The Declining Trust in Higher Education

Two things happened at about the same time that caused me to choose the topic for today’s podcast.

The first is that I do receive a fair amount of correspondence from listeners, and one of the recurring themes is an item that they feel I’m leaving unaddressed. It’s certainly an important topic. It’s the question of why attitudes have changed negatively towards higher education in a variety of ways and the cumulative effect of that; the overall negative opinion that the majority of Americans have about our system of higher education, which is actually a system that is the envy of much of the world, and listeners felt that I should talk about this general topic. At the same time, a newspaper that I read every day, the New York Times, published an article entitled “Cheating Scandals, Charters and Falling Test Scores – Five Takeaways From the Year in Education.”

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The article subtitle was “Five big trends, from stagnant student performance to declining faith in colleges.” The article itself, which I strongly recommend that you read, doesn’t just have to do with higher education. For example, the stagnant student performance they’re referring to is primarily in K-12. They also talk about the crisis in college admissions because, of course, this was the year for the largest scandal ever in college admissions. But the article does point out that one of the takeaways from the year was the overwhelming data that supports the view that there is a declining public trust in higher education.

The article begins out by pointing out that a four-year college degree remains valuable on the job market, but that there’s increased cynicism about admissions and high tuition costs. And remember that about a third of students who start college drop out. Most of those students have debt, and cumulatively more Americans are asking whether college is worth it. I think that when I boot up my social media feeds, not a day goes by that I don’t see some article questioning whether the traditional college route is really worth it, pointing out, for example how many jobs are available to people who do not go the traditional college route, who go more of a workforce preparation route, and talking about student loan debt – how high it is and how difficult it can be to pay off, and how it’s influencing everything about what college graduates do, from the timing of when they start families to their ability to purchase homes.

This isn’t a typical political issue: both Democrats and Republicans have reservations about our system, although there are some differences between what they point to as the problems with the system. The end result is really the same – ultimately, we come up with a negative view of higher education and fewer and fewer people believe that the education system provides value for what it costs. On the Republican side, the Pew Research Center found that 59% of Republicans (and those who lean Republican) believe colleges have a negative effect on the country. According to the New York Times article, large majorities of those conservatives said they distrusted colleges because they did not prepare students for the workforce, did not promote free speech, and because professors are “bringing their political and social views into the classroom.” Democrats have a very different set of concerns that primarily center around cost. If you’ve been following the democratic primaries, you know that every democratic candidate has acknowledged the burdensome cost of college. All of the candidates have proposals about how to make college more affordable and those range from making college free to simply a lowering the threshold for some sort of an of aid, and everything in between.

In previous podcasts I’ve talked about the wisdom of making college free for all. I think it’s a nonstarter politically because of the costs, but I think that the costs are not just a political talking point. I think there are very real costs that no one has quite figured out how to pay for. I’ve also pointed out in the past that I think that there will be unintended consequences of such a policy that will actually increase the costs of higher education. Ultimately, I’ve argued that the cost of higher education is high, and so simply finding a way to pay for those rather than to find a way to reduce costs really probably wouldn’t produce the results we’re looking for.

There are a number of important psychological and financial factors that play into the cynicism about a college education. The first is of course the cost, and I’m going to spend the least amount of time on that simply because I’ve discussed it at length elsewhere and it seems beyond dispute. Anybody who follows this already knows that the cost of higher education has increased faster than the rate of inflation. In addition, the amounts that states are contributing to higher education has decreased measured in real dollars, which means that the increase is picked up disproportionately by the students themselves. I think it’s more interesting to give people credit where credit is due and acknowledged that most people at some point or another, if they’ve spent a great deal of money on college or invested a lot of time or both, ask themselves whether they’re getting something that’s worth it and when they perform that calculation in their head, as informal as it may be, it’s pretty obvious that college comes up short in a number of ways.

I talk to a lot of college students in my career, thousands and thousands of them. And one of the recurring themes among those students is that even when they’re in college, although they may periodically find college difficult or challenging an individual class or an individual part of the class overall, a lot of the students have a great deal of contempt for the difficulty of the material. This contempt surfaces in a number of ways. They may express it as not that much harder than high school, and in some cases, they’ll say it’s easier than high school. In some cases they’ll point out that an individual class is just kind of the blow-off class that they don’t really have to do very much. They will talk about how easy assignments are. They certainly know of if they’re able to complete an assignment by doing it at the last minute and somehow, they ended up getting a good grade. The fact is that a lot of students simply don’t find college particularly challenging and they know it.

A second problem is that the schools themselves don’t portray a lot of the material in college as very worthwhile or important. The classic example is, of course, general education courses that even advisors will refer to as something that you just have to get through, or get over with, or something that you just have to take. And then once the student has gone through a series of courses that may be have inconsistent difficulty coupled with courses that the student is not really clear were of any real value at all, but for some reason somebody decided the student had to take those courses, the student graduates and the student can look back. They’re not dumb. They have an opinion about how much of their college education was worthwhile, however, the student wants to measure that. Many students will report that, oh yes, I liked this professor very much. I remember this class very specifically. I learned a lot in that class, or I learned a lot in this series of classes, but in many cases they’re looking back over a period of say, four years. And it’s very difficult for them to express what they got out of those four years as anything that even looks like a vast body of knowledge or skills. But the students certainly knows that they spent a lot of time and in most cases, they also spent a lot of money. So when they’re doing sort of this back of the envelope or back of the brain calculation, I’m not sure that college looks very good to them. And the truth is, is that if it doesn’t look good to them on the day they’re graduating, I wonder what will happen next.

