Home Press Releases & Statements Most Americans Support Free College for Low- and Middle-Income Students: New Survey

Most Americans Support Free College for Low- and Middle-Income Students: New Survey

October 6, 2016

Research from Public Agenda reveals broad gaps based on age and political affiliation


New York — Two-thirds of Americans support using taxpayer money to make public colleges free for low- and middle-income students, according to new survey results from Public Agenda. However, Americans are divided by age and political affiliation in their support for free college.

The political differences are stark. While 86 percent of Democrats say it is a good idea to use taxpayer money to make public colleges free for low- and middle-income students, just 34 percent of Republicans agree. Over half of Republicans – 56 percent – say free college is a bad idea, versus just 7 percent of Democrats. “We’re seeing as sharp a divide among the public as we see among presidential candidates on this issue,” said Alison Kadlec, director of higher education and workforce programs at Public Agenda. “Free college isn’t a cure-all – there are many complicated barriers students face when completing college. However, any politicization of higher education issues is disheartening and makes it more challenging to find common ground on helping students and families access a college education.”

Younger Americans are also more likely to support free college than older Americans, according to the research, funded by The Kresge Foundation and summarized in the brief, “What’s the Payoff? Americans Consider Problems and Promises of Higher Education.” Seventy-three percent of Americans ages 18 to 49 think using taxpayer money to fund free college for low- and middle-income students is a good idea, while 58 percent of Americans age 50 and over agree.

The findings are from a pair of surveys Public Agenda fielded in July and August of 2016, examining the public’s views on what students should gain from a college education, problems facing higher education and approaches to higher education reform. Select findings from the first survey, released in September, suggested that, despite strong consensus among experts on the growing need for increasing rates of degree attainment, the public’s confidence in higher education is waning, with just 42 percent of Americans saying a college education as necessary for success in the workforce.

“This was a surprising shift in public opinion after many years in which an increasing proportion of Americans said a college education was necessary to be successful in the workforce,” said David Schleifer, associate director of research at Public Agenda. “Given their efforts to boost college attainment, it’s critical for policymakers and leaders to understand how the public views higher education. Doing so will better enable them to help colleges and universities rebuild faith in higher education as a path to betterment.”

Other findings include:

  • Job skills are a critical outcome of a college education for most Americans. More than two-thirds – 67 percent – say it is absolutely essential for students to gain skills they need to get a job from attending college. Another 29 percent say this is important but not essential. A strong majority of Americans say that requiring colleges to provide career counseling and networking for students is a good idea – 86 percent say this.
  • Americans see college finances as problematic. Reflecting a somewhat nuanced understanding, most Americans see a problem with cuts in state funding of public universities and most also see a problem with how colleges spend their money. Forty-three percent of Americans view funding cuts as a serious problem. About the same proportion of Americans – 44 percent – say that colleges that are wasteful and inefficient in how they spend their money are a serious problem.
  • Many Americans think high schools are falling short on college prep. Fifty-six percent say high schools that fail to prepare students for college-level work is a serious problem.
  • Americans seem uncertain about higher education accountability. Most Americans favor requiring colleges to publicly report graduation rates, with 76 percent saying this is a good idea. Notably, 17 percent say they’re unsure, indicating this may be an unfamiliar idea for many people. Fewer support “punishing” colleges for low graduation and job placement rates – just under half (47 percent) say this is a good idea.

The findings are from two national representative surveys of American adults. A survey of 1,006 Americans 18 and older was conducted by telephone from July 20 to July 24, 2016. A survey of 1,002 Americans 18 and older was conducted by telephone from August 10 to August 14, 2016. The research was conducted by Public Agenda and funded by The Kresge Foundation. Findings are summarized in the research brief, “What’s the Payoff? Americans Consider Problems and Promises of Higher Education.” ###

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About The Kresge Foundation

The Kresge Foundation is a $3.6 billion private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, and community development in Detroit. In 2015, the Board of Trustees approved 370 grants totaling $125.2 million, and nine social investment commitments totaling $20.3 million. For more information, visit


Vania Andre, Public Agenda
Phone: 212-686-6610, ext. 127