Support for free two-year and four-year public college leapt up this year after reaching a low point in 2021 but partisan divides among Republicans and Democrats remain strong, according to a new survey by Education Next.
Education Next’s 2022 survey of public opinion found that 66% of over 3,600 respondents support free two-year public college. That’s compared to 2021 which had a support rate of 60% and 2019 which had a support rate of 69%.
Additionally, support for free four-year college grew, with 63% of respondents supporting the measure. In 2021, only 43% of respondents supported free four-year college, compared to 55% in 2020 and 60% in 2019.
The report concludes that in 2021, support for free two-year and four-year public college from the public was reeling from the “enormous shock” of the pandemic and that there wasn’t much of an “appetite” for the policy change.
Paul Peterson, co-author of the survey and a professor at Harvard University, said the uptick in support for free two-year and four-year public college may be due to fallen enrollment at colleges or because of economic hardships the public faced during the pandemic.
“It's hard to say because we ask [respondents] for their opinions, and they give them to us so your guess might be as good as mine,” Peterson said. “They might be feeling that college needs to be free because enrollments are falling, especially at junior colleges. It may be because of the blows that students have received economically during the course of the pandemic.”
Among partisan lines, 84% of Democrats and 44% of Republicans said they supported free two-year public college. However, the partisan divide widened even more when asked about free four-year college, with 80% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans supporting the policy.
Peterson said the issue of free two-year and four-year public college is one of the most divisive issues among the two parties.
“Among junior colleges, we show a huge split,” Peterson said. “84% of Democrats support it and only 44% of Republicans. It’s so large now that there’s not much more room to grow. That's got to be one of the biggest divides out there.”
Peterson said the results show the changing demographics of the two parties.
“It's reflecting the change in the composition of our political parties,” Peterson said, highlighting how Republicans have moved to court the working class while Democrats have garnered disproportionate support from the middle and upper middle class. “I think it reflects the changes in the social composition of the two political parties.”
The report surveyed over 3,600 respondents in May, which included two subsamples — one sample consisting of over 1,700 respondents of adults in the U.S. and another sample of over 1,800 adults who are parents, step-parents, or foster parents with at least one child in K-12.
Among parents, 75% support free two-year public college and 70% support free four-year public college. That’s compared to 21% of parents who oppose free two-year public college and 22% who oppose free four-year public college.
Publication Date: 8/16/2022