Policy Experts Share Insights on Higher Education’s Shifting Public Opinion and Perceptions

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Recent reports have indicated that American attitudes toward higher education have wavered in recent years, with the country’s positive outlook of the sector dropping significantly since the onset of the pandemic and the economic uncertainty that has impacted the general workforce.

To better analyze these shifting attitudes, a group of higher education polling and policy experts convened in a virtual discussion on Thursday to share their insights from recent public opinion polls that have tracked Americans' varying perceptions of differing facets of the higher education system.

Sophie Nguyen, a senior policy analyst for education policy at New America, detailed how their annual survey captures the changes in attitudes about the value of education after high school, how postsecondary enrollment is funded, and how perceptions concerning a given degree’s return on investment have changed over the past six years.

Travis Reindl, a senior communications officer for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, detailed how there is, from prospective student perspectives, both aspiration and frustration with the current system. According to polling data, young people without degrees are especially skeptical of higher education, with costs and debt issues leading many to question the potential return on investment for their enrollment.

Reindl’s research provided schools with examples of how to engage students who may have dropped out of their higher education programs, or have been putting off enrollment due to skepticism, by urging schools to provide program flexibility, more education for less debt, financial aid advising, additional job counseling, and more hands-on opportunities in the workforce while in school.

Lexi West, a senior associate at The Pew Charitable Trusts, reported on how experiences with student loans have shaped borrower perspectives and how the ongoing payment pause for federally held loans has enabled students to meet other financial obligations. The pause, set to expire at the end of the month, has prompted a significant amount of borrower confusion. West said that polling data indicates that half of all borrowers were not aware of when the payment pause is set to expire, and had not connected with the Department of Education (ED) or their servicer about repayment options. 

In order to stave off a difficult return to repayment, West urged ED to work on its communication efforts to streamline the process.

The Pew Charitable Trusts also has a number of surveys in the works to garner more details as to how borrowers are adjusting to the changing landscape of the student loan portfolio.

Attendees also heard from Shelbe Klebs, education policy advisor for Third Way, who detailed gainful employment (GE) regulations and how the public actually has a positive outlook on the policy when the parameters are fully explained. 

According to Third Way’s research 73% of likely voters view GE favorably and go on to argue that implementing the guardrail should be a top priority for policymakers. 

Each of the participants said they would be continuing to roll out new survey data that will further delve into these higher education policies to track how the pandemic could be shaping the public perception of postsecondary education.


Publication Date: 8/19/2022

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