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New Survey Suggests Public Confidence In Higher Ed Waning

September 13, 2016

Findings from Public Agenda stand in contrast to expert opinion and federal policy goals


New York City — Throughout the election season, various candidates have repeated the belief that a college education serves as a pathway to a better future. Yet according to new research from Public Agenda, Americans are increasingly uncertain about the necessity of a college degree.

While more than half of Americans say a degree is still a good investment, they also say there are many ways to succeed in the workforce without one, according to the nationally representative survey of 1,006 respondents. Meanwhile, federal efforts to boost the number of Americans with a college degree have grown. These include President Obama’s goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

The findings indicate a shift in Americans’ attitudes toward higher education in the years since the Great Recession. In past surveys from Public Agenda, increasing numbers of Americans said that a college education is necessary for success in today’s working world. But in 2016, just 42 percent of Americans say a college degree is necessary, according to the survey, funded by The Kresge Foundation. This is a 13 percent drop from a high in 2009, the last time the question was asked. Over half of Americans – 57 percent – say there are many ways to succeed in today’s work world without a college degree, a 14 percent increase from 2009.  “Researchers, experts and policymakers overwhelmingly agree that education is the most reliable path to prosperity, and that a high-school diploma no longer cuts it. Leaders and the public are not on the same page here, increasingly so it seems,” said Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda’s director of higher education & workforce development programs. “Leaders must take the growing public mistrust of higher education seriously. This means clearly measuring and communicating about the benefits and outcomes of a college education, especially what happens to students in the job market after they graduate.”

Americans have not entirely lost faith in the value of a college degree, though they seem divided on the issue. Just over half – 52 percent – say “a college education is still the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed.” However, 46 percent say “a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.”  College access remains a concern for many Americans, with more than two-thirds – 69 percent – saying there are many people who are qualified to go to college but don’t have the opportunity to do so. Just 29 percent of Americans say the vast majority of people who are qualified to go to college have the opportunity to do so. This finding has remained consistent since the Great Recession.  “This research provides a practical sense of people’s worries regarding the value of a college degree, and how higher education leaders can address those concerns” said David Schleifer, senior research associate with Public Agenda. “People seem to understand that higher education can be a pathway to better life, but they sense that those opportunities aren’t available to everyone.”

Americans are also suspicious about the intentions of colleges and universities. Nearly six in ten – 59 percent – say colleges today care mainly about the bottom line, versus 34 percent who say colleges today mainly care about education and their students.  This research was conducted via telephone from July 20 – July 24, 2016 among a nationally representative sample of 1,006 Americans age 18 and older. The margin of error is +/- 3.8 percent. Public Agenda will release additional findings from this study in early October.


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