Americans are losing faith in higher education, and college leaders should look in their mirrors for the reasons. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 48% of the public has “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. That’s 9% lower than in 2015, the largest drop among all the 16 institutions – including Congress, the presidency, banks, and newspapers – surveyed over that period.
The decline is largest among Republicans, whose confidence has fallen 17%, compared to a six-point drop among Democrats and a four-point slide with Independents. These results mirror a Pew Research Center survey last year, where 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaners said that colleges had a negative effect on the country (up from 45% the prior year). Conversely, 72% of Democrats and Democrat-leaners believed higher education had a positive effect, about the same as in prior years.
Partisan divide notwithstanding, a 2017 New America survey found that 58% of all adults believed that colleges put their own institutional interests ahead of those of students, and this suspicion was stronger among millennials, those individuals with the most recent experience in college.
Most Americans still believe advanced education is key to their children’s prosperity, but they are growing more critical of how universities go about their business, believing they are costly and inefficient, fail too many students, spend too much money on luxuries rather than learning, coddle rather than challenge students, and tolerate one athletics scandal after another.
It’s tempting for higher education leaders to minimize these concerns, viewing them merely as temporary symptoms of the general mistrust toward institutions that has seized the public. Tempting, but wrong. In fact, the academy needs self-examination; the longer it waits, the more public trust will erode. The time has come for higher education to pose tough questions and face inconvenient truths.
Its problems are real, and they will only worsen unless leaders confront them head on and get their houses in order. Here are two places to start:
Reward institutional performance. Public institutions have historically been funded based on student enrollment, rewarded for attracting more students regardless of whether they stay in school, learn much, or earn degrees. A better approach is performance funding, where public colleges are funded not for larger enrollments, but for achieving desirable goals like greater retention, better student learning, increased degree completion, and more graduates in high-demand fields.
Despite skepticism within the academy, performance funding, in various forms, is now underway in more than half the states. One recent study of Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee found it led to increases in credit hours earned and timely degree completion at both two-year and four-year schools. Well-designed and sufficiently funded performance funding should be expanded; it leads institutions to focus more carefully on student success than do enrollment-driven models.
Revamp college scholarships. Most financial aid offered by colleges is not based on students’ financial need. It’s distributed on what is deemed “merit,” simplistically equated with standardized test scores and high-school grades. Colleges use merit-based aid to attract high-scoring enrollees so they can tout higher institutional ACT/SAT scores, a heavily weighted component in annual rankings and ratings of colleges.
Not only is “merit” a too narrowly defined concept, of minimal validity predicting long-term success, it perpetuates an income gap in college attainment. One study found that since the 1990s, two- thirds of selective public universities reduced the share of enrolled students from the bottom 40% of the income scale while simultaneously increasing the share of students from the top 20% of the income ladder. Increased use of merit-based aid promoted this discouraging pattern.
It takes institutional courage to quit the ratings rat-race and replace merit awards, which go disproportionately to middle or upper-class students, with need-based aid that enables poor students to attend college. Franklin and Marshall College summoned that courage, when it ended almost all merit scholarships, redirecting those funds to students in financial need. The results? The percentage of Pell recipients more than doubled, overall enrollment held steady, and for those who care, Franklin and Marshall continues to fare well in national ratings. More colleges need to follow its lead.
Declining confidence in higher education is not merely a partisan issue. It signals that real reforms are necessary. Changing how we finance institutions and fund students are two changes that can restore some lost confidence.