America’s Hidden Common Ground on Public Higher Education: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It

July 11, 2022

Home Reports & Resources America’s Hidden Common Ground on Public Higher Education: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It

Executive Summary

Americans think higher education can help people economically, particularly in their home states, according to this Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground (HCG) research. But by a variety of measures, Americans question whether the benefits of college are worth the cost. Young people without degrees are especially skeptical. Based on a nationally representative survey fielded in May 2022 and focus groups conducted in January 2022, the research finds that Americans across partisan lines worry about high tuition and student debt in an economy that most think is rigged to benefit the wealthy. Most see college education as time-consuming and see colleges as stuck in the past. Although most Americans recognize that higher education helps people become informed, engaged citizens, fewer think it benefits democracy overall.

However, there is strong agreement across the political spectrum that all Americans should have the opportunity to get a college education if they want one. There is also very strong support, across partisan lines, for state investments in specific initiatives to make public higher education more affordable, accessible, and responsive to today’s students, including working adults. Although few Republicans view racism as making it more difficult for Black and Latino Americans to get a college education, there is nonetheless majority cross-partisan and cross-racial support for state investments in initiatives to support Black and Latino students and the institutions that serve them. Findings from the research include:

1.  Strong cross-partisan, cross-racial majorities believe that higher education can benefit working adults. The consensus is weaker on how much it benefits the economy overall or our democracy. But when people focus on their states, more are confident about the economic benefits of higher education.

  • Most Americans (86 percent) across political affiliations agree that a college education can help working adults advance their careers. Fewer (64 percent) believe that people with a high school diploma would make a better living if they got a college education. Only half (52 percent) believe higher education strengthens the economy overall.
  • Most Americans (71 percent) think a college education helps people become informed, engaged citizens. But only 51 percent think our democracy would be stronger if more people had college educations. Some focus group participants objected to the idea that people without degrees are less capable, responsible citizens than those with degrees.
  • At the state level, Americans are confident in higher education’s shared economic benefits: 75 percent believe that there would be positive impacts on people’s ability to earn a good living if more people in their state had a college education, and 71 percent believe that there would be positive impacts on their state’s capacity to attract employers—including majorities across the political spectrum.

2.  While recognizing its potential benefits, many Americans question whether a college education is worth it. In an economy that most see as fundamentally unfair, Americans view college as expensive and time-consuming, and they see colleges as stuck in the past.

  • Only half of Americans (49 percent) think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs. Young people without degrees are particularly skeptical.
  • Most Americans (83 percent) see college costs as prohibitive to low-income students. Most think both debt and inadequate financial aid are serious problems. Two-thirds (66 percent) see colleges as stuck in the past, not meeting the needs of today’s students.
  • Meanwhile, most Americans (72 percent) think the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful. This view is shared by majorities across the political spectrum and across racial/ethnic identities.
  • Among different types of public higher education institutions, more people view community colleges as offering good value for students and taxpayers.
  • The largest share of Americans think the primary goals of their state’s public higher education institutions should be career readiness and providing a well-rounded education.

3.  Very strong cross-partisan and cross-racial majorities agree on a broad range of approaches to making public higher education more affordable.

  • Americans’ top priorities for their state’s public higher education institutions are affordability, access, and teaching career-relevant skills.
  • Most Americans (67 percent) believe that there are many qualified people who do not have the opportunity to attend college.
  • Substantial majorities of Americans across the political spectrum and across racial/ethnic identities support many approaches to making public higher education more affordable. For example, two-thirds or more Democrats, Independents, and Republicans support tax incentives for employers to pay employees’ tuition; state governments offering interest-free loans; students paying back loans based on post-graduation earnings; and requiring public higher education institutions to be transparent about student debt.
  • Half or more Democrats, Independents, and Republicans support increasing taxes on the wealthy to make public higher education more affordable and making public community colleges free.

4.  There is surprising cross-partisan and cross-racial agreement on state investments to support Black and Latino students as well as low-income students.

  • Substantially fewer Republicans (24 percent) than Democrats (72 percent) or Independents (49 percent) believe that racial discrimination makes it more difficult for people of color to get a college education.
  • Yet majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and majorities across racial/ethnic identities, support various state investments to improve college access, affordability, and degree completion for Black and Latino students.
  • These include providing additional resources for public higher education institutions that are doing an especially good job of helping Black and Latino students complete their degrees, increased oversight of institutions that are not, and providing effective advising and financial aid to Black and Latino students.
  • Stronger majorities favor such investments to support low-income students.

5.  When people know what they’re paying for, substantially more are willing to invest in public higher education.

  • Across political affiliations, Americans largely think that public higher education should either be funded mostly by government with some student contribution or equally by government and students.
  • When asked about state investment in general, 61 percent of Americans overall support increased funding for public higher education, including 75 percent of Democrats but less than half (46 percent) of Republicans.
  • But strong majorities across the political spectrum support investing in specific public higher education initiatives to help students succeed in college and beyond.
  • This includes strong support for state investments in flexible short-term credential programs; providing students with job experience while they learn; partnerships with K-12 systems so students graduate from high school with college credits; hiring more faculty so students can take the classes they need to graduate on time; and colleges tailoring curricula to meet employers’ needs.
  • Cross-partisan majorities believe that states should maintain funding for public higher education institutions during hard economic times. Support is even stronger when people learn that the vast majority of college students attend public institutions.

Methodology in Brief

This report summarizes findings from a nationally representative survey of 1,662 adult Americans 18 years and older. The survey was designed by Public Agenda, fielded May 3-6, 2022 by Ipsos. Respondents completed the survey in English. Public Agenda conducted three demographically diverse online focus groups in January 2022. When referencing this report, cite Public Agenda. The sample was randomly drawn from Ipsos’ online panel, partner online panel sources, and “river” sampling. Ipsos calibrates respondent characteristics to be representative of the U.S. population using standard procedures such as raking-ratio adjustments. The source of these population targets is U.S. Census 2018 American Community Survey data. Post-hoc weights were made to the population characteristics on gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, and education.

For a complete methodology and topline with full question wording, email research@publicagenda.org or visit this link here.

This research was supported by Lumina Foundation. The findings do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation or its officers or directors.

This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

This research was conducted in partnership with HCM Strategists.