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Education

Words Used to Describe "Higher Ed" Make a Difference

by Brandon Busteed and Frank Newport
Words Used to Describe 'Higher Ed' Make a Difference

Story Highlights

  • 36% of Americans have great deal of confidence in "higher education"
  • Significantly lower 23% have confidence in "colleges and universities"
  • Republicans' confidence generally lower than Democrats'

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Different words used to describe higher education evoke different confidence ratings among U.S. adults. Americans are considerably more likely to say they have a great deal of confidence in "higher education" than in "colleges and universities." Public confidence in "community colleges" and "postsecondary education" falls between these other two terms.

Confidence in Four Ways of Describing Postsecondary Education
Turning now to education, how much confidence do you, yourself, have in [colleges and universities; community colleges; higher education; postsecondary education]?
Higher education Community colleges Postsecondary education Colleges and universities
% % % %
A great deal 36 29 29 23
Quite a lot 19 24 20 22
Some 27 31 32 32
Very little 16 14 17 22
GALLUP, Jan. 8-28, 2018

Previous research conducted by Gallup shows a very significant political divide in views of higher education in general. A study by the Pew Research Center found a notable souring among Republicans on colleges and universities.

There are a number of ways to describe higher education, including the term higher education itself, colleges and universities, and postsecondary education. The current study asked random samples of Americans to rate their confidence in education using each term, along with the term community colleges. The study is intended to help understand the extent to which certain descriptors of higher education have -- or have not -- become particularly "charged."

The term colleges and universities in a comparative sense evokes more negative reactions than the broader terms higher education or postsecondary education. Thirty-six percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in higher education, compared with 29% who have a great deal of confidence in postsecondary education and 23% who have a great deal of confidence in colleges and universities. More broadly, these differences persist, but are slightly reduced, when adding in the group of Americans who say they have quite a lot of confidence -- 55% have either a great deal of or quite a lot of confidence in higher education, compared with 45% in colleges and universities.

It is important to note that no more than 36% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in any of the four terms, and no more than 55% have either a great deal of or quite a lot of confidence in any of them.

Republicans Significantly More Negative on Colleges and Universities

One of the important findings from previous research has been evidence of a significant political divide in views of higher education. This research confirms and extends that previous work. The percentages of Democrats who report having a great deal of confidence in higher education and in colleges and universities are much higher than the percentages of Republicans -- 50% versus 26% for the former and 37% versus 12% for the latter. Of note is the finding that, despite these differences in overall levels of confidence, both Republicans and Democrats are more confident in higher education than they are in colleges and universities. Partisan differences in confidence in community colleges and postsecondary education are considerably smaller.

Confidence in Four Ways of Describing Postsecondary Education, by Partisanship and Ideology
% Great deal of confidence
Higher education Community colleges Postsecondary education Colleges and universities
% % % %
Party ID
Republicans 26 28 25 12
Independents 33 27 28 22
Democrats 50 34 33 37
Ideology
Conservatives 25 28 26 15
Moderates 40 31 29 26
Liberals 45 30 35 28
GALLUP, Jan. 8-28, 2018

These same general patterns occur with political ideology, as liberals are more likely than conservatives to have a great deal of confidence in higher education -- 45% to 25%. Both groups are less confident in colleges and universities, though a 13-point liberal-conservative gap still exists.

When partisanship and ideology are considered together, conservative Republicans are three times more likely to say they have a great deal of confidence in higher education (23%) than in colleges and universities (8%). At the other end of the spectrum, although liberal Democrats express more confidence in response to both terms, they too are more confident in higher education than in colleges and universities.

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Differences by Education

There are significant differences in views of three of the four terms based on the personal educational attainment of Americans. Americans who report having graduated from college or having postgraduate education tend to be significantly more confident in colleges and universities, higher education and postsecondary education than others.

Americans' confidence in community colleges shows a different pattern. Those with some college, a group that includes those with an associate degree but not a bachelor's degree, are most likely to have a great deal of confidence in community colleges.

Confidence in Four Ways of Describing Postsecondary Education, by Education
% Great deal of confidence
Higher education Community colleges Postsecondary education Colleges and universities
% % % %
Education
High school or less 29 24 15 19
Some college 32 34 26 23
College grad 43 30 38 23
Postgraduate 56 29 52 31
GALLUP, Jan. 8-28, 2018

Bottom Line

The words "colleges and universities" evoke less confidence than the words "higher education" among U.S. adults. It's possible that negative stories people hear about higher education in the media or in general conversation most often use the words "colleges and universities." Or that the more general term "higher education" connotes the positive goal of gaining more knowledge, while the more specific "colleges and universities" has more negative connections related to specific institutions and specific practices.

Like so much else in American society today, views of higher education have developed a fault line between partisan groupings, and the current research confirms the degree to which confidence in the terms "colleges and universities" and "higher education" skew by political party identification. Democrats are more positive about both terms, although within each group, there is more confidence expressed in higher education than in colleges and universities.

But there is an exception. Community colleges enjoy consistent support from Democrats and Republicans -- which points to an area of opportunity for policy makers and institutions of higher education to focus on building bridges between political parties regarding higher education investments and policy.

These results reinforce that it's important for institutions of higher education to consider how they describe themselves. Some words are just better to use than others. Another recent example is the evidence that the term "liberal arts" may be a bad brand name -- despite the underpinnings of such an education being as valued as ever.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Jan. 8-28, 2018, on the Gallup U.S. Poll, with each of the four terms evaluated by one of four random samples of approximately 1,100 national adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on each of these samples of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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