Which sections of the US public do not trust HE?

Only 14% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in higher education and one in five US adults has “hardly any confidence in how colleges and universities are run”, according to a nationwide survey of 10,241 nationally representative Americans, the results of which were published in an article of The Journal of Higher Education.

The finding is substantially different from the survey conducted by Gross and Simmons in 2006, who found that 42% of Americans reported “a lot of confidence” in colleges and universities.

But the paper, ”How Public Confidence in Higher Education Varies by Social Context”, goes further, identifying in which groups the legitimacy of higher education is highly contested, a finding that may help universities better identify effective strategies for addressing public distrust of their work.

Although the paper, published last month, was written two years ago, it is timely due to the distrust of the liberal elite, of which universities are part, and of academic experts and science, voiced during the US presidential campaign and since, including by Donald Trump.

The apparent rise of anti-intellectual sentiment has left universities soul searching about how to better engage with the public and raise awareness of the value of higher education and research to society.

The authors, David R Johnson of the University of Nevada, Reno, and Jared L Peifer of the department of management, Baruch College, New York, were examining how much we know about public trust in higher education in the United States and how confidence in higher education varies across social contexts.

The study – which was published in April, although it was originally submitted for publication two years ago – controlled for institutional confidence to ensure that a lack of confidence in higher education is not driven by one’s attitudes toward social institutions in general. It also controlled for traditional class variables such as education and income.

Relative to other institutions in society, higher education does far better than politicians and journalists to garner public confidence. Only 3% of the American population had a great deal of confidence in the US Congress and only 4% of the population had great confidence in the press, the study found.

Higher education did better than corporations (6%) and religious figures (12%). However, it was significantly outperformed by the scientific community (19%) and dwarfed by the US military in which some 26% of the population has a great deal of confidence.

The authors said a possible explanation for the notable difference in the level of confidence in the higher education community compared to the scientific community is the potential association of the latter with technologies such as medical discoveries that improve human well-being.

Differences by social context

Whereas previous approaches to theorising confidence in higher education have been limited by conceptual frameworks that treat the public as a homogeneous entity, this one addresses the ways in which attitudes to higher education vary across social contexts and there are some interesting findings.

Parents who report the strongest encouragement of professional career paths for their children are significantly more likely to report confidence in higher education (18% predicted probability compared to 14% for those who did not fall into that category).

But Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews, individuals who perceive a conflict between science and religion – and are on the side of religion – are significantly less likely (11%) to report confidence in higher education relative to everyone else (15%), the paper says.

Political liberals were much more likely to have confidence in higher education than conservatives. Respondents who were extremely liberal had a 30% predicted probability of having a great deal of confidence, while extreme conservatives only had a 5% predicted probability.

“This was by far the largest substantial effect of our hypothesised predictions,” the authors said.

There were also racial differences. Those with higher education had more confidence but relative to white people, black people had less confidence in higher education, which is another timely finding given the racial unrest on college campuses in recent years.

The authors said the study underscores the importance of understanding aspects of social context, such as identifying with a religious tradition, encouragement for careers that require higher education or identifying with a political ideology to explain why confidence in higher education is unevenly distributed in society.

“More specifically the results point to societal contexts where higher education has contested legitimacy, which according to both institutional theorists and higher education scholars could pose a threat to internal governance of colleges and universities.”

As the researchers predicted, high levels of confidence in multiple institutions increased the likelihood of confidence in higher education.

The authors said: “It has long been assumed that there is a crisis of confidence in universities and colleges in the United States. In this article, we showed that most empirical research on confidence in higher education is either based on invalid indicators that do not exclusively measure attitudes toward colleges and universities or is muddled by the use of indirect and different measures related to the notion of confidence.”

Implications for universities

The authors said that overall the results suggest the need for improving confidence among Evangelicals and politically conservative groups, given that they both comprise large segments of the US population – Evangelicals are the largest religious group.

They warned that theory suggests that, in states where groups lacking confidence in higher education are prevalent, universities “may be susceptible to government-based accountability measures and budget cuts because such groups would call for, support, or allow such measures to go unchallenged”.

They cite a 2015 report of the case of Louisiana where the governor had recently recommended an 82% cut in higher education funding and said the university system was “unlikely to find allies among the public because it was composed of large proportions of conservatives, Evangelicals and African Americans”.

The paper argues for a focus on “improving understanding of higher education and listening to the needs of diverse constituencies”.

They said although the professoriate leans liberal and tends to be non-religious, colleges and universities would benefit from demonstrating that they are not exclusively composed of “liberal atheists”.

“Universities could develop community engagement and public event activities that target these groups.”

A model exists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has established a Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion to foster communication among scientific and religious communities through public engagement events and other activities.

“Universities could embrace similar practices with both religious and conservative groups,” the authors say.

They argue that contact would enable universities to show religious groups and individuals who lack confidence in higher education due to a perceived conflict between science and religion that only a minority of faculty staff in the sciences at elite universities agree that conflict exists between science and religion.

And conservatives worried about political bias would benefit from knowing that professors are reticent to discuss politics at all.

Another interesting finding was that among religious traditions, minority religious groups such as Muslims and Hindus had the highest probability of confidence in higher education, which may reflect a high share of highly educated professionals and intellectual exiles among immigrants of those groups.

However, this suggestion is countered by another surprise finding that, among religious groups, general measures of religiosity (attendance and identity) were unrelated to confidence, but membership in particular religious traditions significantly predicted confidence. That Jews in particular had lower confidence in higher education than other religious groups was surprising given that Jews are overrepresented in the professoriate relative to the general US population.