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Of Course Public Confidence in Higher Education Is Down

As Americans' faith in higher education reacts to rising costs, mounting debts, and the growing sense that preparation for the workforce need not take a four-year degree, the post-World War II ambitions of higher education may prove to be a noble failure.
The Cecil H. Green Library on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, California.

The Cecil H. Green Library on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, California.

new Gallup poll reveals that only 48 percent of Americans have "'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of confidence" in the United States' higher education system. That figure marks a significant drop; 57 percent registered high confidence in 2015.

No other major institution, including Congress (which has an 11 percent confidence rating), experienced such a precipitous decline in public faith over the last three years. Gallup analyst Jeff Jones was blunt about these findings, noting that leaders in higher education "probably should be worried."

Judging by the inaugural address delivered by Harvard University's new president, Lawrence S. Bacow, it would seem the heads of universities are indeed aware—and concerned. "For the first time in my lifetime, people are actually questioning the value of sending a child to college," Bacow said in his speech. "For the first time in my lifetime, people are asking whether or not colleges and universities are worthy of public support."

There are many short-term causes for this drop in confidence. The seemingly endless contretemps over controversial campus speakers—debates that usually reduce all sides to a caricature—haven't helped higher education's public image. Likewise, the perennial emergence of Sokal-type hoaxes—most recently by a team of academic tricksters called Sokal Squared—presents academia as a place where jargon replaces thought. The perception that higher education teems with leftists intent on indoctrinating impressionable minds seems difficult to shake, especially with right-wing organizations funding a host of media outlets dedicated to perpetuating this prejudice.

But the decline in higher education's reputation has little to do with the war on free speech, safe zones, trigger warnings, or radical feminist jargon. The deeper reason for Americans' lagging confidence in the conventional four-year degree is due to a much more fundamental paradox.

Over the last 50 years, colleges and universities have done a remarkable job expanding student diversity and access to a broad range of specialized majors. Consider just one measure: enrollment across racial and ethnic lines. A 2016 report published by the Department of Education confirms that, in 1974, only 6 percent of Hispanics and blacks over 25 had completed college. But by 2014, 15 percent of Hispanics and 22 percent of blacks had done so. Hispanics have done so at greater rates than whites, with the gap in college enrollment rates between these groups dropping from 18 percent to 8 percent between 2003 and 2013.

Moreover, as student bodies have become more diverse, universities have expanded the spectrum of academic offerings. A couple dozen majors in the 1960s has multiplied to about 1,800 today. At some universities, the list of degree options runs well into the hundreds. Students can major in everything from economics to digital media to fashion merchandizing. All in all, few institutions have been as attentive to diversity and demand, and successful at meeting these challenges, as higher education.

But it all costs money—hence, the flip side of this good news: the rising cost of college. After making adjustments for inflation, the average tuition (including room, fees, and board) at public institutions rose 34 percent between 2005 and 2016. For private (non-profit) institutions, the increase over the same time period was 26 percent. If this trajectory continues, by 2025 four years of college will cost nearly $66,000 for in-state tuition at public schools and $225,000 at private schools.

To cover these costs students have assumed mounting debt. The numbers here are alarming. Over 44 million Americans carry $1.5 trillion in student load debt. In 2012, 66 percent of graduates from public schools had loans to pay off (average debt: $25,500), and 75 percent of graduates from private schools had loans (average debt: $32,300) Today, loan delinquency rate is over 11 percent. For those who are paying off their loans, the average monthly bill (for 20- to 30-year-olds) is $351. Altogether, Americans owe more—$620 billion more—for student loan debt than they do for credit card debt.

Needless to say, this makes for an unstable arrangement. The Gallup poll suggests that students (and their parents) may finally be questioning whether or not four years of intellectual engagement amid an engaged and diverse student body is worth a lifetime of debt.

Further evidence of this shift can be found in the rising popularity of viable alternatives to the four-year program. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of respondents ranked a community college degree on par with a four-year degree. In tech-driven cities such as Austin, Texas, high school graduates are opting for more streamlined educational options such as Galvanize and General Assembly, short but intensive tech-focused programs that cost a lot but only last a few months. (Those programs also seem to be effective: Ninety-four percent of Galvanize graduates get jobs in the tech industry.) The online course options, many of them free, further have the potential to disrupt the standard four-year program.

Of course, the old guard of higher education is going nowhere. Ivy League schools and the public ivies will continue to serve as proving grounds for the American aristocracy. But as Americans' faith in higher education reacts to rising costs, mounting debts, and the growing sense that preparation for the workforce need not take a four-year degree, the post-World War II ambitions of higher education—to affordably be everything to everyone—may prove to be a noble failure.