How Information Affects Perceptions of Higher Education Value

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Most parents would like to see their children pursue a four-year degree as opposed to a two-year degree, according to new polling released this week. But those views can sway significantly depending on what information the parents are given, as well as demographic factors like education level, race and ethnicity, and even political affiliation.

In its annual survey on public opinion of education, Education Next found that two-thirds of parents said they would prefer it if their child pursued a university degree. But when given information on cost and/or future earnings potential, the responses changed. When parents were only given information about the cost of a degree, the percentage of respondents who would have their child pursue a four-year degree drops 7 percentage points. When given only information about the benefits of a degree, it increases by 8 percentage points. Essentially, the two factors cancel each other out.

And when parents were given both pieces of information, the percentages were roughly the same as when no information was provided.

"For the public as a whole, information on the cost of college and future earnings influences perceptions by roughly equal amounts," said Marty West, editor-in chief of Education Next and an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Although that information did not have a large impact on the group of respondents as a whole, the responses between Democrats and Republicans shifted significantly. Initially, 75 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans would have their children pursue a university degree. But when provided with both sets of information, the differences disappeared: 66 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans preferred a four-year degree for their children.

However, cost information alone does appear to be a more influential piece of information for some groups, said West, who is also deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Although the results of the survey showed Democrats are initially much more likely to want their children to have a four-year degree, providing information on cost reduces that preference by 12 percentage points (from 75 to 63 percent), but has no statistically significant impact on Republicans.

On the other hand, earnings information alone was found to have "large positive effects on college aspirations" among Republicans and Hispanics, West said, but only a small effect among Democrats.

The survey results also showed information on the benefits of a university degree might also have a larger influence on parents who do not themselves hold a four-year degree. Those individuals "are likely to face financial constraints that limit their ability to assist with their child's education, and they may be less aware of the earnings potential of a four-year degree," a report on the survey said. Without all the information, those families "may overestimate costs and underestimate benefits," the report said.

Initially, just over half of respondents without a college degree – 57 percent – would have their child pursue a four-year degree, compared with 88 percent of those who hold a degree. Earnings information alone increases that preference among non-degree holders upward by 6 percentage points, while cost information alone causes that preference to dip by 11 percentage points. When both sets of information are provided, the overall preference drops to 54 percent.

"In other words, less-educated families do not seem to lack the information they need to make college and career choices," the report said. "Inasmuch as simultaneous information on costs and benefits does not alter the choices made (on average), it is likely that the choice itself is a conscious one that is partly shaped by available financial information."

Although information about the average costs and benefits associated with earning a four-year degree does not appear to "dramatically alter" preferences for that pathway, both pieces of information on their own do influence preferences, West said.

"Ensuring that they are broadly understood could increase college aspirations among Republicans and Hispanics," West said. "We would also emphasize that the information we provided to respondents were averages across all students. Providing more specific information about the earnings gains from particular programs of study and cost information that reflects the grant aid available to individual students could have different or more dramatic effects."


Publication Date: 8/16/2017

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