There are growing concerns that higher education is failing in its duty to prepare future political, cultural and business leaders to solve the challenges of our time and continue the cause of human progress. Recent surveys have highlighted the lack of viewpoint diversity on college campuses and how groupthink has undermined critical thinking, scientific discovery, innovation and civil discourse skills. We conducted the 2021 American College Student Freedom, Progress and Flourishing Survey in an effort to explore these issues further.

Results from our survey of 1,000 students at 71 four-year American colleges and universities, conducted as an initiative of the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth (NDSU) with College Pulse, raise several important concerns. Our findings suggest that universities aren’t as open to different viewpoints as one might expect, aren’t teaching students important facts about human progress, aren’t helping students cultivate the optimism and agency needed to solve important problems, and aren’t teaching students how capitalism contributes to human progress and flourishing.

A majority of students (86% of self-identified liberals and 58% of self-identified conservatives) say professors encourage them to explore a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives, and a majority (72% of liberals and 46% of conservatives) say the classroom climate welcomes unpopular views. However, 43% (34% of liberals and 58% of conservatives) report not feeling comfortable sharing opinions on controversial or sensitive topics in class. In addition, nearly 70% (85% of liberals and 41% of conservatives) are in favor of reporting professors and 60% (76% of liberals and 31% of conservatives) are in favor of reporting other students who say something they deem offensive. These numbers do not suggest a climate that is truly open to viewpoint diversity.

We also asked students whether, based on what they have learned in college, they think the world has been getting better over the last 50 years in terms of extreme poverty, life expectancy, hunger and literacy. Only 49% of students report the world has gotten better, while 35% say it has gotten worse, and 16% say it has not changed (with perceptions not varying by political views). This is at a time when all of these things have improved dramatically.

Our survey also finds that, based on what they have learned in college, most students (regardless of political ideology) are not optimistic. Only 26 and 24% are optimistic about the future of the world and the U.S. respectively, while only 52 and 44% are optimistic about their own future and ability to make a difference. Only 27% believe college has played an important role in preparing them to solve our country’s most important problems.

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Finally, although we can’t assess how much students’ views of capitalism and socialism have been shaped by college, our survey suggests that students don’t understand them clearly. Fifty-five% define capitalism as free market capitalism, while the remaining students define capitalism as crony capitalism where favoritism and political connections determine business success. Forty-two percent of students define socialism as central planning, with the remaining students defining it as a system where government plays a very active role in redistribution.

In addition, 24 and 32% of students have positive views of capitalism and socialism, respectively. Survey responses suggest that universities are influencing these views. For instance, though 56% of students say college hasn’t changed their view of capitalism, 36% say college has given them a more negative view and 8% say it has given them a more positive view of capitalism. With socialism, 59% say college hasn’t changed their view, but 27% say college has given them a more positive view and 14% a more negative view.

Our results suggest that colleges and universities need to improve. Advancing scientific knowledge and teaching critical thinking require openness to alternative viewpoints. Further, students need to develop the optimism, confidence and agency that will enable them to play an important role in furthering the cause of progress. Colleges and universities can teach students the progress the world has made and the important role that free-market capitalism has played in that progress. Not only will this give them a better understanding of capitalism and its implications, but also help them envision future progress and the important role they can play in advancing it.

At the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth at NDSU, we are addressing these issues through a number of initiatives. Our Human Progress and Flourishing Workshop offers students an opportunity to engage with leading academics on issues related to progress and flourishing. Our Market Values course allows students to explore the economic implications of capitalism and socialism. We offer reading groups that challenge students to explore important questions from a variety of perspectives, while engaging in constructive dialog with students who see things differently. The Menard Family Distinguished Speaker Series provides a venue for students, as well as the FM community, to hear from thought leaders and engage in a discussion on important questions surrounding economic opportunity, progress and flourishing.

At the Challey Institute, we’re building programs that will enable NDSU to be a leader in promoting a campus climate that truly fosters viewpoint diversity and inspires students to become leaders focused on continuing the tremendous progress we have realized nationally and globally.

John Bitzan and Clay Routledge are professors at North Dakota State University.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.