Monday, October 11, 2010

Confidence in higher education

In the last few years, I've heard a lot about how people are losing confidence in higher education because of rising costs, concerns that our graduates aren't ready for the globalized and diverse workplace, ... You can fill in the rest. I was skeptical of this, but I hadn't seen any data. I looked and found that the Harris Poll has asked this question pretty much annually since the 1970s: "As far as people in charge of running...major educational institutions, such as colleges and universities are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?"

That's not ideal, since it asks about the "people in charge of running" them rather than the institutions rather than the institutions as a whole, and "major educational institutions" could go beyond colleges and universities. Still, it's what we have, so here's a figure of the percent who said "a great deal" of confidence. The line is broken because in the 1970s, they used different question wordings, so it's not clear if the results are comparable. Still, it is clear that confidence dropped from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, and then recovered. I don't think that confidence in other institutions followed a pattern like this, so it must have been something specific to higher education. I recall that there were a lot of books about the failings of higher education then (Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind was the best known). Maybe their message got through to the general public. Or maybe they reflected the spirit of the times?

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