Large endowments would be taxed under final GOP tax plan

A proposal to tax some large private college endowments made it into the final version of a tax reform bill agreed to by House and Senate negotiators this week. The provision matches the more modest proposal included in the Senate tax bill passed this …

A proposal to tax some large private college endowments made it into the final version of a tax reform bill agreed to by House and Senate negotiators this week. The provision matches the more modest proposal included in the Senate tax bill passed this month, rather than a House proposal that would have affected many more institutions. But many college leaders have said the tax is bad policy and sets a dangerous precedent.

At the same time, many provisions in the tax legislation that alarmed colleges and students were left out of the final bill.

A House tax plan passed last month stripped from the tax code many benefits for students and borrowers. It also would have imposed for the first time a tax on college endowments with a provision targeting investment income of private colleges. A Senate plan passed Dec. 2 left those student tax benefits in place but included many other provisions higher ed groups said would be harmful to colleges, including the endowment tax.

Lobby groups and students have for weeks urged members of Congress to drop from a final bill provisions affecting students and colleges. Graduate students in particular ran a highly visible campaign to convince lawmakers to leave tax-exempt tuition waivers in place. Leaks from negotiations this week indicated that that message was received and that the final bill would leave the tuition benefits in place, as well as student loan interest deductions for borrowers repaying their loans.

Similar efforts made to kill the proposed endowment tax -- including those of Republican and Democratic lawmakers -- ultimately came up short.

A rundown of key provisions for higher ed in the final tax reform deal follows.

  • Graduate student tuition waivers: The plan leaves in place a provision of the tax code allowing colleges and universities to waive or discount tuition for graduate students without having those benefits count as taxable income. The House bill would have eliminated the tax-exempt status of those tuition waivers.
  • Employee-dependent tuition benefits: The final bill leaves untouched tax-exempt benefits for the spouses and dependent children of college employees. The House bill would have eliminated the tax-exempt status of those benefits.
  • Student loan interest deductions: The plan maintains tax benefits for student loan borrowers, allowing them to deduct up to $2,500 paid toward student loan interest from their taxable income each year. The House bill had proposed eliminating that provision.
  • Private endowments tax: The bill includes a 1.4 percent excise tax on investment income at private colleges with an enrollment of at least 500 students and with assets valued at $500,000 per full-time student. That reflects the more narrow proposal included in the Senate bill. The House bill would have taxed colleges with assets valued at $250,000 per full-time student. The provision is estimated to raise about $1.8 billion in revenue over 10 years. Lawmakers have estimated it will affect about 35 institutions.
  • State and local tax deductions: The bill allows taxpayers to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes from their federal tax bill. Many public higher education leaders had warned that the proposal in the original Senate tax plan to eliminate the deductions would put pressure on state budgets that support public universities -- and possibly lead to cuts in funding. The cap on those deductions will likely still create new worries for public universities in high-tax states like California and New York.
  • Student loan discharge: The bill includes a House proposal that makes student loan debt discharged for death or disability tax exempt. That provision will sunset by 2025.
  • Standard deduction: The bill doubles the amount of the standard deduction to $24,000 for joint filers and $12,000 for individuals. That means the number of taxpayers who would benefit from itemizing deductions -- including charitable contributions to entities like colleges and universities -- would shrink. Nonprofit groups, including colleges, say that change would lower the incentive for donating to colleges.

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, said the group was pleased that the final tax reform deal recognized the importance of education benefits. But he said other provisions would make a college degree more expensive and undermine the financial stability of institutions.

He cited the changes to the standard deduction, state and local tax deductions, and the excise tax on college endowments in particular.

"At a time when postsecondary degrees and credentials have never been more important to individuals and the nation, this tax reform legislation would make higher education more expensive and less accessible," Mitchell said. "This is a big step in the wrong direction."

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Colleges start new programs

  • Columbia College Chicago is starting a minor in hip-hop studies.
  • Columbia University is starting a master’s degree in business analytics.
  • Indiana Tech is starting an online bachelor of science in cybersecurity.
  • Manhattan College is starting a sports media production concentration for communications majors.
  • Marist College is starting an accelerated dual-degree accountancy program, allowing students to complete a bachelor of science and a master of science in professional accountancy in four years and four months.
  • Mississippi Valley State University is starting an online master of science in criminal justice.
  • Stonehill College is starting a master’s program in integrated marketing communications.
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  • Columbia College Chicago is starting a minor in hip-hop studies.
  • Columbia University is starting a master's degree in business analytics.
  • Indiana Tech is starting an online bachelor of science in cybersecurity.
  • Manhattan College is starting a sports media production concentration for communications majors.
  • Marist College is starting an accelerated dual-degree accountancy program, allowing students to complete a bachelor of science and a master of science in professional accountancy in four years and four months.
  • Mississippi Valley State University is starting an online master of science in criminal justice.
  • Stonehill College is starting a master's program in integrated marketing communications.
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Colleges start new programs

  • Columbia College Chicago is starting a minor in hip-hop studies.
  • Columbia University is starting a master’s degree in business analytics.
  • Indiana Tech is starting an online bachelor of science in cybersecurity.
  • Manhattan College is starting a sports media production concentration for communications majors.
  • Marist College is starting an accelerated dual-degree accountancy program, allowing students to complete a bachelor of science and a master of science in professional accountancy in four years and four months.
  • Mississippi Valley State University is starting an online master of science in criminal justice.
  • Stonehill College is starting a master’s program in integrated marketing communications.
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  • Columbia College Chicago is starting a minor in hip-hop studies.
  • Columbia University is starting a master's degree in business analytics.
  • Indiana Tech is starting an online bachelor of science in cybersecurity.
  • Manhattan College is starting a sports media production concentration for communications majors.
  • Marist College is starting an accelerated dual-degree accountancy program, allowing students to complete a bachelor of science and a master of science in professional accountancy in four years and four months.
  • Mississippi Valley State University is starting an online master of science in criminal justice.
  • Stonehill College is starting a master's program in integrated marketing communications.
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UC Davis professor stripped of status amid sexual assault allegations

In 1987, his freshman year at the University of California, Davis, Danny Gray says, he was sexually assaulted by a professor.

He reported this incident to the university, but to no avail.

Now, 30 years later and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has spurred the firings of a number of high-profile men accused of sexual assault and harassment, Gray is ready to tell his story again.

That’s the narrative Gray laid out in a blog post published this week. In an agreement reached with the university, D. Kern Holoman, the former university symphony orchestra conductor accused of assaulting and later raping Gray, has relinquished his titles of professor emeritus and distinguished professor, though he denies Gray’s allegations.

Gray — who now works at UC Davis himself as the director of academic employment and labor relations — wrote a blog post detailing the allegations against Holoman, and showed a draft to the university last week. A spokeswoman said that the draft “helped spur some activity” leading to Holoman’s discipline.

Holoman, Gray wrote, sexually assaulted him in a hot tub at Holoman’s home, and later raped him. Gray said Holoman apologized, but the professor’s unwelcome advances continued in the form of letters and correspondence sent to Gray, and Holoman assaulted Gray again.

“Although in hindsight I can see viable options for resolving this situation, at the time I felt I had no choice but to try to navigate my relationship with him,” Gray said. “I believe I responded to Holoman’s dozens of communications that summer with one or two letters, written in language that I hoped would be received as polite but not welcoming of his romantic and sexual advances.”

In a statement given to Gray by Holoman’s lawyer, Steven Sabbadini, Holoman denied the allegations.

“I am distressed and deeply apologetic for my role in any event that has harmed Danny Gray in any way, and heartsick at the thought of harm that has festered for 30 years,” Holoman wrote. “Our memories of that time differ markedly, but the remorse is very real. I continue to treasure memories of our long friendship and its focus on the beauties of art, literature and history.”

A representative from Sabbadini’s office said that neither Holoman or Sabbadini would be issuing further comment.

According to a disciplinary letter signed by Holoman and the university, provided by UC Davis, Holoman agreed to have his distinguished professor and professor emeritus titles removed in lieu of an investigation into the allegations, which, “if true, would have been a violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.”

Per the letter, he is allowed to continue with his current projects with the university library, though he is not allowed to have in-person interactions with graduate or undergraduate students.

In a separate disciplinary letter signed by Holoman in 1997, also provided by the university, Holoman faced a complaint alleging “unprofessional conduct.” He agreed to receive counseling, according to the letter, and “any such future conduct” found to be a violation of the campus sexual harassment policy or the Faculty Code of Conduct “shall result in filing formal charges against you with a proposed sanction of dismissal.”

There are no records of Gray’s 1987 complaint to the university, though Gray said in the blog post that he made the complaints within the calendar year.

In a statement Monday, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May acknowledged that the university has not always adequately served victims of sexual assault.

“Many of the reports of abuse emerge after years and sometimes decades of silence and shame. In the past, few if any institutions had adequate reporting and investigative processes, UC Davis included,” May said in the statement. “Our protocols and processes have improved greatly over the years. I am encouraged that our team is dedicated to being thorough, fair to all parties and timely.”

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D. Kern Holoman has been accused of sexual assault.
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In 1987, his freshman year at the University of California, Davis, Danny Gray says, he was sexually assaulted by a professor.

He reported this incident to the university, but to no avail.

Now, 30 years later and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has spurred the firings of a number of high-profile men accused of sexual assault and harassment, Gray is ready to tell his story again.

That’s the narrative Gray laid out in a blog post published this week. In an agreement reached with the university, D. Kern Holoman, the former university symphony orchestra conductor accused of assaulting and later raping Gray, has relinquished his titles of professor emeritus and distinguished professor, though he denies Gray’s allegations.

Gray -- who now works at UC Davis himself as the director of academic employment and labor relations -- wrote a blog post detailing the allegations against Holoman, and showed a draft to the university last week. A spokeswoman said that the draft “helped spur some activity” leading to Holoman’s discipline.

Holoman, Gray wrote, sexually assaulted him in a hot tub at Holoman’s home, and later raped him. Gray said Holoman apologized, but the professor's unwelcome advances continued in the form of letters and correspondence sent to Gray, and Holoman assaulted Gray again.

“Although in hindsight I can see viable options for resolving this situation, at the time I felt I had no choice but to try to navigate my relationship with him,” Gray said. “I believe I responded to Holoman’s dozens of communications that summer with one or two letters, written in language that I hoped would be received as polite but not welcoming of his romantic and sexual advances.”

