Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center devotes her latest column to those who view higher education “through rose-colored glasses.”

It can be tempting for college leaders to focus solely on data that support their policy initiatives—to the exclusion of other relevant information. Unfortunately, intentionally or not, University of North Carolina system president Margaret Spellings seems to have given in to this temptation.

At Spellings’ last meeting of the UNC Board of Governors with her pending exit as system president only a month away, Spellings she triumphantly announced:

Nationally, we know there is skepticism of higher ed’s impact and benefits, but we’ve defied that trend in North Carolina.

In her view, national polls that indicate a growing mistrust of higher education do not apply to North Carolinians. …

… Spellings’ analysis ultimately falls short. Her claim does not seem to take into account that people can recognize a college degree is important for economic (and personal) well-being while remaining unhappy with the direction higher education is taking.

Republican polling data illustrates this point. An overwhelming majority of Republicans in the United States are seriously concerned that higher education has a negative cultural and socio-political impact on the country. For example, in a 2018 Pew Research Center national survey, 73 percent of Republicans said that higher education is causing the country to “go in the wrong direction” (as did 61 percent of all Americans). And 75 percent of Republicans with that view said universities coddle students, and that colleges are too concerned “about protecting students from views they might find offensive.” Another 79 percent of Republicans said professors bring “their political and social views into the classroom.”

Yet, according to a 2017 Pew report, the majority of Republicans also recognize that higher education has economic advantages: “last year, most Republicans said that colleges do well in preparing people for good jobs in today’s economy.” According to the report, majorities in both parties with a four-year degree “said a four-year degree prepares someone very or somewhat well for a well-paying job in today’s economy.” In addition, 88 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents said their education was “useful in opening doors to job opportunities.”

Clearly, despite higher education’s widely perceived negative influence on the culture, large swaths of the country simultaneously believe it plays an important role in economic mobility.