College Presidents: Debt Skews Perceptions of Higher Education Value

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

The American public's views on higher education have been shifting in a negative direction in recent years—and college presidents have taken notice. While they acknowledge there has been a decline in positive views toward higher education, most college presidents said that decreasing support is due to misperceptions or misunderstandings about the value of a college education.

Those are some of the findings from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup's annual survey of college presidents, which was released earlier this month. Overall, more than half (56 percent) of the presidents surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed that most Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of higher education. Just 14 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the public overall has an accurate view.

"Majorities of presidents see opinions about higher education being influenced by false, or exaggerated, impressions," the survey said.

The most common misunderstanding, according to the presidents, is that attention to student loan debt has made college appear less affordable than it is, taking into account student aid. Eighty-six percent of presidents surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. Another 84 percent agreed or strongly agreed, alternatively, that attention to large endowments at some institutions has made it appear that colleges overall are wealthier than they are.

Many presidents surveyed also said that factors such as amenities on campus and racial protests have contributed to a declining positive view of higher education among most Americans.

Still, nearly all college presidents placed the blame squarely on concerns with college affordability and student debt. An overwhelming 98 percent of college presidents said concerns on affordability and cost were somewhat (35 percent) or very (63 percent) responsible for declining public support for higher education.

According to various surveys, the declining public support for higher education has been concentrated mainly among Republicans. In July 2017, the Pew Research Center released a widely-reported survey that found a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, a sharp increase from the 45 percent who responded similarly a year earlier.

Another annual survey from Education Next found that when given more information on the cost of a college degree and the potential impact on future earnings, partisan differences in opinion essentially vanished. Initially, 75 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans said they would have their children pursue a university degree. But when provided with both sets of information, the differences disappeared: 66 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans preferred a four-year degree for their children.

Yet another survey, conducted earlier this year by Gallup, claimed Republicans' negative views toward higher education stemmed more from the nation's politically charged environment and less from the cost or operations of colleges in the United States.

Still, 71 percent of the college presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup disagreed (27 percent) or strongly disagreed (44 percent) that Republicans' doubts about higher education are justified. Another 77 percent said they agreed (32 percent) or strongly agreed (45 percent) with the statement that they are worried about Republicans' increasing skepticism about higher education. But the presidents were split on whether the perception that colleges are intolerant of conservative views is accurate. They were only slightly more likely to disagree or strongly disagree with that statement (39 percent) than to agree or strongly agree with it (32 percent).

These changes in perception came alongside the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, and the selection of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

"The change in presidential administration in Washington in 2017 brought about a change in mahy federal policies that affect higher education," the survey said. "College presidents mostly say the Trump administration in general, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos specifically, have performed about as they expected in terms of managing higher education policy during the first year in office. However, more say each has been worse rather than better than expected."


Publication Date: 3/20/2018

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