In a statement given to Gray by Holoman’s lawyer, Steven Sabbadini, Holoman denied the allegations.

“I am distressed and deeply apologetic for my role in any event that has harmed Danny Gray in any way, and heartsick at the thought of harm that has festered for 30 years,” Holoman wrote. “Our memories of that time differ markedly, but the remorse is very real. I continue to treasure memories of our long friendship and its focus on the beauties of art, literature and history.”

A representative from Sabbadini’s office said that neither Holoman or Sabbadini would be issuing further comment.

According to a disciplinary letter signed by Holoman and the university, provided by UC Davis, Holoman agreed to have his distinguished professor and professor emeritus titles removed in lieu of an investigation into the allegations, which, “if true, would have been a violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.”

Per the letter, he is allowed to continue with his current projects with the university library, though he is not allowed to have in-person interactions with graduate or undergraduate students.

In a separate disciplinary letter signed by Holoman in 1997, also provided by the university, Holoman faced a complaint alleging “unprofessional conduct.” He agreed to receive counseling, according to the letter, and “any such future conduct” found to be a violation of the campus sexual harassment policy or the Faculty Code of Conduct “shall result in filing formal charges against you with a proposed sanction of dismissal.”

There are no records of Gray’s 1987 complaint to the university, though Gray said in the blog post that he made the complaints within the calendar year.

In a statement Monday, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May acknowledged that the university has not always adequately served victims of sexual assault.

“Many of the reports of abuse emerge after years and sometimes decades of silence and shame. In the past, few if any institutions had adequate reporting and investigative processes, UC Davis included,” May said in the statement. “Our protocols and processes have improved greatly over the years. I am encouraged that our team is dedicated to being thorough, fair to all parties and timely.”

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D. Kern Holoman has been accused of sexual assault.
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UC Davis professor stripped of status amid sexual assault allegations

In 1987, his freshman year at the University of California, Davis, Danny Gray says, he was sexually assaulted by a professor.

He reported this incident to the university, but to no avail.

Now, 30 years later and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has spurred the firings of a number of high-profile men accused of sexual assault and harassment, Gray is ready to tell his story again.

That’s the narrative Gray laid out in a blog post published this week. In an agreement reached with the university, D. Kern Holoman, the former university symphony orchestra conductor accused of assaulting and later raping Gray, has relinquished his titles of professor emeritus and distinguished professor, though he denies Gray’s allegations.

Gray — who now works at UC Davis himself as the director of academic employment and labor relations — wrote a blog post detailing the allegations against Holoman, and showed a draft to the university last week. A spokeswoman said that the draft “helped spur some activity” leading to Holoman’s discipline.

Holoman, Gray wrote, sexually assaulted him in a hot tub at Holoman’s home, and later raped him. Gray said Holoman apologized, but the professor’s unwelcome advances continued in the form of letters and correspondence sent to Gray, and Holoman assaulted Gray again.

“Although in hindsight I can see viable options for resolving this situation, at the time I felt I had no choice but to try to navigate my relationship with him,” Gray said. “I believe I responded to Holoman’s dozens of communications that summer with one or two letters, written in language that I hoped would be received as polite but not welcoming of his romantic and sexual advances.”

In a statement given to Gray by Holoman’s lawyer, Steven Sabbadini, Holoman denied the allegations.

“I am distressed and deeply apologetic for my role in any event that has harmed Danny Gray in any way, and heartsick at the thought of harm that has festered for 30 years,” Holoman wrote. “Our memories of that time differ markedly, but the remorse is very real. I continue to treasure memories of our long friendship and its focus on the beauties of art, literature and history.”

A representative from Sabbadini’s office said that neither Holoman or Sabbadini would be issuing further comment.

According to a disciplinary letter signed by Holoman and the university, provided by UC Davis, Holoman agreed to have his distinguished professor and professor emeritus titles removed in lieu of an investigation into the allegations, which, “if true, would have been a violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.”

Per the letter, he is allowed to continue with his current projects with the university library, though he is not allowed to have in-person interactions with graduate or undergraduate students.

In a separate disciplinary letter signed by Holoman in 1997, also provided by the university, Holoman faced a complaint alleging “unprofessional conduct.” He agreed to receive counseling, according to the letter, and “any such future conduct” found to be a violation of the campus sexual harassment policy or the Faculty Code of Conduct “shall result in filing formal charges against you with a proposed sanction of dismissal.”

There are no records of Gray’s 1987 complaint to the university, though Gray said in the blog post that he made the complaints within the calendar year.

In a statement Monday, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May acknowledged that the university has not always adequately served victims of sexual assault.

“Many of the reports of abuse emerge after years and sometimes decades of silence and shame. In the past, few if any institutions had adequate reporting and investigative processes, UC Davis included,” May said in the statement. “Our protocols and processes have improved greatly over the years. I am encouraged that our team is dedicated to being thorough, fair to all parties and timely.”

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D. Kern Holoman has been accused of sexual assault.
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In 1987, his freshman year at the University of California, Davis, Danny Gray says, he was sexually assaulted by a professor.

He reported this incident to the university, but to no avail.

Now, 30 years later and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has spurred the firings of a number of high-profile men accused of sexual assault and harassment, Gray is ready to tell his story again.

That’s the narrative Gray laid out in a blog post published this week. In an agreement reached with the university, D. Kern Holoman, the former university symphony orchestra conductor accused of assaulting and later raping Gray, has relinquished his titles of professor emeritus and distinguished professor, though he denies Gray’s allegations.

Gray -- who now works at UC Davis himself as the director of academic employment and labor relations -- wrote a blog post detailing the allegations against Holoman, and showed a draft to the university last week. A spokeswoman said that the draft “helped spur some activity” leading to Holoman’s discipline.

Holoman, Gray wrote, sexually assaulted him in a hot tub at Holoman’s home, and later raped him. Gray said Holoman apologized, but the professor's unwelcome advances continued in the form of letters and correspondence sent to Gray, and Holoman assaulted Gray again.

“Although in hindsight I can see viable options for resolving this situation, at the time I felt I had no choice but to try to navigate my relationship with him,” Gray said. “I believe I responded to Holoman’s dozens of communications that summer with one or two letters, written in language that I hoped would be received as polite but not welcoming of his romantic and sexual advances.”

In a statement given to Gray by Holoman’s lawyer, Steven Sabbadini, Holoman denied the allegations.

“I am distressed and deeply apologetic for my role in any event that has harmed Danny Gray in any way, and heartsick at the thought of harm that has festered for 30 years,” Holoman wrote. “Our memories of that time differ markedly, but the remorse is very real. I continue to treasure memories of our long friendship and its focus on the beauties of art, literature and history.”

A representative from Sabbadini’s office said that neither Holoman or Sabbadini would be issuing further comment.

According to a disciplinary letter signed by Holoman and the university, provided by UC Davis, Holoman agreed to have his distinguished professor and professor emeritus titles removed in lieu of an investigation into the allegations, which, “if true, would have been a violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy.”

Per the letter, he is allowed to continue with his current projects with the university library, though he is not allowed to have in-person interactions with graduate or undergraduate students.

In a separate disciplinary letter signed by Holoman in 1997, also provided by the university, Holoman faced a complaint alleging “unprofessional conduct.” He agreed to receive counseling, according to the letter, and “any such future conduct” found to be a violation of the campus sexual harassment policy or the Faculty Code of Conduct “shall result in filing formal charges against you with a proposed sanction of dismissal.”

There are no records of Gray’s 1987 complaint to the university, though Gray said in the blog post that he made the complaints within the calendar year.

In a statement Monday, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May acknowledged that the university has not always adequately served victims of sexual assault.

“Many of the reports of abuse emerge after years and sometimes decades of silence and shame. In the past, few if any institutions had adequate reporting and investigative processes, UC Davis included,” May said in the statement. “Our protocols and processes have improved greatly over the years. I am encouraged that our team is dedicated to being thorough, fair to all parties and timely.”

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D. Kern Holoman has been accused of sexual assault.
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Following cheerleader protest inquiry, Kennesaw State president resigns

Sam OlensSam Olens (below left), the president of Kennesaw State University, named to the position over student and faculty protests just last year, has announced his resignation from the Georgia institution, effective in February.

The resignation marks a short term for the university leader who has been plagued by a cheerleader protest scandal this year and whose appointment as president in November 2016 came amid faculty leaders criticizing his lack of higher education experience and his defense of the state’s same-sex marriage ban as attorney general.

“I have decided that new leadership will be required for KSU to fully realize its potential,” he said in an email to students and employees Thursday. “Accordingly, I have advised the chancellor and the Board of Regents of my intention to step down as the president of Kennesaw State University.”

The resignation comes after a scandal dragged out during the fall semester over the way the university — and Olens, specifically — handled cheerleaders who protested during the national anthem before a football game. Olens didn’t mention the cheerleaders in his resignation, and instead congratulated the university for the challenges it has overcome in the past year.

In September, a handful of cheerleaders — later dubbed the Kennesaw 5 — took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a football game. The university would later change its pregame ceremony, keeping the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem. The university said that the change — though it came after the protest — was logistical in nature and had nothing to do with the protest.

But holes would start to emerge in that story.

Kneeling during the national anthem has become a form of political protest over the last year, since Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, started kneeling during the anthem before National Football League games in an protest against racism and police brutality. The protest has drawn supporters and opponents, largely split along Democratic-Republican party lines, respectively. Opponents of the protest have said it disrespects the military.

In the days following the game, both the local sheriff — who is a Republican — and a Republican state representative who chairs a subcommittee in charge of appropriations for Georgia’s public universities complained publicly in the press. Both said Olens — a Republican attorney general before assuming the presidency — had been helpful, and they expressed confidence that the situation would not happen again.

At the time, a university spokeswoman said that politics had nothing to do with the decision, and the timing and political intricacies of the narrative were all a coincidence. Olens had simply passed along information that was already decided upon by the athletics department to Sheriff Neil Warren and State Representative Earl Ehrhart, the university said.

The political intricacies of the situation raised eyebrows, and subsequent public records dumps placed things on even shakier ground.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution unearthed text messages from Warren and Ehrhart bragging about influencing the university’s decision to change the pregame ceremony. Following the publishing of the texts, the University System of Georgia issued a statement saying it would conduct a “special review” of the allegations that the decision to remove the cheerleaders from the field during the national anthem was a political one.

“Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl and I gave him!” Warren said in one text message.

More texts, between Olens and his staff, would be unearthed in a public records request by one of the cheerleaders’ brothers.

“Not good. Can you help set up a [meeting] with them and me this week,” Olens texted K. C. White, the vice president for student affairs, the weekend the cheerleaders knelt. Olens expressed concern about the fallout of the situation with the media and in town.

A meeting between Olens and the cheerleaders never happened.

The records also disclosed the edits that went into the talking points created for university staff to respond to questions from the cheerleaders. At one point, though it didn’t make the final draft, the talking points warned cheerleaders that if donors stopped giving money to the school because of protesting, “that affects the university’s ability to provide need-based scholarships and support to your fellow students.”

In November, the university reversed its policy change, and the cheerleaders were back on the field during the national anthem. In a statement at the time, Olens said that he respected the First Amendment rights of the cheerleaders, although he disagreed with their manner of protest.

Later that month, the University System of Georgia’s review was released, pillorying Kennesaw State and Olens for not consulting the system on the changes, and questioning the explanation that the change was made coincidentally and not because of the cheerleaders’ protest.

“President Olens was aware of the proposed [pregame ceremony] change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” the report said. “President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”

The Journal-Constitution reported that last week that pressure was mounting on Olens to resign, and that he also felt his position as president wasn’t a good fit.

Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the cheerleaders who filed the public records requests, said Thursday that Olens’s resignation provided an opportunity to correct the controversial process that led to his appointment in the first place.

“I think now it’s upon the University System of Georgia to do what they did not do a year ago: [create] an open, fair, honest, independent and national search for a president,” Lewis said. He added that he didn’t think the cheerleading scandal was enough to lead to Olens’s resignation, but it “brought together a major question of his presidency: Who is controlling Sam Olens?”

Indeed, Olens was a controversial pick before the scandal.

He was Georgia’s attorney general when he was appointed and had no higher education experience. A formal search committee for the presidential selection was never created, leading the Faculty Senate to criticize the process that led to his selection.

As attorney general, he defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, leading student groups to question his appropriateness as a university leader. Under his leadership, the attorney general’s office also joined a lawsuit seeking to block the U.S. Education Department from applying Title IX regulations and protections to transgender students.

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Sam OlensSam Olens (below left), the president of Kennesaw State University, named to the position over student and faculty protests just last year, has announced his resignation from the Georgia institution, effective in February.

The resignation marks a short term for the university leader who has been plagued by a cheerleader protest scandal this year and whose appointment as president in November 2016 came amid faculty leaders criticizing his lack of higher education experience and his defense of the state’s same-sex marriage ban as attorney general.

“I have decided that new leadership will be required for KSU to fully realize its potential,” he said in an email to students and employees Thursday. “Accordingly, I have advised the chancellor and the Board of Regents of my intention to step down as the president of Kennesaw State University.”

The resignation comes after a scandal dragged out during the fall semester over the way the university -- and Olens, specifically -- handled cheerleaders who protested during the national anthem before a football game. Olens didn’t mention the cheerleaders in his resignation, and instead congratulated the university for the challenges it has overcome in the past year.

In September, a handful of cheerleaders -- later dubbed the Kennesaw 5 -- took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a football game. The university would later change its pregame ceremony, keeping the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem. The university said that the change -- though it came after the protest -- was logistical in nature and had nothing to do with the protest.

But holes would start to emerge in that story.

Kneeling during the national anthem has become a form of political protest over the last year, since Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, started kneeling during the anthem before National Football League games in an protest against racism and police brutality. The protest has drawn supporters and opponents, largely split along Democratic-Republican party lines, respectively. Opponents of the protest have said it disrespects the military.

In the days following the game, both the local sheriff -- who is a Republican -- and a Republican state representative who chairs a subcommittee in charge of appropriations for Georgia’s public universities complained publicly in the press. Both said Olens -- a Republican attorney general before assuming the presidency -- had been helpful, and they expressed confidence that the situation would not happen again.

At the time, a university spokeswoman said that politics had nothing to do with the decision, and the timing and political intricacies of the narrative were all a coincidence. Olens had simply passed along information that was already decided upon by the athletics department to Sheriff Neil Warren and State Representative Earl Ehrhart, the university said.

The political intricacies of the situation raised eyebrows, and subsequent public records dumps placed things on even shakier ground.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution unearthed text messages from Warren and Ehrhart bragging about influencing the university’s decision to change the pregame ceremony. Following the publishing of the texts, the University System of Georgia issued a statement saying it would conduct a “special review” of the allegations that the decision to remove the cheerleaders from the field during the national anthem was a political one.

“Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl and I gave him!” Warren said in one text message.

More texts, between Olens and his staff, would be unearthed in a public records request by one of the cheerleaders’ brothers.

“Not good. Can you help set up a [meeting] with them and me this week,” Olens texted K. C. White, the vice president for student affairs, the weekend the cheerleaders knelt. Olens expressed concern about the fallout of the situation with the media and in town.

A meeting between Olens and the cheerleaders never happened.

The records also disclosed the edits that went into the talking points created for university staff to respond to questions from the cheerleaders. At one point, though it didn’t make the final draft, the talking points warned cheerleaders that if donors stopped giving money to the school because of protesting, “that affects the university’s ability to provide need-based scholarships and support to your fellow students.”

In November, the university reversed its policy change, and the cheerleaders were back on the field during the national anthem. In a statement at the time, Olens said that he respected the First Amendment rights of the cheerleaders, although he disagreed with their manner of protest.

Later that month, the University System of Georgia’s review was released, pillorying Kennesaw State and Olens for not consulting the system on the changes, and questioning the explanation that the change was made coincidentally and not because of the cheerleaders’ protest.

“President Olens was aware of the proposed [pregame ceremony] change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” the report said. “President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”

The Journal-Constitution reported that last week that pressure was mounting on Olens to resign, and that he also felt his position as president wasn't a good fit.

Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the cheerleaders who filed the public records requests, said Thursday that Olens’s resignation provided an opportunity to correct the controversial process that led to his appointment in the first place.

“I think now it’s upon the University System of Georgia to do what they did not do a year ago: [create] an open, fair, honest, independent and national search for a president,” Lewis said. He added that he didn’t think the cheerleading scandal was enough to lead to Olens’s resignation, but it “brought together a major question of his presidency: Who is controlling Sam Olens?”

Indeed, Olens was a controversial pick before the scandal.

He was Georgia’s attorney general when he was appointed and had no higher education experience. A formal search committee for the presidential selection was never created, leading the Faculty Senate to criticize the process that led to his selection.

As attorney general, he defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, leading student groups to question his appropriateness as a university leader. Under his leadership, the attorney general’s office also joined a lawsuit seeking to block the U.S. Education Department from applying Title IX regulations and protections to transgender students.

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Is the public really losing faith in higher education?

Last summer’s Pew Research Center and Gallup surveys showing sharply declining public support for colleges and universities — especially among Republicans — seriously rattled higher education leaders.

Understandably so: with the GOP running the federal government and two-thirds of the states, those trend lines can translate not just into fewer Americans willing to finance a college education personally, but also less favorable treatment of colleges and universities by politicians and policy makers.

A pair of new surveys conducted this fall offer a more nuanced picture of public attitudes about higher education. The surveys, by Civis Analytics and Echelon Insights, probably won’t make college leaders rest easy: they reveal meaningful public doubts about college affordability and the value of degrees. (More than four in 10 Americans agreed, for example, that “for most high school students today, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.”)

But the new surveys may help focus the conversation on the issues on which higher education appears most vulnerable and on the audiences that are most skeptical.

The data suggest strongly, for instance, that Americans hold a much more favorable view of two-year colleges than of four-year institutions, and that Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly believe that most students should pursue some kind of postsecondary education or training after graduating high school.

A Summer’s Worth of Troubling Data

The release of the Pew and Gallup surveys in July and August stunned and troubled many college presidents and higher ed leaders.

Asked whether “colleges and universities have a positive/negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” 58 percent of Republicans said “negative,” up sharply from the 37 percent who answered that way just two years ago. Older Republicans and self-described conservatives had the most skeptical views. Among Democrats, meanwhile, positive views of colleges and universities continued to edge up.

Gallup’s question (which it asks about a range of American institutions) was phrased “Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in colleges and universities — a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little.”

A majority of all Americans — 56 percent — said some (34 percent) or very little (22 percent), while 44 percent said a great deal or quite a lot. Democrats and those who lean Democratic took a more favorable view — 56 percent confident and 43 percent less so — while a full two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) expressed some or very little confidence. (Thirty-one percent of Republicans said “very little.”)

Gallup’s survey offered some insights into the why behind the public’s doubts. Of those who said they had some or very little confidence, Republicans were mostly likely to cite political or cultural reasons (32 percent said the institutions were too liberal/political, and 21 percent said colleges were “not allowing students to think for themselves” or were “pushing their own agenda”).

Democrats who answered negatively were far likelier (36 percent) to say that the institutions were “too expensive” than to proffer any other reason.

How to Interpret?

The Pew and Gallup surveys share a few things. First, both surveys lumped all colleges and universities together, as so much public discussion of higher education does. That makes it impossible to know whether a particular respondent was thinking about Harvard and its $35 billion endowment, the cherished State U where the kids went, the community college downtown or a for-profit university that’s been in the headlines.

Second, the questions posed to the public solicited respondents’ attitudes in ways that were broadly defined — in Gallup’s case, their “confidence” in the institutions, and in Pew’s case colleges and universities’ “effect … on the way things are going in the country.”

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, a self-described “centrist” think tank, said she was struck by the extent to which the questions from Gallup and Pew (especially the latter) could be seen as focusing on cultural or political issues rather than economic ones. Because the surveys asked about the effect colleges are having on “the way things are going in the country,” Erickson Hatalsky said, respondents may well be influenced by “whether you think we are going in the right direction as a country” — in many ways a political question, she said.

In a blog post co-written with Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Erickson Hatalsky questioned the idea that surveys like those from Pew and Gallup prove “that the country is giving up on higher education as a path to success  —  and that politicians who want to appeal to voters should follow that cue.”

They drew attention to the Civis and Echelon surveys, which they said show “that Americans may have specific concerns about higher education  —  price worries, in particular  —  but they still highly value education beyond high school.”

So what do the Civis and Echelon studies reveal?

