Survey: America Needs Higher Education, But Not Without Change

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Despite the fact that most Americans see the value in postsecondary education, many believe the nation's higher education system is not functioning as well as it could be, according to data from New America released last week.

The survey draws on the responses from 1,600 individuals spanning different demographics that vary by age, race, socioeconomic status, and gender, among other things. The survey explores their views on the American Dream, the value of a college education, the success of college students, and higher education finance, to name a few. Across the board, the respondents appeared to agree that it has become more difficult to find a good paying job and afford a family –  with the exception of the "Silent Generation" (those over 72 years old) – and that higher education plays a role in future success.

"The good news is that Americans really believe in higher education. I feel like maybe now especially something we can all believe in together, regardless of our political affiliations or ideas about different things, feels especially important," said Kevin Carey, director of New America's education program, during an event for the release of the survey. "This poll suggests that we are as a society, as a polity, as a culture, remain very committed to higher education as an engine of economic opportunity, something that we believe in, both in general and that we want for ourselves and for our children. However … once you get beyond that general support you start to find some really interesting ideas and perceptions among the general public."

Overall, three-quarters of the respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without, with the Silent Generation and Generation Z (those between 18 and 22 years old) most strongly agreeing. About half of the respondents, particularly younger generations, also said society respects people with college degrees more than those without degrees. However, the respondents were split when it came to views on whether there are enough good paying jobs available for those without a college degree.

Despite their appreciation for the value of a college education, and apparent belief that the country's higher education system is more of a public benefit than an individual benefit, many Americans said they believe institutions are falling short when it comes to helping students succeed, and that higher education leaders often put the needs of the institution before the needs of students.

"They believe in them generally, but they don't think the system is working for students," Carey said. "That's true in different ways for different kinds of people."

Those results still hold true when broken down by political ideologies. Both liberal and conservative respondents generally agreed that institutions put their own long-term interests first.

"Maybe in part because they generally believe that colleges put their own needs first, Americans see room for higher education to improve," the survey said, noting that just one in four Americans said they believe the country's higher education system is fine as is. Millennials in particular expressed a desire for change, with just 13 percent somewhat or strongly agreeing the system is fine as it is.

"Broadly speaking, people are not happy with the specific system of higher education we have now. And we can think what's happened and the different reasons for that," Carey said.

One potential problem could stem from college access. While the majority of Americans agreed that most who enroll in higher education draw some benefit, fewer than half said all Americans have a decent chance of getting into a good college. Most Americans also believe that students are picking up a larger portion of the tab than state and federal governments when it comes to paying for college.

Although Americans overall said public institutions are worth the cost, there appeared to be stronger support for community colleges (82 percent) than public four-year institutions (61 percent). The respondents were more likely to say community colleges and public four-year schools contribute to a strong workforce than private and for-profit institutions.

When broken down by family income, those from lower income backgrounds were less likely to view public four-year colleges and universities as institutions for people in their same situation, and more likely to view community colleges as matching their situation. But regardless of income, Americans were split on their views as to whether private and for-profit colleges are for people in their situation, and whether they're worth the cost.

Americans also appear to be lacking in their knowledge of some aspects of higher education finance. The survey asked the respondents, for example, if they believe most financial aid goes to minority students. More than one-third agreed with that statement, when in reality, more than half of financial aid goes to white students. The youngest respondents – those the same age as today's college students – were most likely to believe most financial aid goes to minority students.

"Although students of color (especially African American, Latino, and Native American) are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college and are disproportionately low-income, they do not receive the most financial aid," the survey said. "One hypothesis for why current students and Generation Z may believe students from minority populations receive the most aid is that the youngest Americans and current students could be projecting how they believe financial aid should work: that it goes to low-income, first-generation students, many of whom are of color. The actual distribution of aid, however, is more complex."

More than four in 10 respondents also believed state governments have increased spending on higher education in the last decade. But in reality, state spending has generally decreased.

"Although tuition has increased for a number of reasons, state disinvestment has certainly had an outsized impact on the amount students and families must contribute to pay for a college education," the survey said. "While the federal government may be helping foot the bill, in the form of grants and other aid, students and families ought not be fooled—state disinvestment has had a measurable impact on college pricing."

Despite the mixed views found in the results of the survey, Carey said New America believes the results can be "very positive, in that they are evidence for a strong, bipartisan foundation for higher education reform."

"People believe in it generally, but they want it to be better," he said. "They are not satisfied with the arrangements we have now, they are not satisfied with the institutions we have now, they are not satisfied with the policies we have now. They think we can do better. They think we need to do better. And we think they are right about that."


Publication Date: 5/15/2017

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