Sep 15, 2016


The public may be losing faith in higher education. What does that mean for leaders?

This week, we released new research suggesting the public is losing confidence in higher education:
  • Just 42% of Americans say college is necessary for success in the workforce. This reverses a previous trend. (See our blog for more on this trend.)
  • 46% say college is a questionable investment due to high student loans and limited job opportunities.
  • 69% say there are many people who are qualified but lack the opportunity to go to college.
  • 59% say colleges today are like most businesses and care mainly about the bottom line.
Yet experts overwhelmingly agree that college credentials are the best opportunity to improve the economic prosperity of individuals, families, communities and the nation.
What should policymakers and education leaders take away from this research? Given their many efforts to boost college attainment, they ought to take these findings seriously. In particular, the findings should provoke them to better understand and respond to the factors underlying the public's skepticism about the value of higher education.
The research should also provoke leaders to reflect on their efforts to communicate with the public about the value and benefits of college. For example, leaders may need to better articulate the job opportunities a college education can provide and the return on investment of a college degree or certificate. They may also consider the best ways to engage the public regarding the varied types of higher education and the opportunities each can deliver.
Let's start the conversation! You can help by sharing this research with others - forward this email or share this infographic. And let us know what you think. We believe it crucial that higher education leaders be aware of the shift in public opinion this research strongly suggests, and consider the best way to respond.   

Will Friedman
President, Public Agenda

New from Public Agenda

Erin Knepler, Associate Director of Higher Education and Workforce Programs, wrote about why free college won't be the silver bullet to completion for Inside Sources. One of our funders, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, mentioned our work on how patients consider value in Health Affairs. The recent survey on public views of higher education was covered by Consumer Affairs. See all media coverage from this month here.  

Our new survey suggests public confidence in higher education is waning. Share this graphic on social media and engage us and others.

This document includes a full description of the methodology used, questions asked, and survey responses from a 2016 survey of public confidence in higher education.

Report: Transforming Governance
One of three research briefs written as background notes for the Making All Voices Count Learning Event on Transformative Governance, held in Manila, Philippines, in February.

From the Blog
Throughout the summer, our Public Engagement team has outlined practical tips for deepening public participation. The topics so far include:
President Will Friedman examines the possibilities presented by the current economic and political moment.

Summer intern Janice Adamo describes her experience with participatory budgeting as a student in the City University of New York system.
As our Engagement Associate Nicole Hewitt returns to the Gulf Coast for the first time since Katrina, she describes the concern residents have over efforts toward resiliency and sustainability.

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 K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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