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Many students, regardless of political ideology, aren’t learning about the state of human progress or developing the type of mind-set needed to continue it, write Clay Routledge and John Bitzan.

Americans are losing faith in higher education. Politics is part of the story, with Republicans far more concerned than Democrats about problems related to ideological bias and a lack of viewpoint diversity in higher education.

But regardless of those issues, our recent survey of American college and university students on how their college experience has influenced their views reveals that other challenges should unite Americans around the cause of improving higher education. In the first annual American College Student Freedom, Progress and Flourishing Survey, conducted by the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth at North Dakota State University, in collaboration with College Pulse, we asked 1,000 students at 71 four-year American colleges and universities about their experiences on campus regarding a wide range of issues. We found that many students, regardless of political ideology, do not appear to be learning about the state of human progress — or developing the type of mind-set needed to continue the cause of progress.

Only half of self-identified conservative and liberal students we surveyed say that, 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 — in other words, as many as half do not think the world is getting better — while more than a third think it’s been getting worse. Yet all these things have improved significantly during this time. For example, extreme poverty has dropped from 43 percent of the world’s population in 1981 to around 9 percent today.

In addition, based on what they have learned in college, only 27 percent of liberal students and 23 percent of conservative students say that they are optimistic about the future of the world. Similarly, only 22 percent of liberal students and 26 percent of conservative students are optimistic about the future of the United States.

What’s more, while a college education has long been viewed as a path to self-improvement and success, only 50 percent of liberal students and 54 percent of conservative students say they are optimistic about their own future. The fact that so many students say they aren’t sanguine about their own path ahead, as well as the world in general, is definitely cause for concern.

Finally, our survey reveals that many students don’t believe college is equipping them with the skills to make a difference, and many don’t have the sense of agency needed to solve big problems. Based on what they have learned in college, only 43 percent of liberal students and 42 percent of conservative students report being optimistic about their ability to make a difference in the world. Moreover, only 53 percent of liberal students and 35 percent of conservative students think that their college experience has played an important role in preparing them to solve society’s most important problems.

Our survey focused specifically on American college students, and thus it does not reveal how this group compares to the broader American public or people living in other countries. However, from the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century to large survey data collected by social scientists in recent decades, Americans have been described as distinctly agentic and optimistic. For example, when Pew Research Center surveyed individuals in 44 nations, they found that Americans stand out compared to people in most other nations in their positive attitude and belief in personal control over life outcomes.

These attitudes and psychological states have likely played a vital role in making our nation a place where ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurship thrive. For instance, studies show that people who have a strong belief in their own abilities are more likely to start businesses and to succeed in business.

Similarly, in a previous study we conducted, we also found that personal agency plays an important role in the psychology of entrepreneurship. Specifically, we found that the more aspiring entrepreneurs believe in their own ability to live a meaningful life, the more motivated they are to pursue their goals. Indeed, a large body of research indicates that optimism about the future promotes persistence in pursuing and achieving goals, creativity, social trust, and civic engagement. Ultimately, how today’s college students think about human progress and their ability to influence it has important implications for the future of America and the world.

Many people around the globe would jump at the opportunity to attend college in the United States in order to better their lives and the lives of their families, as well as to serve their community and broader society. If American colleges and universities want to continue to play a vital role in solving the challenges of our time, they should ask themselves what they can do to better educate students about human progress.

A first and easy step would be for professors to teach students about human progress in their classes. Given the wide range of general education courses college students take in the humanities, sciences and social sciences, individual faculty members have plenty of opportunities to educate students about the many ways that progress in science, medicine, technology, education and law have allowed people to live safer, healthier, longer, more comfortable, more just and freer lives.

Colleges and universities could also offer classes and workshops specifically focused on human progress and flourishing — something we are doing here at North Dakota State University through the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth.

More broadly, academic institutions should work to develop campus cultures that encourage students to be grateful for the progress they enjoy thanks to the efforts of previous generations, as well as to feel personally responsible for continuing the cause of progress for current and future generations. Only then will they develop the agency and optimism required to make a free and prosperous society sustainable.

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