Survey: A Majority of Americans Believe in the Value of Postsecondary Education

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The majority of Americans continue to believe that postsecondary education is too expensive,  but they also argue that pursuing an education beyond high school will provide students with a pathway to financial security. These findings are according to a new survey out of New America which examined Americans’ perceptions of higher education, including college affordability, funding, and student loans. 

The annual survey, now in its seventh iteration, interviewed 1,497 Americans ages 18 and older between March and May of this year and found that about 70% of respondents believe that the minimum level of education their close family members need to ensure financial security is at least a technical certificate. About 40% of respondents said the minimum level should be at least a bachelor’s degree. 

However, while the majority of participants shared a positive view on postsecondary education, just 41% of respondents believe that higher education in America is fine how it is. That number is up from New America’s 2017 survey, which recorded that a mere 26% of Americans believed higher education was fine the way it was. According to New America, the primary issues that impact this trend stem from concerns related to college affordability and accountability. 

“We have learned that a majority of Americans believe in the value that an education after high school can bring to their lives and their communities,” the report states. “At the same time, they would like to see colleges and universities lower the cost of education, improve the quality of educational programs, increase the transparency of student outcome data, among other changes.”

When asked if Americans can get a high-quality education after high school that is affordable, only about half of respondents agreed, at 53%. That number is different along party lines, with 60% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats agreeing that Americans can get an affordable and high-quality education after high school. Additionally, 86% of all respondents said that financial aid support from the institution is needed for students.

When it comes to who should be responsible for funding higher education, 61% of all respondents said the government “because higher education is good for society” and 38% said students “because they personally benefit” from getting a higher education degree or certificate. Those answers are split along party lines, with 78% of Democrats saying the government should fund higher education and 64% of Republicans saying that students should fund higher education.

A majority of respondents, 82%, agreed with the statements that states should spend more tax dollars on postsecondary education opportunities and 81% of survey participants urged the federal government to spend more tax dollars on postsecondary education opportunities. The majority of respondents also agree that public community colleges (58%) and public four-year colleges and universities (50%) are underfunded by state and federal governments. 

Additionally, the majority of respondents said they were comfortable with their taxpayer dollars going to public community colleges (82%), public four-year colleges and universities (69%), minority-serving institutions (69%), and private non-profit colleges and universities (53%). However, less than half were comfortable with their taxpayer money going to for-profit colleges and universities, at 36%.

And as the Biden administration moves to release its final regulations on financial value transparency and gainful employment, 82% of all respondents agree that institutions should be required to “repay the federal government for outstanding student loans that were canceled because these colleges misrepresented information about their programs of study and student outcomes.”

Ninety-two percent of respondents also believe it is important that institutions provide data on key indicators of quality, such as graduation rates, graduates' employment rates, and earnings. Most respondents also agreed that institutions should lose some access to taxpayer dollars if they have low graduation rates, low rates of graduates earning a living wage, and high student loan debt relative to earnings, among other factors. 

New America noted that while the Department of Education (ED) has made efforts to address concerns about college affordability, accountability, and student loan debt — such as the new income-driven repayment plan, new gainful employment regulations, and the new Postsecondary Student Success Grant programs — that those efforts and their results will take time to implement. 

“A majority of Americans still do not think higher education is fine how it is, which has been one of our key findings since we conducted the survey for the first time in 2017,” the report states. “For opinions of higher education to trend better, Americans likely need to see consistent and effective changes to the system, including dramatically lower costs and better outcomes.”


Publication Date: 8/10/2023

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