Few Americans have confidence in universities, survey finds

Research finds that support levels are lower among conservatives and some minority groups

May 1, 2017
Empty lecture theatre

Just 14 per cent of Americans have “a great deal of confidence” in universities, according to research.

A paper analysing a survey of more than 10,000 US citizens found that a higher proportion (19 per cent) reported a great deal of confidence in the scientific community specifically.

Both higher education and science lagged behind the military (26 per cent) but performed better than the US Congress (3 per cent) when it came to trust levels.

The study, “How public confidence in higher education varies by social context”, published in the Journal of Higher Education, analysed findings from the Religious Understandings of Science survey, which was conducted between December 2013 and January 2014. It received 10,241 responses from both religious and non-religious Americans.

It found that the level of trust in higher education varied significantly according to race, religion and political ideology.

For example, 30 per cent of those who identified as “extremely liberal” and just 5 per cent of those who identified as “extreme conservatives” said that they had a great deal of confidence in universities.

Trust in higher education is also low among some religious groups, including Jews, Mormons and evangelicals. This may be linked to the finding that the religious respondents who believed that there was a conflict between science and religion were significantly less likely than other groups to have confidence in colleges and universities.

A separate survey, which was conducted by Colby College sociologist Neil Gross in 2005, found that 42 per cent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in higher education, suggesting that trust in universities has declined.

David Johnson, assistant professor of higher education leadership at the University of Nevada-Reno and co-author of the paper, said that while the data do not show how trends have changed since 2014, he would anticipate that confidence among minority groups is likely to have dropped in the past three years.

“One of the findings of our paper is that black [people] are significantly less likely to have confidence in how colleges and universities are being run relative to other racial groups,” he said.

“One reason for this potential change is because of a spike in perceptions of racial tension in the US, including [on] college campuses.”

He added that Donald Trump’s election and the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary may have resulted in a decrease in confidence among liberals and an increase among conservatives.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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