Digging Into the Data

Civis Analytics, a data science company, surveyed 5,647 members of the public in August and September and weighted the results to the U.S. population. The margin of error is two percentage points.

It asked four main questions and some follow-ups, focused fairly narrowly on individuals’ economic outcomes:

  • Presented with the statement “It’s easier to get a good job with an education after high school — like a college degree or trade certificate — than it is to get a good job without one,” respondents overwhelmingly agreed, 54 percent “strongly,” and 32 percent “somewhat.”
  • Presented with the statement “For most high school students, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job,” 53 percent of respondents disagreed (26 percent “strongly”), and 42 percent agreed (33 percent “somewhat”).
  • Presented with the statement “Most high school students should pursue career or technical training, community college programs and associate degree programs, OR a four-year college degree after they graduate high school,” 89 percent of respondents agreed, 52 percent strongly.

The last of the four said, “Would you say you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the job _________ are doing in America today?” — and filled in the blank both with “community and two-year colleges” and “four-year colleges.”

The results were as follows:

Response Four-Year College Community College
Highly Satisfied 8% 12%
Somewhat Satisfied 44% 51%
Somewhat Dissatisfied 27% 18%
Highly Dissatisfied 11% 4%
Not Sure 10% 15%

The roughly two-fifths of respondents who said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges were asked to choose among five reasons why. A majority, 55 percent, said it was because they “cost too much to attend” and 43 percent chose “they don’t provide students with useful real-world skills.” Fewer said colleges “push students to a particular political viewpoint” (24 percent), “don’t focus on useful subject matter” (11 percent) or “coddle students too much” (10 percent).

Civis then examined how different groups answered the questions. The lack of differences on many fronts stand out.

On the question of whether having some kind of postsecondary education or training improves job prospects, there was overwhelming agreement among Democrats and Republicans alike, and those with and without a four-year degree — all were between 80 and 90 percent.

Ditto on the question of whether high school students should pursue some kind of post-high school education, be it vocational training or a four-year degree. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans and 86 percent of those with less than a bachelor’s degree agreed.

Republicans were only slightly likelier than Democrats (44 percent to 40 percent) to agree with the statement that “pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.” (Half of respondents without a four-year degree agreed with that statement, however, compared to 35 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees. This group would include the Republican noncollege crowd that is often described as the “Trump voters.”)

Support for community colleges crossed lines, as 64 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike expressed satisfaction with the job two-year institutions are doing.

The biggest differences came in the degree of satisfaction with four-year colleges, and the reasons for dissatisfaction. Just under half (49 percent) of Republicans said they were satisfied with the job being done by four-year institutions, compared to 60 percent of Democrats. Pluralities of both groups (40 and 45 percent of R’s and D’s who expressed dissatisfaction, respectively) said it was because colleges don’t provide students with useful skills.

But the biggest reason cited by Democrats (by 69 percent of them) was that four-year colleges “cost too much to attend,” while 46 percent of Republicans attributed their dissatisfaction to the colleges “push[ing] students to a particular political viewpoint.”

One more set of data from the Civis study suggests that the stereotypical “Trump voters” — Republicans without a college degree — don’t differ enormously from others on their views about college.

As seen in the table below, Republicans with and without four-year degrees differ little from each other — and not all that much from Democrats — in their answers to the question “which of the following best describes why you are dissatisfied with four-year colleges and universities?”

Reason Democrat —
No 4-Year Degree
Democrat —
4-Year Degree
Republican —
No 4-Year Degree
Republican —
4-Year Degree
They cost too much to attend 68% 68% 43% 39%
They don’t provide students with useful real-world skills. 42% 47% 40% 40%
They push students to a particular political viewpoint. 5% 2% 46% 46%
They don’t focus on useful subject matter 13% 11% 9% 9%
They coddle students too much 4% 7% 11% 18%

The other survey cited by Erickson Hatalsky and Miller was by Echelon Insights, which has produced a series of polls of 1,000 people in “Trump Country” (counties that went for President Obama in 2012 but President Trump in 2016, or where Trump’s margin of victory was at least 20 points larger than what Mitt Romney captured in 2012).

The questions largely mirrored those asked by Civis, with the exception of the one on whether college is a good investment.

Eighty-four percent of the respondents strongly (59 percent) or somewhat agreed that “it’s easier to get a good job with an education after high school, like a college degree or trade certificate, than it is to get a good job without one.” Democrats (87 percent) were only slightly more likely than Republicans (80 percent) and self-described Trump voters (81 percent) to agree.

The proportions expressing satisfaction with two-year colleges (62 percent) and four-year colleges (56 percent) were similar to those in the Civis survey. Republicans actually were slightly more satisfied with community colleges than were Democrats (62.5 percent versus 59.4 percent), but far less satisfied with four-year institutions (52 percent versus 65.6 percent).

And the divide between the parties on the reasons for their dissatisfaction with four-year colleges was large: 73 percent of Democrats said the colleges cost too much to attend and 48 percent said they don’t prepare students with useful skills, while 52.6 percent of Republican voters (and 54.2 percent of Trump voters) said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges because they “push students to a particular political viewpoint.” Roughly four in 10 GOP voters also cited concerns about price and skills preparation.

What It All Means

When layered on top of the Pew and Gallup studies, Erickson Hatalsky said, what the new data suggest is that “people continue to think that higher education is necessary for economic success and worth it — there is no party split there.”

The point at which “big shifts” in polling numbers occur, she said, like those in the Pew survey, is “when you embed other questions about cultural and political issues” into perceptions of higher education. Those political and cultural worries apply much more to four-year colleges than two-year institutions, as the more granular data from Civis and Echelon show. “Support for community colleges is off the charts,” Erickson Hatalsky said.

That doesn’t mean college leaders can afford to ignore the public opinion data, which include real warning signs, she and Miller said. The concerns about the price of college and student debt are real, and those concerns are likely driving the doubts about whether college is “worth it,” they wrote. (A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll published in September found Americans fairly evenly divided over whether getting a four-year degree was “worth the cost,” with 47 percent agreeing that it wasn’t “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” That number had risen sharply from four years earlier, primarily because of increased doubts from Americans with some college but no degree and those between the ages of 18 and 34, the Journal found.)

“Of the 38 percent of the general public who said they were dissatisfied [with four-year colleges], only four in 10 said that was because ‘they don’t prepare students with useful, real-world skills’ (which means a total of about 16 percent of the country expressed dissatisfaction for that reason),” Erickson Hatalsky and Miller wrote. “Questions on public polls that ask if ‘college’ is ‘worth it’ are likely capturing specific frustrations about rising prices (particularly at four-year schools), rather than a viewpoint that higher education generally offers no value over the long term.”

Much of the growing enmity for higher education from Republican political leaders has been aimed at wealthy research universities and elite colleges, such as criticism of $60,000 annual tuitions or large endowments (most recently in the tax reform legislation now before Congress), doubts about the value of research and the liberal arts, and escalating complaints about perceived political correctness and liberal bias.

The biggest worry in letting perceptions stand that Americans doubt the value of college generally, Miller and Erickson Hatalsky argue, is that politicians will seize on those conclusions to argue for cutting funding or other support for the various forms of postsecondary education and training.

“I find it frustrating that we’re seeing politicians denigrate higher ed, and that it’s really a tracking conversation,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “You hear a lot of statements about how ‘not everybody should go to college,’ but usually it’s ‘other’ people who shouldn’t go to college — and the other are usually low-income people, kids of color. Members of Congress aren’t sending their kids to community college or vocational school. To me that is super problematic.”

The bottom line on public attitudes about higher ed? Pay attention, but don’t overreact, Erickson Hatalsky said.

“This is not the moment of the end of higher ed,” she said. “People don’t shift opinions about their own life that quickly.”

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Last summer’s Pew Research Center and Gallup surveys showing sharply declining public support for colleges and universities -- especially among Republicans -- seriously rattled higher education leaders.

Understandably so: with the GOP running the federal government and two-thirds of the states, those trend lines can translate not just into fewer Americans willing to finance a college education personally, but also less favorable treatment of colleges and universities by politicians and policy makers.

A pair of new surveys conducted this fall offer a more nuanced picture of public attitudes about higher education. The surveys, by Civis Analytics and Echelon Insights, probably won’t make college leaders rest easy: they reveal meaningful public doubts about college affordability and the value of degrees. (More than four in 10 Americans agreed, for example, that “for most high school students today, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.”)

But the new surveys may help focus the conversation on the issues on which higher education appears most vulnerable and on the audiences that are most skeptical.

The data suggest strongly, for instance, that Americans hold a much more favorable view of two-year colleges than of four-year institutions, and that Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly believe that most students should pursue some kind of postsecondary education or training after graduating high school.

A Summer's Worth of Troubling Data

The release of the Pew and Gallup surveys in July and August stunned and troubled many college presidents and higher ed leaders.

Asked whether “colleges and universities have a positive/negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” 58 percent of Republicans said “negative,” up sharply from the 37 percent who answered that way just two years ago. Older Republicans and self-described conservatives had the most skeptical views. Among Democrats, meanwhile, positive views of colleges and universities continued to edge up.

Gallup’s question (which it asks about a range of American institutions) was phrased “Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in colleges and universities -- a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little.”

A majority of all Americans -- 56 percent -- said some (34 percent) or very little (22 percent), while 44 percent said a great deal or quite a lot. Democrats and those who lean Democratic took a more favorable view -- 56 percent confident and 43 percent less so -- while a full two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) expressed some or very little confidence. (Thirty-one percent of Republicans said "very little.")

Gallup’s survey offered some insights into the why behind the public's doubts. Of those who said they had some or very little confidence, Republicans were mostly likely to cite political or cultural reasons (32 percent said the institutions were too liberal/political, and 21 percent said colleges were “not allowing students to think for themselves” or were “pushing their own agenda”).

Democrats who answered negatively were far likelier (36 percent) to say that the institutions were “too expensive” than to proffer any other reason.

How to Interpret?

The Pew and Gallup surveys share a few things. First, both surveys lumped all colleges and universities together, as so much public discussion of higher education does. That makes it impossible to know whether a particular respondent was thinking about Harvard and its $35 billion endowment, the cherished State U where the kids went, the community college downtown or a for-profit university that's been in the headlines.

Second, the questions posed to the public solicited respondents' attitudes in ways that were broadly defined -- in Gallup's case, their "confidence" in the institutions, and in Pew's case colleges and universities' "effect … on the way things are going in the country."

