After decades of almost unquestioned public support as some of America’s most valued institutions, colleges and universities are facing growing questions—not about whether higher education remains important but whether it’s available, affordable and valuable enough.
An episode of Inside Higher Ed’s The Key podcast recently explored the public’s evolving attitudes toward higher education, part of a three-part series on the concept of “value” in higher education, made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The conversation included Sophie Nguyen, senior policy analyst with New America’s education program, which publishes “Varying Degrees” and numerous other surveys about higher education; David Schleifer, vice president and director of research at Public Agenda, a national research organization; and Natasha Quadlin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of Who Should Pay? Higher Education, Responsibility, and the Public (Russell Sage Foundation).
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Inside Higher Ed: Sophie, how would you characterize the current state of public opinion about higher education and how those views are trending?
Nguyen: “Varying Degrees,” our annual survey on what Americans think about higher education, has just come out this summer. The findings show that Americans generally still pretty much believe in the value or the return on investment of higher education or education after high school, including degrees and certificates. At the same time, they are just not happy with how things are going.
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More than 80 percent of Americans say that having a certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree will make it easier for them to find a well-paying, stable career. New questions that we asked this year were about what is the minimum level of education you recommend your child or close family member have to ensure financial security. Seventy-three percent say at least a certificate. They still believe education after high school will lead to a better economic outcome.
But at the same time, when we ask them, “Do you believe higher ed is fine how it is?” only 38 percent of American think so. When we ask if colleges and universities are having a positive or negative impact on the way things are going in the country today, only about 50 percent of people say [positive]. That is a significant decline from when we asked that question in 2020, right before the pandemic, when over 60 percent of people said positive.
Inside Higher Ed: David, how do Public Agenda’s findings equate, contrast with what we just heard from Sophie at New America?
Schleifer: The findings from our survey, which was supported by Lumina Foundation and Gates Foundation, tell a pretty similar story to the New America findings. The big picture is that we did see that by a variety of different measures, Americans do understand that higher education can help people economically, particularly when we asked about impacts in people’s home states. People do understand the economic benefits of higher education.
However, we also see a lot of questions about the value of higher education that essentially come down to whether the investment really pays off for people. I would never call this a loss of faith in higher ed. But I think that what we see is people saying that higher education is too expensive. It’s too time-consuming. We asked a question about colleges being stuck in the past and not really meeting the needs of today’s students. There’s this understanding that the potential benefits of higher education are out there, but it’s expensive. It’s not accessible to everyone. It’s really not designed for today’s students.
On the kind of fundamental question of whether the benefits are worth the risks or not, where we see this kind of 50-50 split that was the same in 2016. We didn’t see a ton of change. These questions that people have been raising about whether higher education is worth the investment are much longer-standing than just the past two or three years.
Inside Higher Ed: Natasha, initial thoughts from you based on the work you’ve done?
Quadlin: I like that this conversation is really focusing on these contradictory opinions that Americans can have. In our data, we find very consistently that Americans do see great value in higher education. It depends on how we ask these questions. When you ask about broader dimensions of higher education, Americans recognize the intellectual value of college, they see how universities enrich communities and they also talk about these personal income and other benefits that accrue to individuals. And that’s been really consistent over time in our data, too.
We asked people a couple questions about the possibility of success with and without higher education and what that looks like for people. We find that Americans really do lean into this possibility of success without higher education. They really latch on to these examples, like plumbers and electricians and other skilled trades, where they say it’s very possible to earn a good living without a college degree.
But then we ask them, “Is it easier to succeed in the world with a college degree than without one?” And overwhelmingly they say, yes, it is. So I think people recognize that, yes, it’s possible to succeed without college. And you can have a successful career without accruing this educational debt. But people also don’t see this as an easy path or perhaps even a preferable path.
Something other folks have touched on, too, that is important to keep in mind is that people aren’t necessarily forecasting their own behavior, or what they would tell their friends and family to do. People will say, yes, other people and other people’s children can not go to college and take this circuitous path to success. But when it comes to themselves and their own children and the people that they care about, they’re perhaps not as willing to take that risk.
Inside Higher Ed: Yes, there’s sure been a tendency for a lot of politicians and sometimes Silicon Valley investors to question whether going to college is right for people, but you don’t typically see them sending their kids to a welding institute or a cosmetology school, thinking about sort of our audience. What are the findings that you think are sort of most concerning to people who, who either work in higher education or who are advocates for higher education and want it to be central in our society?
Schleifer: It’s very easy [for higher education leaders] to look at our findings and other findings that have come out over the years and say that Americans are losing faith in higher education because of ideological reasons. Like that there’s some kind of anti-intellectualism or that everyone wants to be an Uber driver or something like that. I really think that is the wrong takeaway here. I think the takeaway is that the prices are too high—there’s no simpler way to say it. And people know that completion is not a guarantee, and even if they do complete, they’re left with debt. I do not think the takeaway should be some kind of hand-wringing about ideology. It has to be a conversation about costs and completion, because that’s what people are seeing as problems. And in a way, that’s a good thing for higher ed as a field, because those are, theoretically at least, problems that someone could address.
