Americans’ Views on Value of Higher Education Hold Steady, But Fewer Say It Has Positive Impact

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A shrinking proportion of Americans hold a positive view of the country’s higher education system as a whole and the impact it is having on society, according to a new survey from New America.

In its fifth annual report on public perceptions of higher education, titled Varying Degrees, researchers at New America found that 58% agree that colleges and universities were having a positive effect on the way things were going in the country, a more than 10% drop from the previous year’s survey.

The findings illustrate how much the past year has adversely affected Americans views on higher education and its impact on society, particularly as the topic draws increased attention from policymakers and alternative forms of education were almost universally adopted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Even though the general perception of higher education may be diminishing, a majority of Americans continue to believe in the value of educational opportunities beyond high school.

Only 1 in 5 respondents said they would feel comfortable recommending that their child or a close family member end their education after receiving a high school diploma. Comparatively, 63% said they would want their relative to pursue a bachelor's degree or above.

An even greater proportion of respondents hold a positive view of higher education’s financial value, with 76% saying they believe higher education offers a good return on investment — a figure that has largely remained the same over the last five years. 

“We’re in awe of how steadfast people really believe in the value of higher education, despite all that has changed over the past five years in this country,” said Rachel Fishman, deputy director for research at New America and a co-author of the report, during a panel discussion Tuesday detailing the findings.

In a year when massive government spending occurred in response to the pandemic, 4 out of 5 believe, as they have in previous years of the survey, that the government should spend more tax dollars on postsecondary education to make it more affordable.

However, respondents held very different views on which sectors of higher education that spending should go toward. Overall, 76% agree with spending taxpayer dollars on public community colleges, 64% on public four-year institutions, 61% on minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and 44% on private, non-profit schools, while only 29% support spending taxpayer dollars on for-profit schools.

Those findings could serve as a boon for President Joe Biden and his administration as he looks to make the idea of tuition-free community college for all a reality through his sweeping infrastructure package.

The respondents’ feelings toward government spending on higher education are juxtaposed with their feelings on how institutions spend their money. Only 54% of respondents believe public community colleges spend their money wisely, a drop of 9 percentage points since 2019. And even less, 41%, think public four-year colleges spend their money wisely, down from 47% in 2019.

Another finding from the report that has held steady over the years and could be a harbinger of what’s to come under the Biden administration are American’s views on accountability for higher education.

The report found that 93% said it is important for institutions to provide publicly available data on graduates’ results and achievements, such as graduation rates or employment rates.

Further, 81% of respondents said colleges and universities should lose some taxpayer money if they have a low graduation rate, 76% said schools should have to do so if they have a low rate of graduates earning a living wage, and 73% said if a school’s students have a high debt-to-earnings ratio they should lose some taxpayer dollars.

“This hasn't really changed [over time], and across demographics, across political parties, this is still a really strong sentiment,” said Alejandra Acosta, a policy analyst at New America. “This is really important because accountability to me, really, is an equity issue. We see that low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students are often the ones who get the short end of the stick in higher ed.”

Biden campaigned on higher education priorities such as making college more affordable and bringing back Obama-era regulations aimed at holding for-profit colleges accountable.

That’s in line with what many Americans think, according to the survey. Respondents who were unhappy with higher education in general and said the sector needs changing noted that colleges and universities need to be more affordable.

Less than half of respondents said someone can get a high-quality education after high school that is affordable, though when the results were broken down by political affiliation, Republicans and Democrats were far apart on the issue.

Only 41% of Democrats believe that Americans can get a high-quality affordable education after high school, compared to 58% of Republicans.

Biden has also pledged to forgive $10,000 in federal student loan debt for each borrower in response to the pandemic, but that was not considered a top priority to many Americans, according to the survey, with just 13% of Americans prioritizing debt forgiveness. Making public two-year and community college tuition-free was identified as the top priority by 23% of respondents.


Publication Date: 5/26/2021

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