Only half of all Americans now have a positive view of colleges and universities, according to a new survey from Pew Research. The number of people who take a negative view has increased from 26 percent in 2012 to 38 percent in 2019.
The change largely reflects a growing dissatisfaction on the right with the culture of college campuses. The percentage of Republicans who see value in higher education has collapsed in recent years, from 53 percent in 2012 to just 33 percent in 2019.*
According to Pew:
Roughly eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) say professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (only 17% of Democrats say the same). And three-quarters of Republicans (vs. 31% of Democrats) point to too much concern about protecting students from views they might find offensive as a major reason for their views. In addition, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say students not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace is a major reason why the higher education system is headed in the wrong direction (73% vs. 56%).
Democrats who take a negative view of higher ed are most likely to cite rising costs as the issue.
I do not think "professors bringer their political and social views into the classroom" is a significant issue, or even necessarily a bad thing: Professors should feel free to express their opinions, even if these opinions are controversial or make some students uncomfortable. And while the ideological composition of academia is heavily tilted toward progressivism, there's little evidence that progressive professors tend to be biased against non-progressive students.
Those concerns aside, the issues being raised by both Republican and Democratic survey respondents are valid. It's reasonable to question a system that takes young people out of the workforce at a pivotal time in their lives, saddles them with tons of debt, obliges them to learn a bunch of things they are likely to forget, gives them delusional ideas about the degree of protection from harmful speech to which they are entitled, and then churns out graduates who are overqualified for the jobs they find.
Higher-education leaders need to be cognizant of the public's concerns. The majority of people—Republicans and Democrats; whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics—do not believe race should be a factor in admissions decisions, and yet some of the most elite institutional educations in the country have defiantly maintained such a practice.
Colleges and universities are not the only major institution suffering a crisis of public confidence, of course: Pew also found that Americans increasingly take a negative view of tech companies, churches, and the media. (Banks and labor unions, on the other hand, are enjoying a relative resurgence in popularity.)
"The partisan gaps underlying these views are reflective of our politics more broadly," writes Pew. "But views on the nation's educational institutions have not traditionally been politicized. Higher education faces a host of challenges in the future—controlling costs amid increased fiscal pressures, ensuring that graduates are prepared for the jobs of the future, adapting to changing technology and responding to the country's changing demographics. Ideological battles waged over the climate and culture on college campuses may make addressing these broader issues more difficult."
Pew writes as if these "ideological" concerns are entirely unfounded. This seems wrong to me. I'll turn again to Harvard, which recently removed a law professor as faculty dean because some leftist students decided his principled defense of Harvey Weinstein's right to effective legal counsel would make the campus an unsafe place. The ACLU accused Harvard of "sacrificing principles central to our legal system."
Disciplining Sullivan was an extremely bad decision. If it prompted some number of Americans to take an increasingly view of negative higher education—citing concerns that administrators are coddling students and failing to prepare them for real life—could you really blame them?
Update: This figure has been corrected.