating from college was “necessary to get ahead in life.” Forty-two percent agreed while 55 percent disagreed.

When it comes to attitudes about certain colleges, the public view is mixed. The public is more likely to have a favorable view (and any view) of public than of private higher education.

Public vs. Private Colleges

Favorable View Unfavorable View No Answer/Don’t Know
Public 76% 16% 9%
Private 59% 24% 17%

How Elitist Are College Graduates?

Agree Disagree
College graduates are elitist 31% 59%
Ivy graduates are elitist 54% 34%

Public Funds for Higher Education (and Taxes)

The strong support for public higher education is matched by attitudes about state support for higher education, but only up to a point. And only among certain groups, the WGBH survey found.

More than three-fourths of those surveyed (78 percent) said they would be concerned if their state decided to reduce funding for public colleges. But asked about raising taxes to support public higher education, only 47 percent said they would be willing to pay more, while 49 percent were opposed.

Willingness to pay higher taxes varied by racial/ethnic group, with 56 percent of African Americans willing to pay more, and only 46 percent of white people saying that.

Support for raising taxes to avoid cuts to public higher education was strongest among liberals (70 percent) and people aged 18-29 (60 percent). Those most likely to be opposed were conservatives (69 percent), white evangelical Protestants (62 percent), and women without a college degree (58 percent),

Split Views on Endowment Tax

The tax bill adopted by Congress last year imposed a tax on the endowments of wealthy private colleges. While the exact details are not clear until pending regulations are issued, the tax has been seen as a major shift in federal policy, and has been opposed by most higher education associations.

A small majority of Americans (50 percent to 43 percent) oppose the tax, WGBH found.

But there were differences by party affiliation and other factors. While 46 percent of Republicans favor the tax, only 38 percent of Democrats do so.

Support for the endowment tax is stronger among those who are younger (18-29), among whom 54 percent support the tax, and among those without a college degree, among whom 47 percent favor the tax.

Opposition to Consideration of Race

The survey also included a series of questions about admissions policies and diversity. The results may concern higher education leaders, who overwhelmingly are backing Harvard University as it defends itself in a lawsuit charging that its affirmative action policies result in discrimination against Asian American applicants.

The survey found that the public supports the idea behind “holistic” admissions (although that term was not used in the survey). Only 27 percent of the public said that college admissions decisions should be based exclusively on high school grades and standardized test scores. Seventy percent said that admissions decisions should be based on a “variety of factors.”

Further, 64 percent said that it was extremely or very important that colleges have racial diversity in their student bodies. Another 22 percent said it was somewhat important.

But the results were striking when members of the public were asked if it was appropriate for colleges to consider certain factors in admissions decisions:

  • 60 percent said that athletic talent should be considered.
  • 72 percent said that musical talent should be considered.
  • 73 percent said that leadership should be considered.
  • 83 percent said that “overcoming hardships such as poverty or health problems” should be considered.

But then came the question on race. “The Supreme Court has decided colleges can use race as one factor in deciding which applicants to admit. Do you agree or disagree with this ruling?” Twenty-four percent said they agreed while 72 percent disagreed.

While opposition to consideration of race was strong, there were some differences of opinion by educational attainment and party affiliation.

College graduates were more than twice as likely as non-college graduates (40 percent vs 17 percent) to agree with the Supreme Court that colleges should be allowed to consider race and ethnicity. The only group WGBH identified in which more supported than opposed the Supreme Court ruling was among those with graduate education, where support for the ruling outpaced opposition 49 percent to 45 percent.

Defenders of affirmative action have noted that certain words in questions in surveys tend to yield more opposition, but the phrasing of this survey did not use those phrases (notably those with the word “preferences”).

The results are in some ways similar to the findings of a 2016 survey of the public by Gallup (with questions drafted by Inside Higher Ed, which works with Gallup on surveys, but played no role in the survey referenced at the top of this article). In that survey, 61 percent of the public said that family economic circumstances should be a factor in admissions, 55 percent said that athletic ability should be a factor, and only 36 percent said that race or ethnicity should be a factor.

Free Speech, Politics and Student Life

  • A solid majority (57 percent) of Americans believe that colleges should stand behind invitations to speakers whom some on campus find offensive. While support for this view is stronger among Republicans than Democrats, a plurality of Democrats also share this view. White people are more likely than non-white people (61 percent to 50 percent) to believe colleges should stick with such invitations.
  • Fifty-nine percent of the public in the WGBH poll said that colleges lean to one political view. Of those, more than three-fourths identified that view as a liberal one, and nearly half saw that as a problem.
  • Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said that colleges fail to do a good job of protecting students from sexual assault. Among women, the share with this view was 59 percent.
  • Half of those surveyed (50 percent) said that colleges are not doing a good job of meeting the mental health needs of students. Among women, the share with that view was 57 percent.