Public Opinion on Higher Education

Survey results suggest public confidence in higher education is waning.

Policymakers and experts overwhelmingly agree that the United States needs more people with college degrees or other postsecondary credentials. And they’re working on many fronts to achieve that goal.

This research aims to help them do so in ways that are informed by and responsive to the needs and perspectives of the American public.

Through this research, we seek to understand the public’s views on the value of a college education, on what students should gain from a college education, on problems facing higher education and on approaches to higher education reform.

Highlights of our findings include the following. (Click on each finding to read more.)

Public confidence in higher education is waning. Policymakers and higher education leaders need to understand how the public views higher education if they hope to rebuild faith in higher education as a path to a better life.

Can you can help? You can start by sharing the research. Pass along the research brief and infographic to your colleagues, state representatives and college leaders. And copy and paste the tweets below for easy sharing:

Just 42% of Americans say #college education necessary for success in the workforce, per @PublicAgenda survey

New research from @PublicAgenda can help #highered leaders rebuild public faith in #highered:

66% of Americans support free college, tho divided by age & politics: new @PublicAgenda research:

Americans say #highered finances are a serious problem - both public funding & how colleges manage $:

Americans are losing confidence in the necessity of a college education for success in the workforce.

For many years, when we asked the public the question, "Do you think that a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world," an increasing percentage of Americans said yes. That trend has shifted since the Great Recession. Now, just 42 percent of Americans say college is necessary for workforce success, a 13 percent drop from 2009. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say there are many ways to succeed in today's world without a college degree, a 14 percent increase from 2009.

Americans also seem divided on whether college is a good investment, with 46 percent say a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities. Just over half – 52 percent – say a college education is still the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed.

Access also remains a concern for many Americans. More than two-thirds of Americans – 69 percent – say 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.

Most Americans favor making public colleges free for students from low- and middle-income families.

Two-thirds of Americans support using taxpayer money to make public colleges free for low- and middle-income students. However, Americans are divided by age and political affiliation it 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.

Younger Americans are also more likely to support free college than older Americans. 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.

Job skills are an essential outcome of a college education for most Americans.

Over 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.

Most Americans also favor requiring colleges to do more for students’ career prospects. 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.

Furthermore, 59 percent of Americans say colleges today are more like businesses and care mainly about the bottom line, versus 34 percent who say colleges today mainly care about education and making sure students have a good educational experience.

A majority of Americans are concerned about high schools that fail to prepare students for college-level work.

Fifty-six percent say high schools that fail to prepare students for college-level work is a serious problem. Americans are less concerned about student perseverance – just 29 percent say this 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.

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