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, a self-described "centrist" think tank, said she was struck by the extent to which the questions from Gallup and Pew (especially the latter) could be seen as focusing on cultural or political issues rather than economic ones. Because the surveys asked about the effect colleges are having on "the way things are going in the country," Erickson Hatalsky said, respondents may well be influenced by "whether you think we are going in the right direction as a country" -- in many ways a political question, she said.

In a blog post co-written with Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Erickson Hatalsky questioned the idea that surveys like those from Pew and Gallup prove "that the country is giving up on higher education as a path to success  --  and that politicians who want to appeal to voters should follow that cue."

They drew attention to the Civis and Echelon surveys, which they said show "that Americans may have specific concerns about higher education  --  price worries, in particular  --  but they still highly value education beyond high school."

So what do the Civis and Echelon studies reveal?

Digging Into the Data

Civis Analytics, a data science company, surveyed 5,647 members of the public in August and September and weighted the results to the U.S. population. The margin of error is two percentage points.

It asked four main questions and some follow-ups, focused fairly narrowly on individuals' economic outcomes:

  • Presented with the statement "It's easier to get a good job with an education after high school -- like a college degree or trade certificate -- than it is to get a good job without one," respondents overwhelmingly agreed, 54 percent "strongly," and 32 percent "somewhat."
  • Presented with the statement "For most high school students, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job," 53 percent of respondents disagreed (26 percent "strongly"), and 42 percent agreed (33 percent "somewhat").
  • Presented with the statement "Most high school students should pursue career or technical training, community college programs and associate degree programs, OR a four-year college degree after they graduate high school," 89 percent of respondents agreed, 52 percent strongly.

The last of the four said, "Would you say you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the job _________ are doing in America today?" -- and filled in the blank both with "community and two-year colleges" and "four-year colleges."

The results were as follows:

Response Four-Year College Community College
Highly Satisfied 8% 12%
Somewhat Satisfied 44% 51%
Somewhat Dissatisfied 27% 18%
Highly Dissatisfied 11% 4%
Not Sure 10% 15%

The roughly two-fifths of respondents who said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges were asked to choose among five reasons why. A majority, 55 percent, said it was because they "cost too much to attend" and 43 percent chose "they don't provide students with useful real-world skills." Fewer said colleges "push students to a particular political viewpoint" (24 percent), "don't focus on useful subject matter" (11 percent) or "coddle students too much" (10 percent).

Civis then examined how different groups answered the questions. The lack of differences on many fronts stand out.

On the question of whether having some kind of postsecondary education or training improves job prospects, there was overwhelming agreement among Democrats and Republicans alike, and those with and without a four-year degree -- all were between 80 and 90 percent.

Ditto on the question of whether high school students should pursue some kind of post-high school education, be it vocational training or a four-year degree. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans and 86 percent of those with less than a bachelor's degree agreed.

Republicans were only slightly likelier than Democrats (44 percent to 40 percent) to agree with the statement that "pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job." (Half of respondents without a four-year degree agreed with that statement, however, compared to 35 percent of people with bachelor's degrees. This group would include the Republican noncollege crowd that is often described as the "Trump voters.")

Support for community colleges crossed lines, as 64 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike expressed satisfaction with the job two-year institutions are doing.

The biggest differences came in the degree of satisfaction with four-year colleges, and the reasons for dissatisfaction. Just under half (49 percent) of Republicans said they were satisfied with the job being done by four-year institutions, compared to 60 percent of Democrats. Pluralities of both groups (40 and 45 percent of R's and D's who expressed dissatisfaction, respectively) said it was because colleges don't provide students with useful skills.

But the biggest reason cited by Democrats (by 69 percent of them) was that four-year colleges "cost too much to attend," while 46 percent of Republicans attributed their dissatisfaction to the colleges "push[ing] students to a particular political viewpoint."

One more set of data from the Civis study suggests that the stereotypical "Trump voters" -- Republicans without a college degree -- don't differ enormously from others on their views about college.

As seen in the table below, Republicans with and without four-year degrees differ little from each other -- and not all that much from Democrats -- in their answers to the question "which of the following best describes why you are dissatisfied with four-year colleges and universities?"

Reason Democrat --
No 4-Year Degree
Democrat --
4-Year Degree
Republican --
No 4-Year Degree
Republican --
4-Year Degree
They cost too much to attend 68% 68% 43% 39%
They don't provide students with useful real-world skills. 42% 47% 40% 40%
They push students to a particular political viewpoint. 5% 2% 46% 46%
They don't focus on useful subject matter 13% 11% 9% 9%
They coddle students too much 4% 7% 11% 18%

The other survey cited by Erickson Hatalsky and Miller was by Echelon Insights, which has produced a series of polls of 1,000 people in "Trump Country" (counties that went for President Obama in 2012 but President Trump in 2016, or where Trump's margin of victory was at least 20 points larger than what Mitt Romney captured in 2012).

The questions largely mirrored those asked by Civis, with the exception of the one on whether college is a good investment.

Eighty-four percent of the respondents strongly (59 percent) or somewhat agreed that "it's easier to get a good job with an education after high school, like a college degree or trade certificate, than it is to get a good job without one." Democrats (87 percent) were only slightly more likely than Republicans (80 percent) and self-described Trump voters (81 percent) to agree.

The proportions expressing satisfaction with two-year colleges (62 percent) and four-year colleges (56 percent) were similar to those in the Civis survey. Republicans actually were slightly more satisfied with community colleges than were Democrats (62.5 percent versus 59.4 percent), but far less satisfied with four-year institutions (52 percent versus 65.6 percent).

And the divide between the parties on the reasons for their dissatisfaction with four-year colleges was large: 73 percent of Democrats said the colleges cost too much to attend and 48 percent said they don't prepare students with useful skills, while 52.6 percent of Republican voters (and 54.2 percent of Trump voters) said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges because they "push students to a particular political viewpoint." Roughly four in 10 GOP voters also cited concerns about price and skills preparation.

What It All Means

When layered on top of the Pew and Gallup studies, Erickson Hatalsky said, what the new data suggest is that "people continue to think that higher education is necessary for economic success and worth it -- there is no party split there."

The point at which "big shifts" in polling numbers occur, she said, like those in the Pew survey, is "when you embed other questions about cultural and political issues" into perceptions of higher education. Those political and cultural worries apply much more to four-year colleges than two-year institutions, as the more granular data from Civis and Echelon show. "Support for community colleges is off the charts," Erickson Hatalsky said.

That doesn't mean college leaders can afford to ignore the public opinion data, which include real warning signs, she and Miller said. The concerns about the price of college and student debt are real, and those concerns are likely driving the doubts about whether college is "worth it," they wrote. (A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll published in September found Americans fairly evenly divided over whether getting a four-year degree was "worth the cost," with 47 percent agreeing that it wasn't "because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off." That number had risen sharply from four years earlier, primarily because of increased doubts from Americans with some college but no degree and those between the ages of 18 and 34, the Journal found.)

“Of the 38 percent of the general public who said they were dissatisfied [with four-year colleges], only four in 10 said that was because ‘they don’t prepare students with useful, real-world skills’ (which means a total of about 16 percent of the country expressed dissatisfaction for that reason),” Erickson Hatalsky and Miller wrote. “Questions on public polls that ask if ‘college’ is ‘worth it’ are likely capturing specific frustrations about rising prices (particularly at four-year schools), rather than a viewpoint that higher education generally offers no value over the long term.”

Much of the growing enmity for higher education from Republican political leaders has been aimed at wealthy research universities and elite colleges, such as criticism of $60,000 annual tuitions or large endowments (most recently in the tax reform legislation now before Congress), doubts about the value of research and the liberal arts, and escalating complaints about perceived political correctness and liberal bias.

The biggest worry in letting perceptions stand that Americans doubt the value of college generally, Miller and Erickson Hatalsky argue, is that politicians will seize on those conclusions to argue for cutting funding or other support for the various forms of postsecondary education and training.

"I find it frustrating that we're seeing politicians denigrate higher ed, and that it's really a tracking conversation," Erickson Hatalsky said. "You hear a lot of statements about how 'not everybody should go to college,' but usually it's 'other' people who shouldn't go to college -- and the other are usually low-income people, kids of color. Members of Congress aren't sending their kids to community college or vocational school. To me that is super problematic."

The bottom line on public attitudes about higher ed? Pay attention, but don't overreact, Erickson Hatalsky said.

"This is not the moment of the end of higher ed," she said. "People don’t shift opinions about their own life that quickly."

Image Source: 
istockphoto.com/Rawpixel
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Newsletter Order: 
0
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Magazine treatment: 

Is the public really losing faith in higher education?

Last summer’s Pew Research Center and Gallup surveys showing sharply declining public support for colleges and universities — especially among Republicans — seriously rattled higher education leaders.

Understandably so: with the GOP running the federal government and two-thirds of the states, those trend lines can translate not just into fewer Americans willing to finance a college education personally, but also less favorable treatment of colleges and universities by politicians and policy makers.

A pair of new surveys conducted this fall offer a more nuanced picture of public attitudes about higher education. The surveys, by Civis Analytics and Echelon Insights, probably won’t make college leaders rest easy: they reveal meaningful public doubts about college affordability and the value of degrees. (More than four in 10 Americans agreed, for example, that “for most high school students today, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.”)

But the new surveys may help focus the conversation on the issues on which higher education appears most vulnerable and on the audiences that are most skeptical.

The data suggest strongly, for instance, that Americans hold a much more favorable view of two-year colleges than of four-year institutions, and that Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly believe that most students should pursue some kind of postsecondary education or training after graduating high school.

A Summer’s Worth of Troubling Data

The release of the Pew and Gallup surveys in July and August stunned and troubled many college presidents and higher ed leaders.

Asked whether “colleges and universities have a positive/negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” 58 percent of Republicans said “negative,” up sharply from the 37 percent who answered that way just two years ago. Older Republicans and self-described conservatives had the most skeptical views. Among Democrats, meanwhile, positive views of colleges and universities continued to edge up.

Gallup’s question (which it asks about a range of American institutions) was phrased “Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in colleges and universities — a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little.”

A majority of all Americans — 56 percent — said some (34 percent) or very little (22 percent), while 44 percent said a great deal or quite a lot. Democrats and those who lean Democratic took a more favorable view — 56 percent confident and 43 percent less so — while a full two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) expressed some or very little confidence. (Thirty-one percent of Republicans said “very little.”)

