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Gallup Podcast
What's Behind Declining Confidence in Higher Education?
Gallup Podcast

What's Behind Declining Confidence in Higher Education?

Confidence in higher education has fallen sharply. How much of the decline can be attributed to the larger loss of confidence in institutions? What role is student debt playing? And what is holding back thousands of Americans from achieving their higher education aspirations? Stephanie Marken, partner of Gallup’s Education Division, joins the podcast to discuss.


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Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:12

For Gallup, I’m Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we take a closer look at the state of higher education here in the United States. What is the state of public trust in higher ed institutions, and what’s holding thousands back each year from pursuing or completing their higher ed aspirations? Stephanie Marken leads Gallup’s Education Division. Stephanie, welcome back to the podcast.

Stephanie Marken 00:36
Thanks for having me.

Mohamed Younis 00:37
We recently reported that public confidence in higher education institutions has declined quite a bit in the last few years. What do you think is driving this decline, and what were your reactions to those data?

Stephanie Marken 00:50
I think to some extent, we were expecting a decline, in part because we know individuals throughout the U.S. society and in general, Americans, are pretty anti-institution these days. We've seen a decline, really, in every institution which we track at Gallup over the course of the last 10 to 15 years. So there's distrust more generally. But I think in the case of the higher education trend, I think what's most alarming for that particular data point and that particular institution is not just that confidence declined, but that it declined among groups that traditionally have been very positive and actually really believed in higher education as an institution. It declined precipitously among Democrats, young people, individuals who already have advanced education and training beyond high school. So it wasn't just that it declined writ large, but that it declined really among every group in which we track in the U.S.

Mohamed Younis 01:42
And it was really fascinating to note that kind of consistent decline. Even older Americans, 55 and older, declined quite a bit. It wasn't across sort of the usual suspect groups, you would think, but it really does seem like a broad span decline. Did we see an increase during COVID and the lockdown? There was kind of this moment where educational institutions, healthcare institutions really got a boost. Did we see that with higher ed institutions?

Stephanie Marken 02:08
Well, we certainly saw that people's experience during COVID while enrolled in higher education was generally pretty positive. You know, when we first started entering into the pandemic, I think a lot of us were deeply concerned that the currently enrolled student experience in the fall of 2020 would be pretty disastrous. It would have long-term implications for enrollments for students who had enrolled for the first time in September of 2020. We didn't necessarily see that in our data. I mean, certainly, we saw that some groups were facing more significant barriers and challenges to enrollment during the pandemic. But what was more interesting to us is that even those who were learning remotely or in a hybrid setting, were actually having a pretty consistent experience as they did prior to the pandemic. What I think, unfortunately, the pandemic did is it laid bear some of the challenges these institutions were facing long before COVID-19. You know, a great example of that is the significant mental health concerns and issues that popped up over the last few years in higher education. That was coming long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But of course, COVID-19, like so many things in our society, just really exacerbated that problem.

Stephanie Marken 03:11
So we don't necessarily see that COVID-19 individually has contributed negatively to confidence as a concept, but certainly has challenged these higher education institutions, in terms of how they deliver and how they reach students, to a pretty significant extent. I think our issue with confidence is so very much tied to the issue of cost, and the ongoing conversations we're having in this country about things like student loan forgiveness and relief and really the crisis that's facing us, with more than half of students reporting that they're graduating with debt, debt to the tune of trillions of dollars in the United States for student loans alone. Amidst all of that, I think that we would expect confidence in this institution would decline because, of course, we're having conversations about essentially erasing student loans for individuals who are facing really impossible-to-repay amounts of money to the U.S. Department of Education via loans.

Mohamed Younis 04:09
And it's really timely that we're having this conversation. And as you said, this whole debate around student loans has been really raging now, with these court decisions and then executive action to overcome them. We've done a lot of research on the impact of cost on both people who are in an institution of higher ed or people considering to take that step. Could you tell us more about that? I remember a conversation, Stephanie, where I'm not sure which one of us used this term -- maybe it was me, if you need to blame me -- but we used the term golden handcuffs to describe student loans. Talk to us more about what we've learned about the impact these astronomical costs have had on education -- on getting an education.

Stephanie Marken 04:50
Well, when we talk about student loans, it's such a complicated conversation, because there's such a wide spectrum, in terms of what people are repaying over time, right? So there are people like myself who left, you know, their undergraduate degree experience with student loans, but it was a manageable amount of student loans that I realistically could repay over time with, you know, without difficulty, without significant financial hardship and without the handcuffs that you mentioned, right? Because it didn't dictate the type of job that I could get because I didn't have to take a job that I hated, right? I could take a job that I loved, like the work that I'm doing now, and realistically repay those loans.

