The public is losing confidence in higher ed — here’s why

The public is losing confidence in higher ed — here’s why

A recent Gallup poll found confidence in higher education eroding. For the first time in the United States, confidence has dropped below 50 percent, to an average of 48 percent. And trust has declined most precipitously among Republicans: only 39 percent have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in colleges and universities, compared to 62 percent of Democrats.

Why this loss of trust in colleges and universities, and why the widening gap along political lines? For conservatives, colleges are held to be citadels of liberal ideology. Dropping a child off on a college campus feels for many families like dropping them behind enemy lines.

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College is the place where society does its thinking. It should be the forge and working house of thought for free individuals in a free society.  

Ideology of any stripe stands opposed to the development of free minds. It represents a closed system of thought, beginning with formulated answers, rather than with the posing of questions, which is the true heart of education. To regain the trust of the public, we must affirm our commitment to authentic dialogue and free and open inquiry.

As for Democrats, the decline in confidence centers around the rising expense of higher education, the ballooning of student debt, and the perception that colleges do not prepare students adequately for the workforce.

It is no secret that college costs continue to increase year over year, at both public and private institutions. And as college costs increase, so too does student debt, which has topped $1.5 trillion in the United States.

It is imperative we find ways to make higher education more accessible and more affordable. We must be vigilant about costs, dedicating our resources to the classroom, while peeling away what is peripheral and extraneous. The amenities arms race must end. It is time for college unplugged.

There are some who see colleges and universities as toll houses, exacting a fee for entrance into a desired class or profession. It is estimated that 65 percent of elementary school children will ultimately end up working in jobs that don’t yet exist today. While we may not know what those jobs will be, we know the skill set that has stood the test of time for every profession: active listening, effective reasoning, attentive reading, critical analysis and creative thinking — these are the virtues that we must foster.

And they reflect the true purpose of education — to transcend utility and prepare students for a life well lived in all its aspects. If we as institutions of higher education have nothing to offer other than workforce credentials at ever-escalating prices, we have earned a degree of scorn.

In the end, concerns about ideology and accessibility cross political lines. A recent article in The Atlantic by Yascha Mounk details the fatigue that all but the 8 percent on the far left of the political spectrum feel about political correctness. Insofar as the public identifies this phenomenon as generated from, and sustained within, the culture of higher education, trust frays even further.  

And as our 2016 presidential election demonstrated, issues of social mobility and economic anxiety are not bounded by political affiliation. The cost of college is a crisis for all.

The loss of confidence in higher education is telling us something, and we must take it seriously — colleges and universities must rise above politics, return to our core missions, and support free inquiry while fostering respect and civil discourse.

In a recently published memoir, Hanna Gray, former president of University of Chicago, warns, “The belief that universities should be, above all, the homes of searching and critical intellectual vigor and thought needs recurrent renewal and affirmation.” 

This is a time for higher education to be self-reflective. We must look inward. Where we have stumbled, we must renew. As we affirm our purpose, we will regain trust.

Peter (Pano) Kanelos is president of the Annapolis, Maryland campus of St. John’s College, which also has a campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John’s is the third-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States.