The Trust Gap Among College Students

The Trust Gap Among College Students

COVID-19 and Student Trust

Pandemic created a natural experiment on trust

Campus responses to COVID-19 relate to college trust, which varied by student group.

Read the findings

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Explore special NSSE data on trust. Results in five categories and by individual item.

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Trust is a critical feature of everyday life. Whether our interactions are with individuals, groups, or institutions, we make instantaneous choices over whether to trust them based upon our assessment of the benefits and/or risks associated with the potential relationship. Consequently, trust underpins the nature of everyday life, from our assumed faith in others when deciding to cross a busy intersection to a deliberate decision to seek help from an instructor or peer in a classroom setting. Trust decisions are ubiquitous, as trust is a critical factor in admissions and matriculation decisions and persistence decisions, sense of belonging, advising-related outcomes, and even the quality of roommate relationships.

In the 2020 NSSE administration, students at 29 institutions received an additional item set focused on the issues of trust. Factor analyses revealed five categories of trust contained in the set: out-group trust, college trust, social institutional trust, media trust, and civil society trust (see sidebar below for example items). We used various demographic information to predict the five trust categories. Below, we summarize some of the noteworthy findings from our research. For the full version, see Fosnacht and Calderone (2020).

Did You Know?

79%of students trust the leadership at their college or university.

82%of students trust people from another religion.

1 in 4students have confidence in social media companies to do the right thing.

Social Institutional Trust

The results for social institutional trust mirror the results for college trust. Students of color and students with a disability exhibit less social institutional trust, with even larger differences than seen for college trust. We also observe differences by major field. Generally, students in professional fields express greater social institutional trust than their peers in the social sciences. Student-athletes also report higher levels of social institutional trust.

Media Trust

Trust in the media is distinct among the trust types we examined. Asian and Black students report greater media trust levels than White students, reversing a consistent pattern among the other trust types. However, the lower levels among students with a disability are also observed for media trust. Not surprisingly, communications majors exhibit greater trust in the media, while engineering majors report lower levels of trust.

Civil Society Trust

Males tend to trust civil society institutions less than females. Students of color also hold less trust in civil society institutions than White students. Students who live off campus trusted civil society groups substantially less than students who lived on campus. Meaningful differences are also observed between veterans and nonveterans, with veterans trusting civil society less.

As for Davenport, I know that I can trust my advisors, registrar group, and president of the college.  These are people that I have worked with and built a trusting relationship with.

Senior majoring in business management at Davenport University

Trust: Before and After the Pandemic

While we observed the above gaps, it is essential to remember that colleges and universities can be proactive to improve trust. The recent COVID-19 pandemic provided a momentous opportunity for higher education institutions to increase confidence by demonstrating their commitment to serve their students' best interests. The 2020 NSSE administration occurred during the onset of the pandemic, which created a natural experiment that allowed us to observe whether student trust increased.

College students participating in a trust fall activity.
Students participating in a trust fall.

With the coronavirus outbreak, even though there are moments of uncertainty or miscommunication, I still trust that Whitman is trying to do everything it can for its students while still running the business of college.

Senior majoring in sociology at Whitman College

Improving trust during a crisis

The results have multiple implications for students’ trust in their institutions.

Trust is malleable. While the overall trust levels were equivalent pre- and post-pandemic, the results demonstrate substantial differences within student subpopulations. A highlight of the results is the increased trust of students with a disability and those who refrained from providing their disability status, suggesting that institutions looked out for or met the needs of students with a disability in uncertain times. As noted in the section above, students with disabilities had substantially lower college trust levels than students without disabilities. Consequently, institutions can leverage crises to regain historically marginalized groups' trust.

The differential levels of trust highlight the need for institutions to consider multiple perspectives when dealing with an emergency. It is unclear exactly why trust declined for Black and students whose parents had at most a high-school education, but the concerns of these might not have been considered when deciding to close campuses. Many students of color and low socio-economic status students have difficulty completing their coursework away from school due to a lack of technical infrastructure in their homes. The campus closures' speed likely prevented students from obtaining the equipment needed to complete their studies. A different but related concern is that parents in blue-collar occupations may have had difficulty accommodating sudden campus closures. Alternately, the messaging around the campus closures may not have connected with these student populations. 

Shannon M. Calderone of Washington State University contributed to this story.

Evidence-Based Improvement in Higher Education

Center for Postsecondary Research
Indiana University
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