Stephanie Marken 05:24
I was moderating a focus group years ago with a bunch of law school graduates. And there was one in particular, and what she said really resonated with me. She said, you know, I graduated in 2008. I graduated with significant financial loans. I can't afford to work as a public defender, but that is all that I want to do in this world. It is the thing I'm most passionate about. It's where I believe the law can make a huge difference in people's lives. And yet I am having to work in Big Law, and I am on a very prescribed partner path, because that is the only way I can possibly repay my loans. Now, here was somebody who wanted to do a very important job within our greater world who literally could not afford to do so. We hear that a lot from individuals who report that they're graduating into jobs that they don't love and that they're ultimately taking on for the very real reason that they have to be able to repay their student loans. So it's a significant psychological impact, but we're also missing out on a lot of individuals who would fulfill really important purposes within our greater society, right, and really important jobs and functions that we need within our economy, within our workforce and, more generally, in order to be successful. So I do worry a lot about those financial golden handcuffs, as you describe them, long term.

Stephanie Marken 06:38
But when it comes to student loans, we also know there's a real impact of student loans on individuals’ wellbeing. When we talk about wellbeing, of course, at Gallup, in five interrelated elements: your purpose, as I just described; your community, your financial, your physical, your social wellbeing. The research that Gallup has conducted shows that high levels of student loan debt have a negative impact on every single one of those elements. Which sometimes throws people, because, of course, you'd expect it to have a negative impact on your financial wellbeing. But you wouldn't necessarily expect it has a huge impact on your social wellbeing, for the very real reason that if you don't have time to spare, and you're potentially working an additional job to repay your student loans, you're not developing deep, meaningful relationships with as many people as you'd probably want to in your day-to-day life. So it has this ripple effect in every area of your life. And at a time when we're talking about crippling wellbeing in the United States, that's deeply concerning, right?

Stephanie Marken 07:31
So we know student loans have this huge impact on every aspect of your life. And yet we also know that there's not a lot of legislation or policy that's uniformly agreed to in the U.S. right now that will really address cost from a systemic perspective, right? And I think that's a lot of what we're seeing in the confidence trend is that, as it relates to confidence in higher education, what we see from a lot of voters is that there's a lot of skepticism that even some of the recently introduced legislation will do something very real, in terms of reducing cost of attendance. What do I mean by that? Well, if we just remove the student loans associated with many individual borrowers who are currently in repayment, but we do nothing to address cost long-term, we haven't really incentivized these institutions organizationally to do much about cost of attendance, right. We've essentially said we'll just wipe away the student loans associated with this particular degree. So I think there's a lot of skepticism among voters and individuals throughout the U.S. economy that student loan forgiveness won't really solve the long-term issue. It might address the short-term prices for a lot of borrowers. But I think there's a lot of worry that long term, these schools aren't really incentivized to change how they offer their educational experience.

Mohamed Younis 08:48
Beyond cost, there's been so much debate about how college has changed. The, the value it offers, higher education in any form, to really getting to a career, a financially successful career, that you're aspiring to. From the perspective of respondents -- and you've done so much research on people's sort of assessment of if they would consider going to an institution of higher education -- do they see value in it, aside from the prohibitive cost? Is that perception of value still there? Or is this fad of like, oh, college isn't for everybody -- ergo, meaning like, who cares about higher ed? Which is a very, I think, dangerous direction to have this conversation. From a consumer perspective, if you put cost aside, do people feel like there's still value in achieving their dreams through education?

Stephanie Marken 09:35
There’s this interesting contradiction, actually, in some of our research, where, as an example, we see low confidence in the institution of higher education, and yet, we see high levels of value attributed to higher education. Meaning that so many people that we interview today will report that they think that higher education is the surest path to a great job and a great life. And that’s what we all want, right? We all want a job in which we love what we do, and we want to be able to make enough money where we can support our family and our lifestyle and pay our bills. And so, when you ask individuals to reflect on the overall value of higher education, they’re actually pretty positive. They think it’s the surest path. The problem is that they lack confidence in the system that will allow them to achieve that goal. So they believe that a diploma, advanced training and education beyond high school is valuable. (They believe it’s valuable, by the way, for a variety of outcomes -- not just economic ones.) They believe that they will have a better life. They will be more competitive in the job market. They will be more likely to love what they do. They will be more engaged citizens, more successful individuals if they have that additional education and training beyond high school.

