Do American Undergraduates Still Respect Their Professors?

A new survey reveals surprisingly positive attitudes in the wake of the pandemic.

The pandemic has affected numerous aspects of daily life. Included among these are how students and faculty relate and respond to each other on campus. With many classes going virtual and universities dealing with unprecedented circumstances, student and faculty relations may well be expected to have shifted. How students view faculty can tell us many things about a college or university’s perceived value. If students do not feel they have qualified and informed professors, then the overall institution can suffer.

In April of this year, Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse conducted a study with more than 2,000 student participants from 100-plus higher-education institutions. The survey asked students to rate the quality of their professors and instructors, taking into account academic rigor, choice of instructional materials, course knowledge, and the ability to connect and foster relationships with the student body.

All of the survey’s data can be disaggregated by gender, race, year of expected graduation, major, religion, political leaning, financial aid qualification, sexual orientation, and two-year vs. four-year status. This allows the inquirer to view the results from a variety of perspectives.

Some results suggest that students of different races may experience college differently.When rating faculty bias, for example, students who were Weak Republicans and Strong Republicans expressed higher than usual disagreement with the statement, “In general, my professors grade fairly,” disagreeing “somewhat” at the rate of 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. The next highest rate of disagreement was expressed by Weak Democrats at 5 percent, suggesting that grade-related complaints are largely a non-political phenomenon.

When rating professors in the area of building relationships with students, respondents of all political affiliations gave a rating of “Excellent” or “Good” at least 50 percent of the time. Breaking the data down by gender, race, year, major, religion, and sexual orientation produces the same results.

While the majority of the survey’s questions did not reveal any extreme attitudinal differences among students of disparate backgrounds, one or two results do suggest that students of different races and ethnicities experience college differently. Asked about their professors’ ability to “build relationships with students,” black undergraduates rated faculty “excellent” or “good” only 51 percent of the time, as compared to 62 percent for whites and 67 percent for mixed-race respondents. Perhaps aware that a movement exists to limit their numbers on American campuses, students of Asian descent “strongly agreed” that their papers are graded fairly a mere 32 percent of the time, a 12-percentage-point departure from the overall “strongly agreed” rate of 44 percent.

All told, student impressions of faculty performance appear to be mostly positive, a state of affairs that bodes well for higher education’s future. If, as many suspect, America’s colleges are wasteful, overpriced, and ideologically blinkered, it is at least the case that undergrads still respect their profs. That isn’t everything, but neither is it nothing.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.