What are Americans’ views of higher education?

The common story is that people see higher education as an investment in the future of an individual. More education from the best university will result in high salaries in the future. In this story, the public doesn’t appear. It’s all about the private good of higher education.

But what if this story is wrong? Or at least biased by the very questions being asked? Instead of asking if higher education is an investment in one’s future job prospects, what if we asked about higher education’s public value?

Well, my guests today did just that.

Noah Drezner and Oren Pizmony-Levy, together with Aaron Pallas, conducted a nationally representative survey in America on views of higher education. Their findings tell a new and powerful story.

Noah Drezner is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where Oren Pizmony-Levy is an Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education.

Citation: Drezner, Noah D. & Pizmony-Levy, Oren, interview with WillBrehm, FreshEd, 124, podcast audio, August 19, 2018. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/drezner-pizmony-levy/

Transcript, translation, and resources:


Will Brehm:  1:55
Noah Drezner and Oren Pizmony-Levy, welcome to FreshEd.

Noah Drezner and Oren Pizmony-Levy:  1:58
Thanks for having us. Thanks for inviting us again.

Will Brehm:  2:02
So given that there is something like $1.5 trillion in student debt, which would indicate a large amount of private spending on higher education, how would you describe the state of public spending in higher education today?

Noah Drezner:  2:18
Well, public higher education spending is a little bit complex in the United States, because we have both the federal government and then the individual states and the federal investment in higher education is mostly given through research and through subsidized loans and other ways of students support.

The only real direct funding for higher education is through minority serving institutions on the federal level. On the state level, each state chooses to fund in their own way. And what we’re seeing right now is all but five states are still spending less than they were spending before the 2008 Great Recession when we look at adjusted inflation numbers. When comparing this to the World Bank, we see that about from the World Bank, we find that about 27% of all of the US’s education budget goes to higher education.

Will Brehm:  3:18
And is that the federal budget, or is that just all state and federal included combined?

Noah Drezner:  3:23
That’s all state and federal included. That’s a great question.

Will Brehm:  3:26
Okay. And going back to this direct federal spending, you said this was minority serving institutions. Can you give an example of what that would be?

Noah Drezner:  3:34
Sure, there’s quite a few different kinds of minority serving institutions, but the most widely known are historically black colleges and universities, otherwise known as HBCUs. There’s also tribal colleges and universities and Hispanic serving institutions as well.

Will Brehm:  3:51
And you know, there are public universities in America and there’s also lots of private universities. Do both types of universities receive this taxpayer money either for research or for subsidizing student loans or direct payments to their budgets?

Noah Drezner:  4:08
So that’s another great question. All of higher education, as long as you’re an accredited institution, whether it’s public or private, has access to federal research dollars, or other subsidies, as well as the ability to give loans to their students.

Will Brehm:  4:28
Okay. And so and despite all of this money, and this 27% of US state and federal money going to higher education in education budget, still a large amount of spending is put on the shoulders of students on its private money going to higher education, is that correct?

Noah Drezner:  4:47
Absolutely. When looking not only in the dollars spent, we’re also seeing a decrease in the per student spending by states in their public education. And, of course, the cost of education is also rising, tuition is rising, so that burden to students is getting greater each year.

Will Brehm:  5:06
So I mean, this is a really interesting context. So it’s an increasing burden of private debt or private contributions to higher education. In the post 2008 global financial crisis, there’s been a decrease in public spending, and then you came in and you did a national survey on Americans’ views on higher education. So why is it important to study the public opinion on education?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  5:31
Thank you for the question. This is a really important one, especially because in education research, we rarely see an empirical studies of public opinion to the education, which is very rare given the fact that education in most countries is the largest public systems in terms of spending and contact with citizens. For us, the reason that we established this larger project that is called the PublicMind, the project is motivated by two reasons. One is that we think it’s important to monitor public opinion, because public opinion has been shown to have an impact on public policy. For listeners who are familiar with the advocacy coalition framework. For example, people know that public opinion is one of these streams or mechanisms through which the public express their desires, policy preferences, and others to policymakers. So looking at public opinion is a good way to look at what the public is signaling to policymakers in terms of directions to go. But public opinion is not only important for policymakers or for policymaking, it’s also in very useful window to look at the mind of the public or the society that we are talking about, and how people are making sense of phenomena. In this case, it’s education. The project that this study is coming from is called the PublicMind project at the Teachers College at Columbia University. And in this project, we are really interested in monitoring how Americans view education, psychology and health. And we are really intending to contribute to the policy debates on these issues by introducing new high quality and reliable, valid data on public opinion, which brings me to another point that is important to remember. The way you ask the question is really going to shape which kind of data you’re going to get. And one of the things that people are really surprised when they hear about our study is they’re really surprised that the public actually believe in higher education, the US and the public actually see the public and private good of higher education. And one of the reasons that this is surprising is because nobody or people rarely ask the public this kind of questions, we usually focus on questions that are more about return on investment, or private good in higher education, not the center on the public good. So one of the ways we are trying to shape the discussion is by introducing a new kind of questions on the topic.

