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Confidence in Higher Education Down Since 2015

by Jeffrey M. Jones
Confidence in Higher Education Down Since 2015

Gallup finds 48% of U.S. adults expressing "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education this year, down from 57% in 2015. The decline is most evident among Republicans, whose confidence level has fallen by 17 percentage points, but Democrats and independents are also less confident now than they were three years ago.

Confidence in Higher Education Declining
Percentage with "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education
2015 2018 Change
% % pct. pts.
U.S. adults 57 48 -9
Republicans 56 39 -17
Independents 48 44 -4
Democrats 68 62 -6
Gallup

Republicans and Democrats now show a 23-point gap in confidence in higher education, compared with 12 points in 2015. Higher education has clearly become more politicized in Americans' eyes, consistent with trends in their opinions of the president, preferences on key issues, and trust in certain U.S. institutions. In the case of higher education, many Republicans believe colleges and universities are institutions that promote a liberal political agenda.

Even though Americans overall are less confident in higher education than a few years ago, this still compares favorably with their confidence in other institutions. Only the military (74%), small business (67%) and the police (54%) engender more confidence than does higher education.

 Bar graph. Americans have the most confidence in the military, with 74% expressing confidence in the institution.

The results reported here are part of Gallup's annual Confidence in Institutions poll, conducted June 1-13. Higher education is not one of the 15 core institutions measured annually in that survey but was included as a special item in the 2015 and 2018 surveys.

No other institution has shown a larger drop in confidence over the past three years than higher education. The next-largest decline was a four-point decrease in confidence in the church or organized religion. Since 2015, there has been a five-point increase in confidence in the Supreme Court and four-point increases for the presidency and big business. On average, confidence in the institutions Gallup tracks annually shows a one-point increase in confidence since 2015.

From a broader historical perspective, a nine-point decrease in confidence over a four-year time span is rare, but not unprecedented.

  • The largest decline Gallup has measured over a four-year period is 27 points for banks between 2006 and 2009, the time spanning the bursting of the housing bubble through the recession and financial crisis.

  • Confidence in the presidency fell 19 points between 2005 and 2007, as the George W. Bush administration struggled with the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and other issues.

  • Organized religion suffered a 15-point decline in confidence in a single year, between 2001 and 2002, during the priest sex abuse scandal.

Bottom Line

Higher education is not in as strong a position in terms of public trust as it has been in the past. Because Gallup did not measure confidence in higher education before 2015, it is unknown whether confidence in it has dropped more precipitously over previous decades, as has occurred for organized religion.

The diminished trust in higher education largely results from a decline in confidence among Republicans, particularly those who see colleges as promoting a liberal political agenda. Still, close to four in 10 Republicans remain confident in higher education, perhaps because many are not convinced there is a liberal political agenda or, if they perceive that one exists, they are not bothered by it.

Gallup's 2017 polling found that Americans with positive opinions of higher education, including both Republicans and Democrats, cite their own experiences at college as a reason for their confidence in it. Getting more Americans to pursue higher education, particularly if it leads to an engaging and stable career, is one way to help reverse the downward trend in higher-education confidence.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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