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I imagine that readers of Inside Higher Ed heard the news that the Gallup survey on public confidence in institutions registered the lowest level of confidence in higher education in the survey’s history.

Only 36 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, “down about 20 percentage points from eight years ago,” as Jessica Blake characterizes for IHE.

What can we say other than it isn’t surprising, but perhaps it is useful context to recognize that, as measured in the same survey, public confidence in the majority of our public institutions is at or near all-time lows.

Confidence in the medical system, organized religion, the U.S. Supreme Court, banks, public schools, big tech, organized labor and newspapers is lower than that of higher education. We appear to be at a nadir for confidence in institutions over all, and to some degree, higher education is caught up in that trend.

We should also recognize the limits of this kind of polling in terms of providing actionable data for institutions. It says nothing about the sources of diminishing confidence, which are myriad.

There is the hot culture war being waged by Republicans in states like Florida, which is more like a full-bore political battle than what may truly be considered a culture war battle over public opinion. There is the cooler culture skirmish fanned by groups like FIRE and Heterodox Academy as they push against the perceived left tilt of the academy and angle for power and influence. There are also examples of genuine left excess that provide fodder for the above groups to prosecute their campaigns.

More importantly, to my mind, confidence in higher ed institutions is undermined by the obvious structural problems around how postsecondary education is organized in this country. The cost of receiving an education and the mechanisms for funding those costs are out of whack. President Biden’s attempt to acknowledge the breaking of a collective promise to make education affordable and accessible by canceling a portion of the balance for current debt holders was thwarted by the Supreme Court.

At The New York Times, Tressie McMillan Cottom described the twin judgments on the use of race in admissions and student loans as having “voided the 20th-century American Dream.” The notion of higher ed as a place for social and economic progress no longer holds. They are a place to reify privilege rather than expand opportunity.

There seems to be limited energy address these structural problems. On the right, as I wrote recently, the preferred solution is to have many fewer people go to college, primarily those who cannot afford it out of their own extant resources.

While many of us on the left (my hand is raised) are pushing for a redirecting of public resources to public institutions to make these schools tuition-free, the energy for this level of change among Democrats as a whole, and particularly among Democratic office holders, appears very limited.

The people working inside institutions, having been frayed by the challenges of the pandemic, are feeling increasingly burned out and overburdened, wondering if the work is truly worth it as the mission is, in the words of Kevin McClure and Barrett Taylor, “hollowed out.”

It looks and feels very bad.

Where can we find hope?

The first thing I would say on that front is that it is a mistake to conflate general lack of confidence in higher ed with universal distaste or distrust of every institution. The public debate about using race as a factor in admissions as well as the follow-on discussion on the use of legacy admissions has generated ill feelings towards “higher education” coming from a lot of different directions.

But of course, for the vast majority of schools, these practices that inflame the culture war are largely irrelevant. There’s nothing to be done in response to these issues.

We should also find solace in the fact that while there may be broad lack of confidence with an industry, those with on-the-ground experience with specific institutions inside that category are likely much more satisfied. For example, surveys of parents of kids in public school consistently find high satisfaction with their own schools.

“Schools? Terrible. Such a shame.”

“My kid’s school? It’s great. She loves Mrs. Jones.”

Rinse and repeat across broad swaths of America.

It is a fool’s errand to try to solve this disconnect. I don’t think there’s much utility in trying to change a broad metric around institutional confidence rooted in something other than direct experience.

The only power institutions and individuals have to move these sentiments is to do the best work they can to fulfill their institutional missions. Please note my personal emphasis there, because to the extent that students may lack confidence in or have negative impressions of their institutions, my years of observation of these dynamics suggest that this happens when schools allow operational imperatives like grabbing as much revenue as possible to overwhelm the work that colleges and universities are supposed to be doing in terms of educating those students.

This will almost certainly require doing things differently than in the past so as to accommodate the new reality. Listening to a recent episode of Fresh Air, I was struck by a point made by climate journalist Jeff Goodell, author of The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, about what we’re confronting when it comes to the global rise in temperatures caused by the release of carbon dioxide:

“I think a lot of people have this idea that, you know, yes, we are warming up the planet, but we’re, you know, clean energy is booming. We’re going to get this under control. We’re going to reduce fossil fuel emissions, and everything is going to go back to normal and to be the way it was. And that is a profound misunderstanding of the moment that we’re in. We’re heading into a completely different climate regime, a different atmospheric pattern.”

One answer later, he makes it even clearer: “We’re going to be in a new climate world for as long as we can—as anyone can imagine.”

There is no going backward. There is only doing the best you can going forward.

I think the dynamic is similar in higher education. If there ever was a golden age (debatable to begin with), the notion that it could be returned to is a fantasy given the forces at play, some of whom aren’t fully on board with the whole multiethnic, multiracial democracy in which public education plays a significant role. I don’t know how to work with people who want to destroy something we so obviously need.

Don’t get me wrong—we need to fix the huge structural problems that plague postsecondary education and training in this country. It is a disaster if we don’t. I seem to recall writing a book that came out over two years ago that makes this case with some measure of urgency .

But since that isn’t going to happen, the only current response is to do the work, to find something specific in your institution that isn’t fulfilling the mission and try to address it at the level of power and influence you possess.

The alternative—and it’s a fair one, as I look at the landscape—is despair and defeat.

I’m not there, but I can’t blame those who are.

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