Stephanie Marken 10:39
And yet they feel like it’s a closed system that’s essentially reserved for the elite and that they can’t access themselves. And I can imagine how they’ve arrived at that conclusion, when you consider the total cost of attendance of many four-year, private, not-for-profit institutions. Now, I mention the private, not-for-profit, four-year experience because often, when we talk about higher education, especially in the case of the mainstream media, we talk about it almost exclusively as that four-year, on-campus, in-person, traditional, dorm life, you know, beautiful, beautiful brick buildings. Now unfortunately, what we miss in all of that, by the way, is that’s the minority of currently enrolled college students today. Most college students are not a traditional, 18- to 22-year-old who’s attending college in person, on campus for four years and obtaining a bachelor’s degree. There’s so many additional education and training pathways that are available now that adult learners, in particular, are taking advantage of. But when it comes to the media and so much of our discussion and the public discourse around education is the cost of a four-year bachelor’s experience, which is incredibly high -- especially as you consider the total sticker price on many of these institutional websites.

Stephanie Marken 11:52
And I think, you know, if we’re talking seriously about how do we transform perceptions of postsecondary education, we need to change how we communicate price. Because if you are a prospective college student or a parent of a prospective college student, and you go onto a particular website to try to understand the cost of attendance at that institution, it is very hard to figure out what you, individually, will pay to go to that school. There is so much that goes into your total cost of attendance; so much aid that’s made available during the admissions process that’s not exactly transparent to the average consumer. So, so many students are going onto individual websites and essentially counting themselves out of that institution and saying, essentially, why even apply? There’s no way I can afford $65,000, $75,000 annually for four years, in order to attend this institution. So they just don’t apply at all. I think we’re missing out, actually, on a lot of amazing students -- at individual schools, but also writ large in higher education -- because they do not understand what they will actually pay to attend that particular institution. And they, therefore, paint higher education with this very broad stroke, big paint brush, to say, “It’s too expensive. It’s too elite. It’s too closed down. It’s too closed a system for someone like me to access.”

Mohamed Younis 13:08
Stephanie, I love how you broke down, just, all the dimensions of cost. I just got to wonder, as costs have astronomically gone up, what's enrollment look like? Are schools, like, absolutely flooded with new enrollees and just making a killing on tuition? That could be a really common assumption. But what do enrollment rates look like in the real world?

Stephanie Marken 13:27
Now, unfortunately, enrollments have been actually on the decline over the course of the last few years, really, since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Of course, that didn't help things, but most people assume that COVID-19 actually caused the enrollment crisis. That's actually not the case. We'd seen declines coming pretty consistently over time. We know, at the same time, consideration of higher education is actually really high. Recent research Gallup conducted in partnership with Lumina Foundation found that a really significant number of those who are not currently enrolled and don't yet possess a degree report that they've actually considered enrolling in the past two years. So that's incredibly good news for our higher education. Unfortunately, we also know that a lot of them are not actually taking that next step and going from exploration to actual admission. And that's a real problem. And unfortunately, we're missing out in particular when we look at the various, you know, subgroups of the total postsecondary population -- really on Black men. That's where we've seen declines that have really declined over the course of the last few years in a rather significant way. So as we think about equity in higher education and making sure we have a really diverse student population, I think that's a huge concern on the minds of most people in higher education today.

Mohamed Younis 14:36
You’ve also done amazing research on the important role of sort of learning by doing -- internships, opportunities to develop professional skills, coupled with the traditional academic, like, theory-based classical education. Educate us on that. Do, you know, are people finding value in that? Is that something more and more people are asking for?

Stephanie Marken 14:58
Yeah, well, education has to be relevant in order to be valuable. And that’s really important, and that sounds really obvious. And yet, we know a lot of students are having experiences at the postsecondary level where they’re interacting with a curriculum that feels completely disjointed from what they want to do when they complete their degree. In that case, they will absolutely opt out of higher education, and we will continue to face enrollment challenges as a result. But they will also not be great advocates of postsecondary education themselves, which we desperately need. So we have to address that in a very real way. As it relates to relevancy, what we find is that has a huge impact on subjective values, of subjective readings of value, right. So the percentage of students who report, for example, that their degree was worth the cost, it transforms if they had highly relevant curriculum that they were exposed to.

Stephanie Marken 15:45
But to your point, you also have to have really high-quality experiential learning activities integrated into your curriculum. Very obvious example here is internships. We know that internships are so critical for students -- not just in ruling things in that they want to do, but also ruling things out, right? So we have so many students who will have an internship experience and say, “I can’t believe I thought I wanted to work in a medical setting; this is incredibly difficult -- far more difficult than I ever anticipated. This is not what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Mohamed Younis 16:13
Oh, my God, OK, we didn’t plan this, listener, but that’s exactly what happened to me! I was pre-med. I worked at an awesome hospital, and I was amazed by the work everyone was doing. But I realized, being around sick people was just not for me. And, wow! Thank you!