Gallup’s survey offered some insights into the why behind the public’s doubts. Of those who said they had some or very little confidence, Republicans were mostly likely to cite political or cultural reasons (32 percent said the institutions were too liberal/political, and 21 percent said colleges were “not allowing students to think for themselves” or were “pushing their own agenda”).

Democrats who answered negatively were far likelier (36 percent) to say that the institutions were “too expensive” than to proffer any other reason.

How to Interpret?

The Pew and Gallup surveys share a few things. First, both surveys lumped all colleges and universities together, as so much public discussion of higher education does. That makes it impossible to know whether a particular respondent was thinking about Harvard and its $35 billion endowment, the cherished State U where the kids went, the community college downtown or a for-profit university that’s been in the headlines.

Second, the questions posed to the public solicited respondents’ attitudes in ways that were broadly defined — in Gallup’s case, their “confidence” in the institutions, and in Pew’s case colleges and universities’ “effect … on the way things are going in the country.”

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, a self-described “centrist” think tank, said she was struck by the extent to which the questions from Gallup and Pew (especially the latter) could be seen as focusing on cultural or political issues rather than economic ones. Because the surveys asked about the effect colleges are having on “the way things are going in the country,” Erickson Hatalsky said, respondents may well be influenced by “whether you think we are going in the right direction as a country” — in many ways a political question, she said.

In a blog post co-written with Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Erickson Hatalsky questioned the idea that surveys like those from Pew and Gallup prove “that the country is giving up on higher education as a path to success  —  and that politicians who want to appeal to voters should follow that cue.”

They drew attention to the Civis and Echelon surveys, which they said show “that Americans may have specific concerns about higher education  —  price worries, in particular  —  but they still highly value education beyond high school.”

So what do the Civis and Echelon studies reveal?

Digging Into the Data

Civis Analytics, a data science company, surveyed 5,647 members of the public in August and September and weighted the results to the U.S. population. The margin of error is two percentage points.

It asked four main questions and some follow-ups, focused fairly narrowly on individuals’ economic outcomes:

  • Presented with the statement “It’s easier to get a good job with an education after high school — like a college degree or trade certificate — than it is to get a good job without one,” respondents overwhelmingly agreed, 54 percent “strongly,” and 32 percent “somewhat.”
  • Presented with the statement “For most high school students, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job,” 53 percent of respondents disagreed (26 percent “strongly”), and 42 percent agreed (33 percent “somewhat”).
  • Presented with the statement “Most high school students should pursue career or technical training, community college programs and associate degree programs, OR a four-year college degree after they graduate high school,” 89 percent of respondents agreed, 52 percent strongly.

The last of the four said, “Would you say you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the job _________ are doing in America today?” — and filled in the blank both with “community and two-year colleges” and “four-year colleges.”

The results were as follows:

Response Four-Year College Community College
Highly Satisfied 8% 12%
Somewhat Satisfied 44% 51%
Somewhat Dissatisfied 27% 18%
Highly Dissatisfied 11% 4%
Not Sure 10% 15%

The roughly two-fifths of respondents who said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges were asked to choose among five reasons why. A majority, 55 percent, said it was because they “cost too much to attend” and 43 percent chose “they don’t provide students with useful real-world skills.” Fewer said colleges “push students to a particular political viewpoint” (24 percent), “don’t focus on useful subject matter” (11 percent) or “coddle students too much” (10 percent).

Civis then examined how different groups answered the questions. The lack of differences on many fronts stand out.

On the question of whether having some kind of postsecondary education or training improves job prospects, there was overwhelming agreement among Democrats and Republicans alike, and those with and without a four-year degree — all were between 80 and 90 percent.

Ditto on the question of whether high school students should pursue some kind of post-high school education, be it vocational training or a four-year degree. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans and 86 percent of those with less than a bachelor’s degree agreed.

Republicans were only slightly likelier than Democrats (44 percent to 40 percent) to agree with the statement that “pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.” (Half of respondents without a four-year degree agreed with that statement, however, compared to 35 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees. This group would include the Republican noncollege crowd that is often described as the “Trump voters.”)

Support for community colleges crossed lines, as 64 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike expressed satisfaction with the job two-year institutions are doing.

The biggest differences came in the degree of satisfaction with four-year colleges, and the reasons for dissatisfaction. Just under half (49 percent) of Republicans said they were satisfied with the job being done by four-year institutions, compared to 60 percent of Democrats. Pluralities of both groups (40 and 45 percent of R’s and D’s who expressed dissatisfaction, respectively) said it was because colleges don’t provide students with useful skills.

But the biggest reason cited by Democrats (by 69 percent of them) was that four-year colleges “cost too much to attend,” while 46 percent of Republicans attributed their dissatisfaction to the colleges “push[ing] students to a particular political viewpoint.”

One more set of data from the Civis study suggests that the stereotypical “Trump voters” — Republicans without a college degree — don’t differ enormously from others on their views about college.

As seen in the table below, Republicans with and without four-year degrees differ little from each other — and not all that much from Democrats — in their answers to the question “which of the following best describes why you are dissatisfied with four-year colleges and universities?”

Reason Democrat —
No 4-Year Degree
Democrat —
4-Year Degree
Republican —
No 4-Year Degree
Republican —
4-Year Degree
They cost too much to attend 68% 68% 43% 39%
They don’t provide students with useful real-world skills. 42% 47% 40% 40%
They push students to a particular political viewpoint. 5% 2% 46% 46%
They don’t focus on useful subject matter 13% 11% 9% 9%
They coddle students too much 4% 7% 11% 18%

The other survey cited by Erickson Hatalsky and Miller was by Echelon Insights, which has produced a series of polls of 1,000 people in “Trump Country” (counties that went for President Obama in 2012 but President Trump in 2016, or where Trump’s margin of victory was at least 20 points larger than what Mitt Romney captured in 2012).

The questions largely mirrored those asked by Civis, with the exception of the one on whether college is a good investment.

Eighty-four percent of the respondents strongly (59 percent) or somewhat agreed that “it’s easier to get a good job with an education after high school, like a college degree or trade certificate, than it is to get a good job without one.” Democrats (87 percent) were only slightly more likely than Republicans (80 percent) and self-described Trump voters (81 percent) to agree.

The proportions expressing satisfaction with two-year colleges (62 percent) and four-year colleges (56 percent) were similar to those in the Civis survey. Republicans actually were slightly more satisfied with community colleges than were Democrats (62.5 percent versus 59.4 percent), but far less satisfied with four-year institutions (52 percent versus 65.6 percent).

And the divide between the parties on the reasons for their dissatisfaction with four-year colleges was large: 73 percent of Democrats said the colleges cost too much to attend and 48 percent said they don’t prepare students with useful skills, while 52.6 percent of Republican voters (and 54.2 percent of Trump voters) said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges because they “push students to a particular political viewpoint.” Roughly four in 10 GOP voters also cited concerns about price and skills preparation.

What It All Means

When layered on top of the Pew and Gallup studies, Erickson Hatalsky said, what the new data suggest is that “people continue to think that higher education is necessary for economic success and worth it — there is no party split there.”

The point at which “big shifts” in polling numbers occur, she said, like those in the Pew survey, is “when you embed other questions about cultural and political issues” into perceptions of higher education. Those political and cultural worries apply much more to four-year colleges than two-year institutions, as the more granular data from Civis and Echelon show. “Support for community colleges is off the charts,” Erickson Hatalsky said.

That doesn’t mean college leaders can afford to ignore the public opinion data, which include real warning signs, she and Miller said. The concerns about the price of college and student debt are real, and those concerns are likely driving the doubts about whether college is “worth it,” they wrote. (A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll published in September found Americans fairly evenly divided over whether getting a four-year degree was “worth the cost,” with 47 percent agreeing that it wasn’t “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” That number had risen sharply from four years earlier, primarily because of increased doubts from Americans with some college but no degree and those between the ages of 18 and 34, the Journal found.)

“Of the 38 percent of the general public who said they were dissatisfied [with four-year colleges], only four in 10 said that was because ‘they don’t prepare students with useful, real-world skills’ (which means a total of about 16 percent of the country expressed dissatisfaction for that reason),” Erickson Hatalsky and Miller wrote. “Questions on public polls that ask if ‘college’ is ‘worth it’ are likely capturing specific frustrations about rising prices (particularly at four-year schools), rather than a viewpoint that higher education generally offers no value over the long term.”

Much of the growing enmity for higher education from Republican political leaders has been aimed at wealthy research universities and elite colleges, such as criticism of $60,000 annual tuitions or large endowments (most recently in the tax reform legislation now before Congress), doubts about the value of research and the liberal arts, and escalating complaints about perceived political correctness and liberal bias.

The biggest worry in letting perceptions stand that Americans doubt the value of college generally, Miller and Erickson Hatalsky argue, is that politicians will seize on those conclusions to argue for cutting funding or other support for the various forms of postsecondary education and training.

“I find it frustrating that we’re seeing politicians denigrate higher ed, and that it’s really a tracking conversation,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “You hear a lot of statements about how ‘not everybody should go to college,’ but usually it’s ‘other’ people who shouldn’t go to college — and the other are usually low-income people, kids of color. Members of Congress aren’t sending their kids to community college or vocational school. To me that is super problematic.”

The bottom line on public attitudes about higher ed? Pay attention, but don’t overreact, Erickson Hatalsky said.

“This is not the moment of the end of higher ed,” she said. “People don’t shift opinions about their own life that quickly.”

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Last summer’s Pew Research Center and Gallup surveys showing sharply declining public support for colleges and universities -- especially among Republicans -- seriously rattled higher education leaders.

Understandably so: with the GOP running the federal government and two-thirds of the states, those trend lines can translate not just into fewer Americans willing to finance a college education personally, but also less favorable treatment of colleges and universities by politicians and policy makers.

A pair of new surveys conducted this fall offer a more nuanced picture of public attitudes about higher education. The surveys, by Civis Analytics and Echelon Insights, probably won’t make college leaders rest easy: they reveal meaningful public doubts about college affordability and the value of degrees. (More than four in 10 Americans agreed, for example, that “for most high school students today, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.”)

But the new surveys may help focus the conversation on the issues on which higher education appears most vulnerable and on the audiences that are most skeptical.

