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Polls: Confidence in colleges and universities continues plummet to ‘new lows’

‘The curtain is being pulled back,’ researcher says 

Confidence in institutions of higher education among Americans continues to plummet to new lows, according to recent national polls commissioned by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

The polls, one conducted in February with a follow-up in May, asked a sample of American households: “How much confidence, if any, do you have in U.S. colleges and universities?” The results were then compared to a Gallup poll that asked a similar question in 2023.

“On average, most Americans surveyed in FIRE’s May poll reported ‘some’ confidence in U.S. colleges and universities (42% vs. 40% in Gallup),” the foundation reported.

“But compared to the 2023 Gallup poll, fewer Americans reported ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in colleges and universities (28% vs. 36% in Gallup), and more Americans reported ‘very little’ confidence or ‘none at all’ (30% vs. 22% in Gallup).”

The results not only demonstrate a significant decline in national confidence since the 2023 Gallup poll, but that this decline was especially severe among young people ages 18 to 34, Democrats, and women, with those demographics showing the largest drops, FIRE researcher Nathan Honeycutt wrote in a news release.

What’s more, the drop in confidence from FIRE’s February to May polls shows the unrest and pro-Palestinian protests that have engulfed campuses in recent months has hurt higher education’s reputation further.

Honeycutt told The College Fix recent headlines over academic dishonesty, such as the plagiarism accusations lodged at several top-level campus leaders over the last seven months, could also explain the decline.

Other possible factors cited by FIRE include bias against center-right beliefs, rising tuition costs, and administrative bloat.

But the main factor, Honeycutt said via email to The Fix, is likely the way institutions have handled problems related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, adding “it goes in both directions.”

“More conservative Americans are having their concerns about higher education confirmed through what they’re seeing. But also, more liberal Americans are seeing protesters on these campuses get punished and arrested, and they’re seeing legitimate and protected speech get shut down, and this is also of concern,” he said.

“Now, much of what was going on with the encampments wasn’t protected speech—vandalism, occupying buildings—and FIRE was vocal about this. But FIRE was also vocal about the suppression of protected speech,” Honeycutt said.

Asked to weigh in on the polls’ results, Professor Michael Taylor, dean of students at Thomas More College, said he thinks both students and the institutions they attend have in some ways lost sight of the true purpose of higher education.

There is too little focus on truth and too much focus on practical ends, which has caused a general disillusionment regarding the overall worth of education, Taylor said.

“So when confronted with these polls today,” Taylor told The Fix via email, “the question we should be asking is: Confidence in what? In other words, what are colleges claiming to offer, and what are students hoping to achieve?”

“I suspect that students are just realizing that, if it’s just an economic decision, it’s not worth it anymore.”

“My hope is that this crisis of confidence will lead students to ask what it is they are truly seeking from an education and from life on the whole,” Taylor added. “What does it matter if a college degree can get you into a high-paying job at a tech startup if you lose your soul?”

“There are still colleges that propose the open and honest pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty, and there are still students that seek this type of education. As long as this continues to be the case, there is hope for the future.”

Honeycutt said universities hopefully see the writing on the wall.

“Colleges and universities are in a tough spot; hopefully they’ll be highly motivated to correct course internally on their own, and quickly, before the window of opportunity disappears. The lower confidence drops, the more difficult it will be to bounce back from,” he told The Fix.

“That said,” Honeycutt added, “with so much mainstream news coverage lately of what’s happening on campus, I think more and more Americans are waking up to see what campus dynamics are like–the curtain is being pulled back.”

MORE: Punish students for anti-Israel encampments, 3 in 4 Americans say

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Gavin Farinholt is a student at Thomas More College pursuing a degree in liberal arts. He holds a leadership position in the campus pro-life team and is part of the college’s political discussion group.