Will Brehm:  8:07
So can you tell me a little bit more about these new types of questions like, what did you actually ask?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  8:13
So we asked three different questions. The first question is just looking at asking the public to tell us what they think about public investment. How good was the investment of public spending on higher education? That’s a very general question. And we can get into the findings in a minute. The second question we asked about five different goods that higher education is producing. And I think Noah can say more about the different types of goods.

Noah Drezner:  8:44
Absolutely. And this gets to our question of what is a public good versus a private good. And before we get into the specific items, I guess it’s important to give an example of that. For private good, so for instance, while we might invest in an individual student going to higher education, and that’s going to have a benefit for them, and increased access to jobs or higher paying jobs, that’s their private good. There’s also a public benefit, it’s going to mean that there is we know that higher education, people with higher education are less likely to seek out medical attention or less likely to need social services, etc. So there is a societal benefit as well. Therefore, the public good might be, I’m willing to invest in others, because all of society is going to benefit by that investment. Specifically, in our questions, we asked five different items, two of them were clear public goods, and two of them were clear private goods, and one of them could be argued, is a public good and private good. So the two public goods that we asked about were the scientific advances that benefit American society and America’s national prosperity and development and the effects of higher education on both of those things. The two private goods that we asked about were the graduates’ personal enrichment and growth and also the graduates’ wealth and success. The one that could be seen as either or is graduates’ civic participation and civic participation could be volunteerism, it could be also voting, etc. Obviously, there are some personal benefits to that. But society also benefits by having a greater impact on the electorate and volunteerism, etc.

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  10:39
The third type of question that we asked was about the public preferences in terms of spending and rather than other surveys that surveys that they’re usually asking for, do you support or oppose increasing or decreasing spending on education. Here, we went more deep and ask two different questions. To what extent people think that the government should increase or decrease spending on two-year institutions like community colleges in the US and to what extent the public think that the government need to increase or decrease public spending on four-year institutions, universities and colleges. So altogether we are having here we have a unique opportunity here for this study, to look at the different facets of public opinion on higher education in the US.

Will Brehm:  11:28
So what did you end up finding? I mean, what is this, you know, this let’s look through this window into the mind of Americans in this moment in time in 2018, what does it look like? What are the findings?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  11:42
Good. So I think I’ll suggest three main findings from this study. The first one is that we’re finding and that’s maybe a surprise to some of the listeners that overwhelmingly, the American adults see public spending on higher education as a good or excellent investment. And here we are talking about 76% of respondents using the category excellent or good to describe past public investment in higher education. And this is really high. The second finding is that overall, similar to the positive view that the public has on past spending on higher education, the majority of respondents also believe that American colleges and universities benefit both society at large and individual graduates as well. And that’s really interesting, because we see that there is a mix of both public good and private good interestingly, and I would add, sadly, the last item about civic engagement, is that the main issue where Americans don’t see the benefit of higher education, to developing citizenship and civic orientation among graduates. So that’s something we can go back later and think about.

Noah Drezner:  12:57
And one of the things that’s really interesting about that is this civic engagement or creating citizens is one of the things that is found in almost every mission statement of higher education, whether it be public institutions, private institutions, two-year institutions, or four-year institutions. There’s this idea in the mission statement that we’re supposed to be creating citizens, but the public doesn’t seem to see that benefit.

Will Brehm:  13:23
Why do you think that’s the case?

Noah Drezner:  13:24
That’s a really interesting question. And I think that that could be an entire research agenda. However, I think that part of it is that (we’re) higher education is not necessarily a very good storyteller in terms of the impact that we’re having on civic engagement and the work that we’re doing to benefit local communities or the larger community, whether it be on a national level or even on a global level. In addition to not being the best storytellers, I also think that the incentives within higher education right now for faculty particularly faculty who are engaged in research does not necessarily allow for faculty, particularly pre-tenure faculty to feel as though their research should be engaging the local community or larger community, this publish or perish paradigm that pre-tenure faculty and even pre-promotion to full faculty are in doesn’t allow for this greater community engagement. There are many scholars that push back on that and do this work. But I also think that the way that our incentive structure is set up, we’re really not allowing people to truly get involved in the community as much as some might want to.