The data suggest strongly, for instance, that Americans hold a much more favorable view of two-year colleges than of four-year institutions, and that Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly believe that most students should pursue some kind of postsecondary education or training after graduating high school.

A Summer's Worth of Troubling Data

The release of the Pew and Gallup surveys in July and August stunned and troubled many college presidents and higher ed leaders.

Asked whether “colleges and universities have a positive/negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” 58 percent of Republicans said “negative,” up sharply from the 37 percent who answered that way just two years ago. Older Republicans and self-described conservatives had the most skeptical views. Among Democrats, meanwhile, positive views of colleges and universities continued to edge up.

Gallup’s question (which it asks about a range of American institutions) was phrased “Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in colleges and universities -- a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little.”

A majority of all Americans -- 56 percent -- said some (34 percent) or very little (22 percent), while 44 percent said a great deal or quite a lot. Democrats and those who lean Democratic took a more favorable view -- 56 percent confident and 43 percent less so -- while a full two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) expressed some or very little confidence. (Thirty-one percent of Republicans said "very little.")

Gallup’s survey offered some insights into the why behind the public's doubts. Of those who said they had some or very little confidence, Republicans were mostly likely to cite political or cultural reasons (32 percent said the institutions were too liberal/political, and 21 percent said colleges were “not allowing students to think for themselves” or were “pushing their own agenda”).

Democrats who answered negatively were far likelier (36 percent) to say that the institutions were “too expensive” than to proffer any other reason.

How to Interpret?

The Pew and Gallup surveys share a few things. First, both surveys lumped all colleges and universities together, as so much public discussion of higher education does. That makes it impossible to know whether a particular respondent was thinking about Harvard and its $35 billion endowment, the cherished State U where the kids went, the community college downtown or a for-profit university that's been in the headlines.

Second, the questions posed to the public solicited respondents' attitudes in ways that were broadly defined -- in Gallup's case, their "confidence" in the institutions, and in Pew's case colleges and universities' "effect … on the way things are going in the country."

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, a self-described "centrist" think tank, said she was struck by the extent to which the questions from Gallup and Pew (especially the latter) could be seen as focusing on cultural or political issues rather than economic ones. Because the surveys asked about the effect colleges are having on "the way things are going in the country," Erickson Hatalsky said, respondents may well be influenced by "whether you think we are going in the right direction as a country" -- in many ways a political question, she said.

In a blog post co-written with Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Erickson Hatalsky questioned the idea that surveys like those from Pew and Gallup prove "that the country is giving up on higher education as a path to success  --  and that politicians who want to appeal to voters should follow that cue."

They drew attention to the Civis and Echelon surveys, which they said show "that Americans may have specific concerns about higher education  --  price worries, in particular  --  but they still highly value education beyond high school."

So what do the Civis and Echelon studies reveal?

Digging Into the Data

Civis Analytics, a data science company, surveyed 5,647 members of the public in August and September and weighted the results to the U.S. population. The margin of error is two percentage points.

It asked four main questions and some follow-ups, focused fairly narrowly on individuals' economic outcomes:

  • Presented with the statement "It's easier to get a good job with an education after high school -- like a college degree or trade certificate -- than it is to get a good job without one," respondents overwhelmingly agreed, 54 percent "strongly," and 32 percent "somewhat."
  • Presented with the statement "For most high school students, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job," 53 percent of respondents disagreed (26 percent "strongly"), and 42 percent agreed (33 percent "somewhat").
  • Presented with the statement "Most high school students should pursue career or technical training, community college programs and associate degree programs, OR a four-year college degree after they graduate high school," 89 percent of respondents agreed, 52 percent strongly.

The last of the four said, "Would you say you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the job _________ are doing in America today?" -- and filled in the blank both with "community and two-year colleges" and "four-year colleges."

The results were as follows:

Response Four-Year College Community College
Highly Satisfied 8% 12%
Somewhat Satisfied 44% 51%
Somewhat Dissatisfied 27% 18%
Highly Dissatisfied 11% 4%
Not Sure 10% 15%

The roughly two-fifths of respondents who said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges were asked to choose among five reasons why. A majority, 55 percent, said it was because they "cost too much to attend" and 43 percent chose "they don't provide students with useful real-world skills." Fewer said colleges "push students to a particular political viewpoint" (24 percent), "don't focus on useful subject matter" (11 percent) or "coddle students too much" (10 percent).

Civis then examined how different groups answered the questions. The lack of differences on many fronts stand out.

On the question of whether having some kind of postsecondary education or training improves job prospects, there was overwhelming agreement among Democrats and Republicans alike, and those with and without a four-year degree -- all were between 80 and 90 percent.

Ditto on the question of whether high school students should pursue some kind of post-high school education, be it vocational training or a four-year degree. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans and 86 percent of those with less than a bachelor's degree agreed.

Republicans were only slightly likelier than Democrats (44 percent to 40 percent) to agree with the statement that "pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job." (Half of respondents without a four-year degree agreed with that statement, however, compared to 35 percent of people with bachelor's degrees. This group would include the Republican noncollege crowd that is often described as the "Trump voters.")

Support for community colleges crossed lines, as 64 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike expressed satisfaction with the job two-year institutions are doing.

The biggest differences came in the degree of satisfaction with four-year colleges, and the reasons for dissatisfaction. Just under half (49 percent) of Republicans said they were satisfied with the job being done by four-year institutions, compared to 60 percent of Democrats. Pluralities of both groups (40 and 45 percent of R's and D's who expressed dissatisfaction, respectively) said it was because colleges don't provide students with useful skills.

But the biggest reason cited by Democrats (by 69 percent of them) was that four-year colleges "cost too much to attend," while 46 percent of Republicans attributed their dissatisfaction to the colleges "push[ing] students to a particular political viewpoint."

One more set of data from the Civis study suggests that the stereotypical "Trump voters" -- Republicans without a college degree -- don't differ enormously from others on their views about college.

As seen in the table below, Republicans with and without four-year degrees differ little from each other -- and not all that much from Democrats -- in their answers to the question "which of the following best describes why you are dissatisfied with four-year colleges and universities?"

Reason Democrat --
No 4-Year Degree
Democrat --
4-Year Degree
Republican --
No 4-Year Degree
Republican --
4-Year Degree
They cost too much to attend 68% 68% 43% 39%
They don't provide students with useful real-world skills. 42% 47% 40% 40%
They push students to a particular political viewpoint. 5% 2% 46% 46%
They don't focus on useful subject matter 13% 11% 9% 9%
They coddle students too much 4% 7% 11% 18%

The other survey cited by Erickson Hatalsky and Miller was by Echelon Insights, which has produced a series of polls of 1,000 people in "Trump Country" (counties that went for President Obama in 2012 but President Trump in 2016, or where Trump's margin of victory was at least 20 points larger than what Mitt Romney captured in 2012).

The questions largely mirrored those asked by Civis, with the exception of the one on whether college is a good investment.

Eighty-four percent of the respondents strongly (59 percent) or somewhat agreed that "it's easier to get a good job with an education after high school, like a college degree or trade certificate, than it is to get a good job without one." Democrats (87 percent) were only slightly more likely than Republicans (80 percent) and self-described Trump voters (81 percent) to agree.

The proportions expressing satisfaction with two-year colleges (62 percent) and four-year colleges (56 percent) were similar to those in the Civis survey. Republicans actually were slightly more satisfied with community colleges than were Democrats (62.5 percent versus 59.4 percent), but far less satisfied with four-year institutions (52 percent versus 65.6 percent).

And the divide between the parties on the reasons for their dissatisfaction with four-year colleges was large: 73 percent of Democrats said the colleges cost too much to attend and 48 percent said they don't prepare students with useful skills, while 52.6 percent of Republican voters (and 54.2 percent of Trump voters) said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges because they "push students to a particular political viewpoint." Roughly four in 10 GOP voters also cited concerns about price and skills preparation.

What It All Means

When layered on top of the Pew and Gallup studies, Erickson Hatalsky said, what the new data suggest is that "people continue to think that higher education is necessary for economic success and worth it -- there is no party split there."

The point at which "big shifts" in polling numbers occur, she said, like those in the Pew survey, is "when you embed other questions about cultural and political issues" into perceptions of higher education. Those political and cultural worries apply much more to four-year colleges than two-year institutions, as the more granular data from Civis and Echelon show. "Support for community colleges is off the charts," Erickson Hatalsky said.

That doesn't mean college leaders can afford to ignore the public opinion data, which include real warning signs, she and Miller said. The concerns about the price of college and student debt are real, and those concerns are likely driving the doubts about whether college is "worth it," they wrote. (A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll published in September found Americans fairly evenly divided over whether getting a four-year degree was "worth the cost," with 47 percent agreeing that it wasn't "because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off." That number had risen sharply from four years earlier, primarily because of increased doubts from Americans with some college but no degree and those between the ages of 18 and 34, the Journal found.)

“Of the 38 percent of the general public who said they were dissatisfied [with four-year colleges], only four in 10 said that was because ‘they don’t prepare students with useful, real-world skills’ (which means a total of about 16 percent of the country expressed dissatisfaction for that reason),” Erickson Hatalsky and Miller wrote. “Questions on public polls that ask if ‘college’ is ‘worth it’ are likely capturing specific frustrations about rising prices (particularly at four-year schools), rather than a viewpoint that higher education generally offers no value over the long term.”

Much of the growing enmity for higher education from Republican political leaders has been aimed at wealthy research universities and elite colleges, such as criticism of $60,000 annual tuitions or large endowments (most recently in the tax reform legislation now before Congress), doubts about the value of research and the liberal arts, and escalating complaints about perceived political correctness and liberal bias.

The biggest worry in letting perceptions stand that Americans doubt the value of college generally, Miller and Erickson Hatalsky argue, is that politicians will seize on those conclusions to argue for cutting funding or other support for the various forms of postsecondary education and training.

"I find it frustrating that we're seeing politicians denigrate higher ed, and that it's really a tracking conversation," Erickson Hatalsky said. "You hear a lot of statements about how 'not everybody should go to college,' but usually it's 'other' people who shouldn't go to college -- and the other are usually low-income people, kids of color. Members of Congress aren't sending their kids to community college or vocational school. To me that is super problematic."

The bottom line on public attitudes about higher ed? Pay attention, but don't overreact, Erickson Hatalsky said.

