Administration

On Public Distrust, Colleges Could Learn From Journalism’s Mistakes

July 12, 2017

Courtesy of Michael Schudson
Michael Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia U.: “Individual consumers of news don’t have to make much of a commitment to a news organization. Whether they have a subscription or not has little impact on the future of their lives or their families. Losing trust in college is quite a different story.”
Higher education faces a growing shortage of trust among Republicans, according to a recent Pew Research Center study that found 58 percent of them believe colleges have a negative effect on the country. But if colleges are just now feeling some heat from a lack of public confidence, the journalism industry has long been engulfed in flames.

In 1956 the American National Election Study found that 66 percent of Americans viewed newspapers positively. This week’s Pew study found those numbers flipped: 63 percent of people polled — regardless of political preference — view the news media negatively.

Fifty-five percent of Pew respondents said higher education has a positive effect on the country, but the proportion of those who disagree is growing.

Clues to rebuilding public trust may be found in the successes and failures of the news industry’s attempts to do the same thing.

Michael S. Schudson, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, said the news media hadn’t done enough to combat a growing distrust.

"The bottom-line truth here is the press has discussed it for a long time and hasn’t managed to do anything about it," he said. "Worry about it? Yes. But have they done anything that effectively or even moderately effectively restored some trust? No."

With regard to journalism, Mr. Schudson said, the public interaction is voluntary, and the lack of trust more strongly affects the industry as a whole than any individual consumer. But with higher education, the stakes change.

"Individual consumers of news don’t have to make much of a commitment to a news organization," he said. "Whether they have a subscription or not has little impact on the future of their lives or their families. Losing trust in college is quite a different story."

Mr. Schudson asks a simple question: What would families do without colleges and universities? "Will they not make that investment in their children’s future?" he said.

“Maybe things that go on at colleges disturb them -- maybe rightly so -- but the alternative is not a realistic one.”
Pew’s study found that, since 2015, positive views of higher education among Republicans with college degrees had fallen by 11 points, and views among those without college degrees had fallen by 20 points — a worrying trend that could warrant proactive steps by institutions.

To make colleges and universities more trustworthy, Mr. Schudson said, they need to persuade people of higher education’s importance.

"Higher education," he said, "could explain better that it’s a large and complex institution with deep ties to its local community as well as national and international ties that make it, in my opinion, one of the truly great institutions of the 20th and 21st centuries."

Higher Education’s Advantage

If people lack a close relation to a college or university, they often view such institutions through the lens of their indiscretions and controversies, Lucy A. Dalglish said, not through the benefits they bring to communities.

Ms. Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland at College Park’s journalism school, said it is easy to forget that colleges outside of larger cities are integral to their communities.

“When people talk about their confidence about higher education or the media, they don't pause and think, 'What would happen if we didn't have them?'”
"When people talk about their confidence about higher education or the media, they don’t pause and think, ‘What would happen if we didn’t have them?’" she said. "You need people who understand history, humanities, and art. That’s how you keep a civil society going."

Ms. Dalglish said smaller communities — like Grand Forks, N.D., where she earned her undergraduate degree at the University of North Dakota — have more-favorable opinions of higher education because the institutions are integral to the region’s economy.

In her experience as dean, Ms. Dalglish said, the most common concern of parents and visitors is not higher-education trends on a national level. "They’re thinking about whether or not their niece can go to college when she graduates next year," she said.

“Do everything you can to provide a quality education at an affordable price.”
Increasing accessibility to a college will improve the institution’s reputation with its community, Ms. Dalglish said. The mass media have done so by embracing new platforms that more directly engage readers — social media, newsletters, and blogs — but higher education, she said, should aim to "do everything you can to provide a quality education at an affordable price."

Jonathan M. Ladd, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University and the author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2012), said higher education might have a built-in advantage in regaining public trust that is unavailable to the news media.

Whereas "being trusted by everybody is a hopeless ideal" for news organizations, Mr. Ladd said, colleges and universities can make efforts to embrace nonpartisanship, for instance, by ensuring that people of many viewpoints share the right to speak on campuses.

Mr. Ladd isn’t convinced, though, that higher education has reason enough yet to make any big changes.

"People think the college you went to and its reputation is going to affect you throughout your whole life," he said. "Regardless of whether they don’t trust elite higher ed, everyone thinks the reputation of the school they went to will matter. They’re not willing to abandon that."