In recent years, the sizable gap between Republicans and Democrats concerning their opinion of higher education has widened into a chasm. “Overall, do you think colleges and universities are having a positive or negative effect on the way things are going in this country today?” the Pew Research Center asked in 2015. Seventy percent of self-identified Democrats and Democratic leaners and 54 percent of their Republican counterparts answered “positive.” In 2017, Democrats hadn’t much budged; 72 percent still chose “positive.” But Republicans had soured on higher education. Only 36 percent thought well of its effects on the country. Last year, 76 percent of Democrats and just 34 percent of Republicans held our colleges and universities in tolerably high regard.
Blame the rise of Trumpian populism or the widely publicized protests that swept across colleges and universities beginning in 2015. We’ve moved in a short time from a 16-point gap between Democrats and Republicans, with both groups favoring higher education, to a 42-point fissure, with Republicans disdaining it.
Because the news about institutional trust has been bad nearly across the board, one can argue that colleges and universities are not so bad off. Republicans love large corporations even less nowadays. Overall, Pew’s findings suggest higher education is faring better with the public than such corporations, as well as banks and technology companies. Taking Republicans and Democrats into account, 57 percent still thought, in 2021, that colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the country. President Biden would kill for such numbers.
A new report from New America, a left-leaning think tank, offers such a spin. Their findings from a survey conducted in April and May of this year resemble Pew’s 2021 findings. Fifty-five percent—37 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats—think that colleges and universities are having a positive effect. Yet, the authors argue, they were collecting data while “warning signs in the economy grew stronger” and after more than two years of COVID. They observe that the National Opinion Research Institute has been collecting data on self-reported happiness for a half-century and, in 2020, “the share of Americans who said they are not too happy surpassed those saying they were very happy for the first time.”
In light of the public’s foul mood, it’s surprising that higher education’s position hasn’t eroded more than it has. In an atmosphere in which questions about higher education’s value arise not only in conservative circles but also at NPR, it’s surprising that 75 percent of respondents, including 69 percent of self-identified conservatives, agree that “education beyond high school offers a good return on investment for the student.” That’s not great, but it’s not alarming for colleges and universities either.
Even so, there is some bad news for people who value higher education’s health in that survey. The first concerns our partisan divide. Even though matters haven’t gotten much worse since the drastic turn in Republican public opinion five or six years ago, colleges and universities, facing both short-term and long-run decline in college-aged students, can ill-afford to be despised by half the country. The second concerns those same college-aged students, all of whom are in Generation Z. Only 48 percent of that generation’s respondents think that higher education is having a positive effect on the country. Forty-nine percent disagree.
That makes Generation Z more dubious about higher education than any generation other than the Silents, some of whom are now in their nineties. Generation Z respondents were also less likely than any other age group to agree that four-year colleges, public or private, are worth the cost of attendance. And they were less likely than average to view education beyond high school as a good investment.
All that says nothing about the actual value of higher education as an investment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median weekly wage for holders of a high school diploma or GED at $838. For bachelor’s degree holders with no higher degree, that’s $1,441, about 72 percent more. The value of a four-year degree varies greatly. A significant minority of programs may fail to offer a positive return on investment when measuring the costs and benefits carefully. Still, education analyst Preston Cooper concludes that “on average, there is still a significant financial return to attending college.” For those reasons, 56 percent of Asian respondents to the New America survey consider a bachelor’s degree to be the minimal requirement for the financial security of their immediate or close family members. Only five percent of Asian-Americans consider a high school degree sufficient, which may be closer to the truth than what white respondents apparently believe. Among them, 29 percent believe a college degree is a necessity.
Whatever the truth of that matter may be, higher education has a credibility problem, not only with Republicans beyond their college years but also with the very young people they hope to attract.