Will Brehm:  14:46
Going back to Oren, you mentioned in the first major finding about how there was this overwhelming or big, large majority of American adults, basically supporting public investment in higher education. And you said that this was maybe surprising, I’d like to ask why you think it might be surprising.

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  15:06
So the reason it’s surprising is not because Americans are changing their mind, I think it’s because we rarely see surveys coming from the large companies like Gallup and Pew sources that we both really appreciate and we use it in our research and teaching. But the way they phrase questions are usually more about attitudes of Americans to higher education, and different policy debates or controversies on higher education, and less about the contribution or the benefits of higher education to society, more than just to contribution to individuals. So when we developed this survey, we really wanted to capture the whole spectrum of opinions. And I think it’s surprising that we didn’t know that Americans really appreciate higher education, because we recently we didn’t really ask them this question. So I think that’s the source of the surprise.

Will Brehm:  16:00
I also find it very interesting in your second major finding that there is this Americans are able to hold both private good and public good in their mind simultaneously. It’s not as if there’s some sort of contestation between the two, they can both simultaneously exist at once. I find that quite refreshing because it shows a level of complexity, I guess, that we are able to, I don’t know, keep in our mind.

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  16:27
Sure. But I think it’s also a matter of how we ask the question, we didn’t ask them to choose whether it’s more of this kind of good versus less of the other type of good, we allow them in the way we develop the instrument to really think about the different types of goods that higher education is producing.

Will Brehm:  16:47
And was that intentional, or if you could do it again, would that be something you’d change?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  16:51
I would actually repeat the same instrument again and I would actually add even more types of goods that higher education is producing. One of the, I think, good moments that we have with the surveys, the amount of attention it received on social media, by scholars of higher education, and administrators of higher education, we got invited to participate in different campaigns around the country, around public spending on higher education. Because people really believe that for many, many years, we’ve been neglecting the full spectrum of goods that higher education is producing, when I’m saying neglecting in the way that we asked the public about what they think on higher education. So I want to change it, I would actually keep it and add more types of goods that higher education is producing that we didn’t capture in this first attempt in this first survey.

Will Brehm:  17:45
Could you give some examples of some of these other types of goods that you didn’t include in the survey?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  17:49
So one of our colleagues from Florida asked us on whether it will be useful to ask the public on the contribution of local universities and colleges to the art seen in the local community. I’m thinking about institutions like Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where the university is a source of art and performance, like a theater and opera and music that the community can benefit from because the school is there. So that’s another type of good that we didn’t capture in this survey.

Will Brehm:  18:22
Noah, did you want to jump in?

Noah Drezner:  18:23
Oh, I was just going to add that we intentionally made this different from the way that Pew and Gallup and others have asked this question that has really been focusing on this question of return on investment is what we’re investing in, or what you are investing in yourself in higher education and the cost of a degree benefiting you on the other side? Is there a return on investment, just like when you buy a stock? Are you getting dividends afterwards. And we intentionally wanted to move away from that, because that seemingly where the rhetoric has been in the larger discourse.

Will Brehm:  19:03
I would jump in and just say that, you know, this idea of return on investment, it seems, you know, this is closely associated with that human capital theory. And it does seem like it is so pervasive in the rhetoric and in maybe the way in which many people do think about education, not only in higher education, but also in lower levels of education. But it’s quite refreshing that your study is showing that well, wait a second, there’re actually other ways to conceptualize the value of education. And people also understand these values, and do in fact, value all these different public goods of education. I mean, that’s actually quite refreshing in a way to realize.

Noah Drezner:  19:44
Absolutely. And what I also have been thinking about is, with all of this rhetoric that has been talking about return on investment, and really negative views that have been put out both from politicians and from other parts of the community around higher education as investment if we’re getting to see this much public good being understood, if we actually were able to push back on that rhetoric and give a better story about higher education, those public goods, or the understanding of that public good, would actually increase as well.

Will Brehm:  20:17
Do you hope? Or do you want Gallup and Pew and the other large companies that do public opinion surveying, do you want them to incorporate some of the questions that you’ve created in this survey and use in their future surveys?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  20:32
So I think one of the main drivers for this project was our understanding that the way questions are asked in surveys reflect larger or broader ideologies. And here’s specifically I’m thinking about neoliberalism and human capital that is really dominating the discourse. And so it’s not surprising that the way that Pew and Gallup and others are asking questions is by focusing on the return on investment of higher education. So we want to challenge that. And we want to offer the whole spectrum of perspectives on higher education, not only as a private good, but also as a public good. And I would like to see Gallup and Pew and the General Social Survey and other international survey programs, taking these ideas and incorporating them into this battery of questions that they repeat every other year or every decade. I think it will enrich our discussion and our understanding of what the public really think on higher education.

