Public Confidence in Higher Ed Varies by Social Context

April 5, 2017

From concerns about student debt to legislative attacks on tenure, some have suggested there’s a crisis of public confidence in U.S. colleges and universities. A new paper in The Journal of Higher Education examines how that confidence varies across social contexts, from political ideology to religion to parental career encouragement. Based on data from 2014’s nationally representative Religious Understandings of Science survey concerning some 10,000 Americans, the study finds that 14 percent of the American public report “a great deal” of confidence in higher education. Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews, those who perceive a conflict between science and faith and "side" with religion, and political conservatives all are significantly less likely to report confidence in academe, while parents who are strong supporters of professional career paths for their children are much more likely to report confidence.

In general, Americans have more confidence in higher ed than they do in Congress, the press, corporations and religious institutions. But they have more trust in scientists and the military than they do in academe. One in five Americans has hardly any confidence in how colleges and universities are run. Those with higher education experience have more confidence in colleges and universities than those who don't, and African-Americans have less confidence relative to whites.

The study’s co-authors are David R. Johnson, an assistant professor of higher education leadership at the University of Nevada at Reno, and Jared L. Peifer, an assistant professor of management at Baruch College. Johnson said via email that public confidence in higher education “is rarely measured through survey research, despite the ‘crisis of confidence’ rhetoric that steadily percolates in the public sphere.” And when surveys have been done, he added, “they rarely examine how confidence varies by race, gender, religious background and other important demographic characteristics.”

“How Public Confidence in Higher Education Varies by Social Context” suggests that “contested legitimacy [of academe] occurs among some groups because universities do not actually know what is important to particular groups, they fail at communicating their legitimacy or they underperform in the eyes of some.” It's “equally possible that low confidence among some groups in the public is the result of a poor understanding of what universities, professors and students do,” it says, and the “content of these doubts is thus an important area for future research.”

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