"This is not the moment of the end of higher ed," she said. "People don’t shift opinions about their own life that quickly."

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New calls for clear, easily accessible data on Ph.D. program outcomes in life sciences

Ten institutions on Thursday announced their commitment to providing life sciences Ph.D. students — current and future ones — transparent data on admissions, training opportunities and career outcomes. Most students aren’t going to end up in faculty jobs, and the founding members of the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science want potential trainees to know that up front.

“Open data will allow students and postdoctoral fellows to understand fully the range of likely outcomes of their eventual training and career choices,” the chancellors and presidents of all 10 coalition members wrote in a co-authored article about the initiative in Science. More than that, they said, clear data will help universities better align their programs to Ph.D. students’ actual career outcomes — and hold institutions “to account for their success in training and placing graduate students.”

The “cardinal goal” of such transparency is “making advanced training in the life sciences more efficient and humane,” the presidents added.

In February, the nine universities and one research center that make up the coalition will begin to publish reports on admissions and enrollment data on their doctoral programs in the life sciences, along with students’ median time to degree and detailed student demographics. They’ll also share how many years their graduates spend as postdoctoral fellows and the jobs their Ph.D.s and postdocs eventually get.

“While many students come in with the expectation that they’re going to be able to have academic careers, that’s just not what the facts show,” said Peter Espenshade, project co-leader and professor and dean of graduate biomedical education at Johns Hopkins University. Indeed, the presidents’ article estimates that just 10 percent of life sciences Ph.D.s earn a tenure-track position within five years of graduation. Contributing to that downward trend, the article says, is a 22 percent decrease in federal research funding since 2003, adjusted for inflation. (Other factors not cited in the article include the increased hiring of professors off the tenure track.)

Espenshade said that students’ awareness of the poor academic job market seems to be growing, especially within the last 10 years. Yet many still see graduate school as “a next logical step after leaving undergrad,” he said, and don’t address the realities of that market “until it’s too late.”

The initiative is not, however, about discouraging graduate study, Espenshade said, arguing that it would be “impossible” to overeducate the U.S. population — especially in terms of science. Rather, he said, “What we want to do is provide [trainees] the best education, based on the array of careers they’ll have.”

Elizabeth Watkins, coalition co-leader and dean of the graduate division and vice chancellor of student academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, also disagreed that there is a Ph.D. supply problem. Trained scientists and scholars who can think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and make sense of large amounts of data benefit society, she said. They also find “meaningful employment and make valuable contributions” not only in academe but in business, nonprofits and government.

The Coalition for Next Generation Life Science includes Hopkins and San Francisco, plus Cornell University; Duke University; the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

That’s for now. Members are confident that other institutions eventually will sign on.

“We see this as a tipping point for change,” Espenshade said. With increasing participation, “it’s not going to be a defensible position” to withhold data.

Beyond tracking and sharing data, Watkins said, she hopes institutions will use the information to adopt career exploration and preparation programs on their campuses for both graduate students and postdocs. That way, she said, “trainees can move into jobs that match their interests, values and passions,” rather than “default” into postdoc positions.

There have been many calls for increased transparency about Ph.D. program outcomes over the years, in the sciences and other fields. In September, for example, the chief academic officers of the Association of American Universities member institutions endorsed a statement calling on all Ph.D. programs “to make a commitment to providing prospective and current students with easily accessible information” on student demographics, time to degree, financial support and career paths and outcomes.

“AAU institutions should commit to developing the infrastructure and institutional policies required to uniformly capture and make public such data,” the statement said.

The association doesn’t have a plans to enforce the idea, however, so it’s up to individual institutions to make the first move toward transparency. For that reason, among others, similar calls for open data have failed, over time, to yield systematic results. The new life sciences coalition is hopeful that its you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine approach — originating from within institutions and not outside them — will be more successful.

The presidents wrote in Science that they believed the life sciences were a starting point for their open-data push, which could well extend to other disciplines in the future.

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Ten institutions on Thursday announced their commitment to providing life sciences Ph.D. students -- current and future ones -- transparent data on admissions, training opportunities and career outcomes. Most students aren't going to end up in faculty jobs, and the founding members of the Coalition for Next Generation Life Science want potential trainees to know that up front.

“Open data will allow students and postdoctoral fellows to understand fully the range of likely outcomes of their eventual training and career choices,” the chancellors and presidents of all 10 coalition members wrote in a co-authored article about the initiative in Science. More than that, they said, clear data will help universities better align their programs to Ph.D. students’ actual career outcomes -- and hold institutions “to account for their success in training and placing graduate students.”

The “cardinal goal” of such transparency is "making advanced training in the life sciences more efficient and humane,” the presidents added.

In February, the nine universities and one research center that make up the coalition will begin to publish reports on admissions and enrollment data on their doctoral programs in the life sciences, along with students’ median time to degree and detailed student demographics. They’ll also share how many years their graduates spend as postdoctoral fellows and the jobs their Ph.D.s and postdocs eventually get.

“While many students come in with the expectation that they’re going to be able to have academic careers, that’s just not what the facts show,” said Peter Espenshade, project co-leader and professor and dean of graduate biomedical education at Johns Hopkins University. Indeed, the presidents’ article estimates that just 10 percent of life sciences Ph.D.s earn a tenure-track position within five years of graduation. Contributing to that downward trend, the article says, is a 22 percent decrease in federal research funding since 2003, adjusted for inflation. (Other factors not cited in the article include the increased hiring of professors off the tenure track.)

Espenshade said that students’ awareness of the poor academic job market seems to be growing, especially within the last 10 years. Yet many still see graduate school as “a next logical step after leaving undergrad,” he said, and don’t address the realities of that market “until it’s too late.”

The initiative is not, however, about discouraging graduate study, Espenshade said, arguing that it would be “impossible” to overeducate the U.S. population -- especially in terms of science. Rather, he said, “What we want to do is provide [trainees] the best education, based on the array of careers they’ll have.”

Elizabeth Watkins, coalition co-leader and dean of the graduate division and vice chancellor of student academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, also disagreed that there is a Ph.D. supply problem. Trained scientists and scholars who can think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and make sense of large amounts of data benefit society, she said. They also find “meaningful employment and make valuable contributions” not only in academe but in business, nonprofits and government.

The Coalition for Next Generation Life Science includes Hopkins and San Francisco, plus Cornell University; Duke University; the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

That’s for now. Members are confident that other institutions eventually will sign on.

“We see this as a tipping point for change,” Espenshade said. With increasing participation, “it’s not going to be a defensible position” to withhold data.

Beyond tracking and sharing data, Watkins said, she hopes institutions will use the information to adopt career exploration and preparation programs on their campuses for both graduate students and postdocs. That way, she said, “trainees can move into jobs that match their interests, values and passions,” rather than “default” into postdoc positions.

There have been many calls for increased transparency about Ph.D. program outcomes over the years, in the sciences and other fields. In September, for example, the chief academic officers of the Association of American Universities member institutions endorsed a statement calling on all Ph.D. programs “to make a commitment to providing prospective and current students with easily accessible information” on student demographics, time to degree, financial support and career paths and outcomes.

“AAU institutions should commit to developing the infrastructure and institutional policies required to uniformly capture and make public such data,” the statement said.

The association doesn’t have a plans to enforce the idea, however, so it’s up to individual institutions to make the first move toward transparency. For that reason, among others, similar calls for open data have failed, over time, to yield systematic results. The new life sciences coalition is hopeful that its you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine approach -- originating from within institutions and not outside them -- will be more successful.

The presidents wrote in Science that they believed the life sciences were a starting point for their open-data push, which could well extend to other disciplines in the future.

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Study finds gender gap in who asks questions in academic seminars

Men are two and a half times more likely to ask a question in an academic seminar than women, according to a major study that offers further explanation of female underrepresentation in science.

Researchers who collected observational data from 247&nb…

Men are two and a half times more likely to ask a question in an academic seminar than women, according to a major study that offers further explanation of female underrepresentation in science.

Researchers who collected observational data from 247 departmental seminars at 35 institutions in 10 countries found that the two and a half times difference significantly misrepresented the gender ratio of the audience, which was, on average, equal.

In a paper published on the ArXiv preprint server, the authors argue that the lack of female visibility in seminars may be both a symptom and a cause of the “leaky pipeline,” which describes the high attrition rate of women in science fields, with a lack of female role models leading junior researchers to believe that the academy is not a place where women succeed and subsequently to choose a different career.

The observational data were backed up by an online survey completed by 638 academics in 20 countries, which found that 60 percent of women and 47 percent of men believed that there was bias in favor of men asking questions.

While the vast majority of both male and female survey respondents (92 percent) admitted that they did not always ask a question when they had one, women were much more likely to report that they “couldn’t work up the nerve,” that they found the speaker too “intimidating” or that they did not “feel clever enough.”

Alecia Carter, Alyssa Croft, Dieter Lukas and Gillian Sandstrom write that most men are simply “not aware of the bias” and most women “identify internal factors as holding them back from asking questions.”

Interestingly, the observational data indicated that if a woman asked the first question, the people who asked subsequent questions were generally representative of the audience. If a man asked the first question, however, men were disproportionately more likely to ask questions.

The length of time allowed for questions also had a significant effect, with the imbalance shrinking over time and typically disappearing at about 50 minutes of questions.

The paper suggests that moderators could play an important role in stopping questioners “showing off,” taking too much time or digressing.

But speaking to Times Higher Education, a number of academics argued that the problem was more deep-seated.

Leonor Goncalves, a postdoctoral research associate in neuroscience at University College London, said that asking questions in a seminar was a “minefield.”

“You find that a lot of men asking questions do it as a way of making sure people know who they are … It’s not about how good or pertinent you are, it is ultimately about how loud and confident you sound.”

Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, said that most men “are respectful of women and motivated to ensure balanced panels.”

But, she added, “The problem is it only takes one man in a room full of 500 to let out a wolf whistle, cackle, groan or other off-putting comment, and (to a young researcher who has just plucked up the courage to ask her first question) it feels like the whole room is against you.”

One of the authors, Carter, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Cambridge, said that the researchers did not aim to “imply that women should ask questions when they don’t want to or to discourage men from asking questions.”

“With these caveats, I do hope that if both men and women are aware of the imbalance in question asking that we highlight, then it could help to address the issue of women’s visibility at a local level, which would, hopefully, help to address the larger problem of gender imbalance in academia.”

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