Stephanie Marken 16:30
I was moderating a focus group years ago. And a student said to me, “I didn't intern until my senior year, spring semester. I hated every minute of it. I never wanted to go back to a hospital setting, but I couldn't redo my last four years.” So she was essentially graduating with a degree that she didn't even plan to fully use in the way that she intended to. But she didn't even get to that internship experience until her spring semester. And that's also a problem, right. So we have to front-load some of these experiential learning activities into earlier into your postsecondary experience, so you can do that ruling in and ruling out experience before it's essentially too late, and you can't actually retake or take new classes for the first time. But I think a lot about that student, because I think when you, you, you know, extrapolate that to our entire postsecondary experience, we have a lot of students launching into careers and feeling a little bit of lost in the shuffle of that experience.

Stephanie Marken 17:20
We know that if you had an internship, by the way, that was high quality, that allowed you to apply what you were learning in the classroom, you're twice as likely to report that you had a good job awaiting you upon graduation. And that's what we're all looking for, right? Everyone who's going to higher education, no matter how much you enjoy the theory or the learning experience, you're looking for that good job upon graduation -- or maybe you're launching into additional graduate school when you leave. But we have to somehow deliver on that. So a very simple calculation would be, scale the number of internship opportunities available. That would be a very real way to impact both value but also employability upon graduation.

Mohamed Younis 17:58
Absolutely -- fascinating conversation. Stephanie, before I close, I want to ask you kind of your -- a lot of folks listening to this are products of higher education; know a young person who’s considering higher education. So I’m going to end by sort of asking you, like, your best advice for them. But I’m going to share the best advice I heard. I honestly do not remember the person I’m quoting, but it was really one of the wisest things I’ve heard on education lately. And it was said in the context of how quickly our world is changing -- our world of work is changing. And how do you advise a young person who’s planning a career in a “industry” that may not even exist in 10, 15 years from now. And that educator’s quote basically said, Have young people focus more on the problems they want to help solve in the world, versus, you know, the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” traditional question of, like, what hat do you want to wear? Do you want to be a policeman, a fireman (or woman, of course), etc.?

Mohamed Younis 18:53
You talk to a lot of young people -- and a lot of educators and a lot of parents and a lot of folks who are administrators of these institutions. What’s your best advice for young folks or the folks advising them on how to decide -- is higher education for me, and if so, how do I determine what animal in the jungle that fits in my path?

Stephanie Marken 19:14
Oh, there’s so many things I want to say on this. So, I’ll try to pick the most important points. But I’ll say, you know, first and foremost, a lot of us who work in postsecondary education and research do so because we believe deeply in the outcomes associated with a postsecondary education. I was a first-generation college student. I really benefited from people who were just incredibly engaged faculty and staff members who were so invested in me being successful. And I believe, fundamentally, it’s one of the few levers we have to really address social mobility in this country and even start to equalize the playing field, although we know it’s not entirely equal, either, with a postsecondary credential. And yet, we also know that the economic outcomes for someone with a bachelor’s degree or a two-year degree or even an additional credential above and beyond high school are very different from those who have less than a high school degree or diploma or just a high school diploma or GED equivalent. So we know, you know, objectively, the outcomes are much stronger, from an income perspective, for those who complete. So that has been very well-established in the literature.

Stephanie Marken 20:17
But I would say is, to those prospective students is, it’s really not where you go, in terms of the type of institution that you attend, whether it be an institution that’s highly rated in U.S. News and World Report ranking or is maybe more moderately rated or an institution, for example, that’s a public flagship in your state versus a private, not-for-profit. It’s far more important how you go. Seeking out mentors who are really invested in you as an individual and see you and care about you as a person is so critical. So seek out that type of institution. Because there’s so many institutions to choose from today. And I would also say, it doesn’t have to be a four-year degree. You know, we talk a lot about higher education as if it’s a four-year pathway. There’s so many amazing, additional credentialing opportunities that are now available to prospective students that have completely transformed your opportunity cost but also your financial costs associated with enrolling. So don’t assume that you have to take on this four-year pathway immediately upon graduation. Start thinking about, what is the credential that will get you a little bit further into your potential career or your potential pathway?

Mohamed Younis 21:19
On that note, Stephanie Marken, she leads Gallup’s research on education. Stephanie, it's always a pleasure having you on the show.

Stephanie Marken 21:25
Thanks for having me.

Mohamed Younis 21:30
That's our show. Thanks for tuning in. For more from Gallup, go to and sign up for our newsletter, Front Page, where we break down all that Gallup is learning across the globe in one weekly email. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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