Noah Drezner:21:34
Additionally, it’s also how these larger surveys are being distributed that add into this conversation or this discourse, the rhetoric, right, so when Pew and Gallup put something out, it gets massive media attention. And that further adds to this conversation. So if they only asked questions about return on investment, we’re back into a cycle of conversation about return on investment, as opposed to getting into these more nuanced conversations about public goods and private goods of higher education.

Will Brehm:  22:04
So let’s sort of dig in to some of these numbers a bit, you know, were there any differences in opinions between men and women and people of color?

Noah Drezner:  22:15
Absolutely. And we’re actually seeing some really interesting trends there when looking both on spending but also in these questions of public and private good that we were talking about. We’re seeing a difference between marginalized populations and privileged populations. So both women and people of color see the public good of higher education more than whites do. Additionally, we see that in terms of understanding the importance of the public spending as an excellent investment as well. And I think that this idea around privilege is really interesting. And there’s two ways that we could look at this. One is that those who are more recently gaining access to higher education, which are people of color, and women as well, are still understanding the benefits of a higher education and having the benefits of that access. But also, we’re seeing how white privilege is operating here as well, in the sense that those with white privilege often don’t see the benefits that they’re receiving from goods like higher education, therefore, they assume that the benefit that they’re receiving is due to who they are, rather than the fact that they have higher education or have access to higher education.

Will Brehm:  23:38
So it’s about entitlement.

Noah Drezner:  23:40
I’m not sure if I would say entitlement as opposed to ingrained privileges that society puts into those who are in the majority and who are empowered.

Will Brehm:  23:51
Do you think it also has something to do with sort of the difference between elite higher education and more mass higher education where before at higher education was not massified. It was for the few privileged and now it’s much more massified, much larger numbers of students or Americans are enrolling in higher education. And there’s some sort of tension between those two ideas of how higher education should be, sort of, conceptualized and organized.

Noah Drezner:  24:23
I think that’s a great question. I think that when we look at the public good of higher education, and all of the societal benefits that we know, come from having more education, the idea of wanting to share it with as many as possible. And this idea of the mass vacation of higher education really makes sense. However, we know that in society, there is a fear of spreading access, and there is still ideas of supremacy that are pushing back on that level of access as well.

Will Brehm:  25:03
What about any differences in generations? Do older Americans have different views on higher education today than younger Americans?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  25:14
So we did find differences based on age. But I don’t think that we can yet say that it’s a matter of generation. I’m more aligned with the argument of a life course argument that it could be that the younger parts, share of the population or the youngest in the population, those that have more experience or exposure or contact with higher education institutions are those who see more of the benefits versus the older population that might not see it or recognize it anymore. So I think it’s really a matter of where you are in life versus a generation, I hope that we can repeat this study in couple of years and monitor change that would allow us to compare generational differences versus the life course argument that I just made.

Will Brehm:  26:05
So the life course argument would be something like I currently really support public spending on higher education. But as I get older, and I occupy different parts of my life, and I retire and I’m trying to save money, and I don’t see the same value of public spending on higher education is that the idea of this life course?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  26:27
Exactly. Life course argument will say that where we are in our life in terms of the whole that we have parents or grandparents, in school or out of school, in the job market, leaving the job market. These characteristics will shape our view of issues like spending on higher education.

Will Brehm:  26:48
And what about the geography in America? I mean, it is such a diverse country in terms of urban and rural and farmland and suburban, I mean, do you find any differences between sort of the geographic differences in America and the views the public opinion on higher education?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  27:08
That’s great. And I suggest that we distinguish it between two elements of geography. One is the element of region, you know, East Coast, West Coast, South or Midwest. That’s where we didn’t find differences between people in different regions on how they view higher education, where we did find the differences in the type of the community being an urban or rural setting. And what we found is that resonance of urban communities and suburban communities, to some extent, view higher education more positively in terms of the public spending was a good or excellent investment, or by saying that higher education has both public and private good. And in contrast, in the rural communities, we found lower rates of this attitude. There are a couple of explanations, one could be a composition. So who is living in rural communities, it will be unfortunately, or most often people that are less educated than urban communities, or it will be people that have less contact or experience with higher education and that could shape or drive this results that we are reporting. Now that we are talking about that I’m thinking about the recent report that came out I think last month said that in the US we have places called or known for being education deserts. So the word desert is now used in the past used to describe food deserts and now we’re talking about education desert. It’s places where people have in the close proximity have lower chances or likelihood of having a higher education institution in their area. So it could be that this proximity to higher education is also a driver to why there is a gap between rural and urban communities.

