Public Opinion on Higher Education: What’s the Payoff Americans Consider Problems and Promises of Higher Education

September 12, 2016

Policymakers and experts overwhelmingly agree that the United States needs more people with college degrees or other postsecondary credentials. Public Agenda, with support from The Kresge Foundation, conducted a representative survey of U.S. adults, so that higher education reform efforts can be informed by and responsive to the needs and perspectives of the American public. 

Main findings include:

  1. Americans are losing confidence in the necessity of a college education for success in the workforce.
  2. Most Americans think that colleges should prepare students for jobs and careers.
  3. Americans view college preparation and higher education finances as serious problems.
  4. Most Americans favor requiring colleges to publicly report graduation rates. Fewer favor punishing colleges with low graduation and job placement rates. 
  5. Americans are divided by age and political affiliation regarding free college for low- and middle-income students.
  1. Americans are losing confidence in the necessity of a college education for success in the workforce. In past surveys from Public Agenda, the percentage of Americans saying that a college education is necessary for success in today’s working world increased steadily from 31 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2009. But by 2016, just 42 percent of Americans say a college degree is necessary, a 13 percent drop from 2009. 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.
  2. Most Americans think that colleges should prepare students for jobs and careers. A strong majority of Americans—86 percent—say that requiring colleges to provide career counseling and networking opportunities for students is a very or somewhat good idea. However, only 35 percent of Americans see making professional connections and networking as absolutely essential for students to gain from attending college. 
  3. Americans view college preparation and higher education finances as serious problems. Fifty-six percent of Americans view high schools that fail to prepare students for college-level work as a serious problem. Forty-three percent of Americans view cuts in state government funding of public colleges as a serious problem. However, 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.  
  4. Most Americans favor requiring colleges to publicly report graduation rates. Fewer favor punishing colleges with low graduation and job placement rates. Most Americans—76 percent—think it is a very or somewhat good idea to require colleges to publicly report their graduation rates. Just under half of Americans (47 percent) say it is a very or somewhat good idea to punish colleges with consistently low graduation and job placement rates.
  5. Americans are divided by age and political affiliation regarding free college for low- and middle-income students. While 66 percent of Americans overall say it is a very or somewhat good idea to use taxpayer money to make public colleges free for students from low- and middle-income families, this idea exposes considerable partisan and generational divides. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say it is a very or somewhat good idea to use taxpayer money to make public colleges free for students from low- and middle-income families. People ages 18 to 49 are more likely than people age 50 and over to say that it’s a very or somewhat good idea to use taxpayer money to make public colleges free for students from low- and middle-income families.

These findings are based on a nationally representative survey of 1,006 Americans 18 and older conducted between July 20 and July 24, 2016, via telephone (landline and cell phone). The project was funded by a grant to Public Agenda from The Kresge Foundation.  

Download the complete methodology, sample characteristics and the survey’s topline with full question wording: https://www.publicagenda.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/PublicOpinionHigherEducation2016_FullTopline_PublicAgenda-1.pdf. For more information, email research@publicagenda.org.

Download the Topline results here: PublicOpinionHigherEducation2016 FullTopline PublicAgenda.

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