Americans are losing confidence in higher education.
A recent Gallup poll shows a drop in Americans’ confidence in higher education from 57% in 2015 to 48% in 2018, and to 36% in 2023.
This stems from a high demand for more labor-intensive trades and from colleges shunning merit-based advancement and diversity of thought, education officials in Wyoming say.
‘This Is What You Believe’
The drop in confidence is justified, said Wyoming Sen. Charlie Scott, R-Casper, who chairs the legislative Senate Education Committee.
“I would share that,” said Scott, adding that many community colleges still “are doing a good job and providing your money’s worth,” including in Wyoming.
Scott graduated from Harvard in 1967. The school exposed him to thinkers ranging from socialist to capitalist, he said. Scott learned from self-proclaimed liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He took a course from Nobel Prize-winning geopolitical strategist Henry Kissinger. He heard free-market economist Milton Friedman lecture.
The modern elite schools, said Scott, now shun that diversity.
“They have gone to a very left-wing monoculture that has manifested itself in this political correctness movement, and the exclusion of a major part of Western political thought,” said Scott. “They no longer challenge the students and challenge their beliefs and make them think. They tell them, ‘This is what you believe.’”
Scott said the nation’s elite schools also are becoming “racist,” emphasizing people’s race where they shouldn’t.
It’s a theory the U.S. Supreme Court majority agreed with June 29, declaring that the race-based admission criteria of Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection.
University Of Wyoming Not Bad Though
But the University of Wyoming is doing well, said Scott, noting that graduates from the school tend to be financially successful 10 years after graduating and tuition is low, according to an annual ranking report by the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s a place I recommend to kids,” said Scott of the state’s only public four-year university. “But even there you can get caught up in the political correctness and take a bunch of courses that don’t do you any good outside of it. So you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Scott highlighted some legislators’ public struggle against UW’s gender studies program, which closely explores transgender and other LGBTQ culture. Students may still want to dabble in the program to know what’s being taught, said Scott, adding that the whole program, however, appears impractical.
UW did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Your Worth, And Your Words
Megan Degenfelder, Wyoming superintendent of public instruction, said colleges have to get back to treating “merit and freedom of expression” as fundamental pillars.
“Not only have many institutions moved away from these pillars, but they have become hostile toward them, which I believe has lowered many Americans' confidence in higher education,” said Degenfelder in a Wednesday email to Cowboy State Daily.
“I applaud the University of Wyoming's recent creation of a freedom of expression committee and work session held last week with members of the Wyoming Legislature to discuss issues such as these,” said Degenfelder. “We must continue to work to ensure that our land grant, flagship university is focused on academic rigor, not political agendas.”
UW this month published survey results showing that 69% of surveyed students believe UW promotes an environment of free and open intellectual inquiry in class. Eight percent of students surveyed said they disagree with that.
Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, who chairs the legislative House Education Committee, told Cowboy State Daily the nation has a shortage of many types of blue-collar workers. That’s diminishing people’s faith in the value of going to college, he said.
“Especially here in Park County, where we have so many people moving in from out-of-state and decide they need to have a new house built,” said Northrup. “They’re lacking electricians. They’re lacking plumbers. People that can pound nails. That’s the first of the symptoms I see in why we’re having a decrease in kids going to college.”
Republicans Cold-Shouldering College The Most
Republicans’ faith in higher education has dropped more steeply since 2015 than Independents’ and Democrats’ combined.
A majority, 56% of Republicans in 2015, expressed confidence in higher education compared to 19% now.
Independents dropped from 48% to 32% and Democrats fell slightly from 68% to 59%.
Northrup said the current federal administration’s emphasis on forgiving federal student loans may have helped to politicize the issue. He cited an online joke that says, “If your college degree can’t pay for your loans then maybe your college degree is worthless.”
Scott noted this factor too, saying the federal government has driven college tuition up over the years by giving student loans gratuitously, and in turn making it harder for students to repay their loans.
Neither of the two Democratic delegates to the Joint Education Committee - Rep. Karlee Provenza and Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie - returned Tuesday voicemails requesting comment.
Make Something Of It
Scott said people also need to be accountable for their own education to an extent.
“Education is in part what you make of it. You’ve got to work at it to do it well. But it sure helps if the university is one that is welcoming a diversity of points of view,” he said. “A good university will do that.”
Other data breakdowns in the Gallup poll paint a complicated picture.
While women retain more faith in the value of college this year than men, at 39% to 33%, women lost more faith in higher education over the eight-year span, declining by 22 percentage point to men’s 19 percentage points.
Young people ages 18-34 still trust college the most at 42%, but have lost faith by 18 points since 2015 compared to 16 points’ loss among 35- to 54-year-olds. Of the middle-age group, 39% have faith in higher education.
Those approaching retirement age and beyond it had the sharpest decline at 24 percentage points, and the least trust, at 31%.
Never Needed It
People with no college degree trust the institution the least, at 29%, declining by 25 percentage points from their 2015 figure of 54%.
Of those with undergraduate degrees, 47% trust in higher education, down 10 points from 2015.
People with postgraduate degrees have the most faith in the institution, at 50%, but they’re declining more steeply than the undergrads, with a 17-point drop from 2015’s figure of 67%.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.