Will Brehm:  29:08
I mean, in this very politically charged environment in America today, do you find different views between people who have different political affiliations?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  29:18
Yes, political ideology we measured here by asking people to place themselves on a scale between extremely liberal versus extremely conservative with moderate or middle of the road being in the middle. And we divided our sample into three: the liberals, the moderates and the conservatives. And we do find differences between them with conservatives having lower appreciation for higher education as in terms of the public investment, and also in terms of the public good and private good, this is not necessarily new. We know from other studies that there is a growing gap between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives when it’s coming to issues like governmental programs or spending on higher education. In other studies, we find very similar patterns when it’s coming to other issues in education. And that’s what I think there is something to be said about which kind of media and information the two populations or subpopulations are consuming and which kind of narratives are presented to them on higher education.

Will Brehm:  30:27
So given the sort of public opinion that you’ve uncovered about higher education today in America, and the context of the post global financial crisis, sort of reducing the amount of public spending on higher education, do you think, you know, let’s sort of read the tea leaves here a little bit like realistically do you see an increase in higher education, public funding happening in current environment or in the near future?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  30:55
The third finding in this study was the link between public views on higher education in terms of investment and public good, and the policy preferences. And specifically, we looked at the question on whether the public think that the government need to increase or decrease public spending, we found that those who have more positive opinions on public investment in higher education in the past also think that the government need to increase public spending on higher education in the future. And the same with regard to the perception of public good and private good, those who so higher education as having a public or private good also encouraged the government to increase public spending on higher education.

And that is that I think, is a very important policy implication for this study. If there are policymakers reading this report, I want them to take home the idea that the public not only want to increase public spending on higher education, but they also are linking to the fact that public education is perceived to be a good investment in the past, and to have good public and private good in the present.

Noah Drezner:  32:15
Sadly, in the near future, I don’t see that increase happening. I think that currently, with the current administration that we have there’s going to be potentially less federal investment. We might see increases in state investment, we have been seeing slight increases year over year. But like I said earlier, we have yet to reach at most states parity with 2008. But if we look historically, for a moment, at post-recession, higher education often goes down in a recession, because it’s deemed to be a spending that it’s flexible, right, it’s not a required need. So it’s one of the places that states can cut. Historically, after recessions are over, we do see increases in spending on the state level. However, they never really reached the level that they were prior to that one most recent recession. Right here, we’re seeing in many states, quite a bit of a lag between where we are today and where we were in 2008. So my hope is that even though I don’t believe in the short term, we’re going to be seeing the increases in funding that we need, and that I think society will benefit from. However, I do believe that with research like this, and getting out good stories, and with hoping that people take on this research and use it to advocate, we’re able to actually impact public policy and get to legislators and make changes on that level.

Will Brehm:  33:56
So do you think that this type of survey could be done in other countries?

Oren Pizmony-Levy:  34:02
I think it will be important and very useful if other research institutions around the world will join Teachers College and the team here with monitoring public opinion on education in general and on higher education, specifically. The comparison across countries will help us to look at differences between countries where the government to begin with take high responsibility on education and higher education or places where, like in the UK, where the government is changing quite drastically, the role of the government in terms of funding of higher education. It will be interesting to look on how views on higher education translate to other issues like fundraising for higher education, or the benefits of higher education. So I think that comparative research on public opinion on education in general is really interesting and important, and specifically on higher education.

Will Brehm:  34:58
Well, it really is very interesting and fascinating research. And I mean, I actually hope that Gallup and Pew will incorporate some of these questions that you’re using in some of their future public opinion, because this is like you said, this is information, this is data that needs to come out, we need to constantly be doing it to see changes over time and hopefully change some of these stories away from this rate of return, this return on investment sort of narrative that dominates a lot of the conversation on higher education. So Noah Drezner and Oren Pizmony-Levy. Let me thank you so much for joining FreshEd, and it really was a pleasure to talk today.

Noah Drezner and Oren Pizmony-Levy:  35:37
Thank you. It was our pleasure. Thank you Will.

Want to help translate this show? Please contact info@freshedpodcast.com
Have any useful resources related to this show? Please send them to info@freshedpodcast.com