Well, we know what happens next. There’s a group of people who receive a good job based on the college degree that they earned that specifically requires that degree and compensates them well for earning that degree. And then there’s everybody else. Who are those people? Well, the first group are the half of all students who don’t even finish college in the first place. They accumulate debt, but they don’t actually walk away with a degree. There are many reasons for this. Some people may just not be in the right place. Some people may not have chosen something that interests them. Some people may be struggling academically or personally. Some people may run out of money. But cumulatively what you end up with is an extraordinary number of people who don’t graduate from college. And I would imagine that those people’s calculation about the value of college is a bit different than those who successfully finish.

But even among those who successfully finished college, what happens to them? As many as 22 million US workers can be considered underemployed; that is, they have a job that doesn’t put their education experience or training to work, or they’re working part-time when they’d rather have a full-time job, according to a very comprehensive study from PayScale. Almost half of the surveyed workers feel they’re underpaid, and remember that a lot of those people, whether they’re fully employed or underemployed or not employed at all, they have student loan debt, lots of it. The average student loan debt right now in the United States per, for each person who has it, is about $29,000. Obviously, some people have more, some people have less, but in every case, a student loan debt is a significant burden and it isn’t wiped out through bankruptcy or anything like that.

People spend much of their adult lives paying off that debt. I’m a perfectly good example of that. For the first decade and a half of my career, I had about a thousand dollars a month student loan payment. That payment was annoying and burdensome. Even though I had the money to pay it, I was well-employed, and I could afford to pay off the loans. I eventually of course did, but I found it annoying even though I had the money to pay it. I can only imagine what it would be like if I did not have the money.

So you have this overarching context of what you got out of college from a knowledge and skills perspective, which many people find dissatisfying. And then you have their own personal experience of the reward they gained for this work and this investment. And many people find the reward unsatisfactory. They’re either not making what they thought they could make, or they didn’t realize how much the student loan debt was going to chip away at their standard of living. Or they’re not even able to get a job in the area that they studied in college. But that’s not the only context – that’s not the only lens through which people see higher education today. They obviously see it as a destination for their tax dollars and just like everything else that we pay tax money toward, we want to know if that tax money is being well spent. There’s not even time in this podcast to list all of the familiar complaints that people might have with the way their tax dollars are spent in higher education, and that’s before they even consider that the costs of higher education are rising faster than most other things. Then there’s the ideology. We could obviously do an entire podcast just on amazing examples of how the ideology that is readily available to students at college may be very, very different than the ideologies of those who are paying for some portion of that education.

But the roots of the mistrust are even more complex than that. Are employers satisfied with the college graduates that they are hiring? No. I would point you to a truly interesting article at Inside Higher Ed, “Overconfidence Students, Dubious Employers” by Jeremy Bauer Wolf from 2018. You can probably tell from the title what’s going on, but Bauer Wolf writes that college students may believe they’re ready for a job, but employers think otherwise. At least that’s according to data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers which surveyed graduating college seniors and employers and found a significant difference in the group’s perceptions. For the most part, a high percentage of students indicated in almost every category that they were proficient, but employers disagreed.

The biggest divide was around students’ professionalism and work ethic. Almost 90% of seniors thought they were competent in that area and only 43% of the employers agreed. Nearly 80% of students also believed they were competent in oral and written communication. But only 42% of employers thought that. And 80% of the students thought they were competent in critical thinking. But only 56% of employers believe that students were successful in those areas. There was only one area in which the employers rated the students more highly than the students rated themselves, which was digital technology skills. This study examined eight competencies and found that in seven of the eight areas, the people who are first hiring, and then working, with college graduates find the college graduates lacking in those areas. You don’t need me to tell you that’s going to cause a very healthy skepticism about the value of the education those students received in the minds of those employers and there are a lot of employers in the United States.

In upcoming podcasts, we’re going to dissect each of these areas, and we’re going to talk about possible solutions or going to have guests on the podcast that have an address these issues (in some cases quite successfully) so that we can try to find models that work. I’m not a sky-is-falling kind of person – I’m certainly more of an optimist than a pessimist, but it would be pretty foolish not to make a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges that higher education faces. If you offer a product or a service that is incredibly expensive, that someone not only has to devote a great deal of money, but also a great deal of time and effort in acquiring, and the perceived value of the thing you are selling is declining, you should be worried.

We should all be worried not only because many of the criticisms of higher education are legitimate, but because inherently the pace of change in higher education is glacial. This is actually on purpose because a degree takes a long time to acquire, and no one’s going to become part of your community, your college community, if they think that things are going to change every three or four months. But in the end that same stability makes higher education less able to adapt to changing conditions. In this case, either higher education is going to successfully diagnose the problems that it faces and move quickly enough to address them or it will continue to lose relevancy and to lose students. I don’t mean to end that on a downer. I believe that ultimately the problems that higher education faces can be addressed. It’s just that structurally, higher education in the United States is fairly disparate, and so we don’t move all together in one direction. So it can take a little bit more time and a little bit more persuasive argument before people recognize the problems and begin to adopt real solutions. My hope is that in 2020 this podcast will be part of offering those solutions.