Americans Recognize the Value of Higher Ed, But Want Change

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Most Americans agree that obtaining some type of education beyond high school can help expand opportunities for students and lead to more well-paying jobs, according to a new survey from New America. At the same time, although most Americans surveyed believe the government should fund higher education, they are largely dissatisfied with the nation’s higher education system as it stands today, in large part due to the cost of college.

In its second annual report on public perceptions of higher education, the team at New America found that just 1 in 4 Americans think the nation’s higher education system is fine the way it is. The report is based on a survey of 1,600 Americans ages 18 and older. The report also digs into the idea that Republicans are souring on higher education and why that subset of people might have negative feelings toward college in America.

“How Americans feel about higher education will help inform policy and funding decisions that affect current and prospective college students and their families,” the report said.

The new report comes after several surveys released in the last year questioned the public’s feelings toward higher education. A report released last July by the Pew Research Center found Republicans have increasingly negative views toward the impact colleges and universities have on the country. In 2017, 58 percent of Republicans said colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country, up from 45 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who thought colleges and universities have a positive impact remained relatively constant over the last few years, with 72 percent responding positively in 2017.

Another survey from Education Next released just one month later found that when given information about the cost of college and the potential earnings benefits, partisan divides disappeared. Yet another survey released last August by Gallup claimed that while Americans' feelings toward higher education vary widely across political affiliations, Republicans’ seemingly negative views stem more from the nation's politically charged environment and less from the cost or operations of colleges in the United States.

Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research with the Education Policy program at New America and an author of the report, said there’s more to the story than what is being portrayed in the news.

There is a clear divergence in opinion, Fishman said during an event for the release of the report Monday, in that Republicans are more likely to view a college education as a personal benefit as opposed to a public good, but many Republicans also said they feel comfortable with their tax dollars being spent on higher education. What may be feeding into the difference in opinion, she said, is that Republicans were also more likely to say there were many well-paying jobs available for those without an education beyond high school.

Still, more than three-quarters of Republicans agreed that there are more opportunities for people who pursue education after high school. And regardless of party affiliation, Americans, by and large, said they felt that something needs to change with regard to higher education in America.

Some of the skepticism toward higher education might come from a messaging problem, according to a panel discussing the report at New America’s event, which included Fishman, Joe Garcia, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), and Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy and external relations for the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT).

When some people hear terms like “college” or “higher education,” Fishman explained, they might think more about four-year degree programs, rather than the broad spectrum of postsecondary education options offered throughout the country.

In fact, the report found that although Americans see a need for improvement in higher education broadly, they are supportive of apprenticeship programs, community colleges, and their local colleges and universities.

“There is strong support [for higher education] — it’s just the varying degree of how strong it is,” Lee said. “Sometimes the concept of higher education gets lost in how you perceive it.”

According to Garcia, most people associate apprenticeships and community colleges with workforce preparation, rather than the more expansive purpose typically associated with four-year programs. To work toward solving the messaging problem, he said those within the higher education community should localize issues by talking about an institution that people are familiar with, rather than focusing the discussion on the vast, overarching concept of higher education.

Lee added that conversations around student debt that focus more on outliers with extreme situations do not help with the messaging problem.

“That pervades the broader conversation about the system globally,” he said. “That’s something that is of significant concern because it is eroding public support of higher education.”


Publication Date: 5/22/2018

Joseph S | 5/22/2018 3:3:42 PM

After over 50 years in higher education administration, I agree fully with the tone of this issue. Change needs to occur, for all too many people are speaking of it. It is the cost factor first and foremost, but then additionally it is the matter of how many are graduating with honors at the colleges and universities of America, and asking the question as to how really competitive our graduates really are! Many, with college degrees, find it difficult to articulate on issues, all too few speak a second language or even study it, and few understand the bridge from collegiate studies to the "real world of work." Yes, we need a change and we need to honor those who are the electricians and carpenters and plumbers of the world, and those who have attained college degrees and yet have these talents. The conversation must go on and changes should occur.

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