ON THE AGENDA | SEPTEMBER 15TH, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Public Skepticism of Higher Education Is Growing. We Need to Confront It.

Findings from a recent survey ought to give pause to higher education leaders and policymakers, particularly given their strong support for efforts to boost college attainment.

One of the great things about the work we do is the opportunity we have to speak frequently with the public regarding their views toward education. This is something we’ve been doing for a long time, and it often enables us to sense and identify emerging trends in public opinion.

The idea that post-secondary education can lead to better economic well-being is often considered by policy elites to be common sense. Yet for a few years now, we've heard rumblings in focus groups which suggest the public’s perception of higher education is shifting.

Survey findings we released this week affirm that shift: the public is far less likely now to perceive a college education as necessary for a good job. And policymakers and experts ought to sit up and take notice.

This view is a reversal of an earlier trend – one of growing support for the necessity of college. For a long time, the public was increasingly likely each year to say that a college education was necessary for success in the working world. The increase held steady for nearly a decade, growing from 31 percent of Americans who said college was necessary in 2000 to 55 percent in 2008 and 2009.

A 2011 survey provided an early indication that public opinion toward higher education may be changing. In a survey of high school and college graduates, only about a third thought a four-year degree from their state's public university would lead to economic security. Young people were even less likely to say that a technical certificate or associate's degree would lead to economic security. (See page 12 of this report.)

And in the survey results we released this week, funded by The Kresge Foundation, just 42 percent of all Americans say a college education is necessary for success in the working world. This is a decrease of 13 points from 2009.


  • 46 percent of Americans say college is a questionable investment due to high student loans and limited job opportunities.
  • 69 percent say there are many people who are qualified but lack the opportunity to go to college.
  • 59 percent say colleges today are like most businesses and care mainly about the bottom line.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the public has entirely lost faith in the value of a college degree. Over half of Americans think a college education is still the best investment for those who want to get ahead. And in focus groups and forums we’ve facilitated around the country, members of the public still express a deep belief in the importance of higher education in the world today.

Still, findings from the research ought to give pause to higher education leaders and policymakers, particularly given their strong support for efforts to boost college attainment.

These results should provoke policymakers and education leaders to seek to better understand and respond to the factors underlying the public’s skepticism about the value of higher education. In particular, leaders and the public need the time and opportunity to come together to think seriously about the expectation of higher education. Bridging this gap through direct communication about the decisions leaders and citizens need to make together is tantamount to ensuring higher education provides people with what they hope for and expect in the future.


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