Inside Higher Ed: I assume you’d agree that there is ideological stuff happening as well. But the focus on that can tend to be a shirking of responsibility by people within higher education. Because if you can just say, “Oh, those guys don’t like us; it’s out of our control,” that’s not exactly helpful. I do want us to come back to discuss the extent to which the public attitudes are encouraging the politicians who might also have it out for higher ed, which I think is happening out there. Sophie, what findings do you consider most troubling for those who care about higher education?
Nguyen: What I’m concerned the most about is the difference in how younger generations, compared to older generations, think about certain issues in higher ed, such as affordability of funding or financing for higher ed. Younger generations, Gen Z, millennials, tend to feel more negative about the values or the return on investment of higher education. Particularly this year, when we asked questions about whether or not colleges and universities provide enough support to students to help them complete. That is concerning, because they are the ones that make up a significant part of undergraduate populations right now. And colleges and universities are faced with a significant enrollment decline, especially in the community college sector.
Inside Higher Ed: Some people out there may be uncomfortable referring to students as customers or consumers, but I think it’s apt in this context. The young adult population is higher education’s primary customer. And when your primary customer views you with more skepticism than the general public, that is probably troubling. Natasha, what signs do you see as most concerning?
Quadlin: David’s comment at the beginning that cost is the bottom line is also the conclusion that I come to. I think people in higher education should be very concerned about the public’s awareness of these cost issues. To use that “consumer” language again, we haven’t pushed our consumers to the point yet where they don’t see value in higher education. But at what point does this become a real issue? We’re seeing evidence of this and hints of this, but as a sector, I don’t think we should feel as if this game can just go on forever.
The other point I see in our data is that we’ve seen a real shift in how Americans think about responsibility for college costs, and who should bear that responsibility. Ten years ago in our data, Americans overwhelmingly said that students and parents should be the ones that pay for college. But increasingly, we’re seeing that people want government to play a much more active role in the funding of higher education. Not only because this will reduce their individual contribution, but also because this will theoretically broaden access to students who haven’t had access in the past. I think people in higher education, and also people in government more broadly, should really be aware of this pattern. We’ve historically pushed these high costs on to students and parents, but the public really does see government investment as a viable alternative to our current funding mechanisms, and as a really important step forward for reducing costs for consumers.
Nguyen: I want to second what Natasha and David said earlier about ideology differences and cost as the underlying issues here. Absolutely we see that in our survey as well. There’s no hiding that Americans don’t think they can get high-quality education after high school that is also affordable. More people think the government should be responsible for funding higher education because it’s good for society rather than the students. We do see that number trending that way—people in general agree that there’s an affordability issue here; what they don’t agree on is how to solve it. This is the question where we see there’s a deep divide between Republican and Democrat. And that is a huge issue, because that means that we cannot come to a conclusion on how to solve this affordability issue.
Schleifer: On a question of public investment, one of the things we found that that I would say is good news, potentially, for people who work in the field is that we asked about investment in different ways. We asked a general question about state investment in public higher education, and we saw modest support—61 percent of Americans supported increased funding. That was stronger among Democrats, not nearly as strong among Republicans.
But when we asked about funding specific initiatives in public higher education to help students succeed, that’s where we saw much stronger support. We asked about things like funding for short-term credential programs, partnerships with K-12 systems, hiring more faculty so students can get the classes they need. A long series of specific investments. When we asked about those, support was quite high across political affiliations. Our takeaway from that was people want to know what they’re paying for. And when they’re told what they’re paying for, we saw higher support. When people are in the field thinking about going to pursue funding, there’s a takeaway here: talk about what the money is for, who it’s meant to support, as opposed to just “Throw some more money in this pot and trust us to do the right thing with it.”
Inside Higher Ed: David said early on that you didn’t think the public was losing faith in higher education. I want to dig into that a little more deeply. I tend to think that higher ed has been knocked off the pedestal it was on for a long time. I wonder if you’re seeing growing skepticism, maybe not about whether higher education is a good thing, but about whether it is worth my money? Do we think the public questioning is starting to affect individual decisions about whether to go to college? Is it becoming a factor in enrollment questions? Natasha, do you have thoughts about that?
Quadlin: I have a lot of thoughts. Some of this questioning is necessary, right? We’ve seen so much diversification in the higher education landscape in the past several decades, not only in terms of costs, which we keep coming back to, but also in terms of predatory institutions that take people’s money and don’t offer a good return on investment. So I think some of the hesitation surrounding higher education, there are places where we’re right to be concerned. But, yes and no in terms of whether this is actually affecting people’s enrollment decisions. I think people will continue to resist programs where they don’t see return on investment, especially these for-profit predatory institutions. But in the broader historical context of enrollments, I remain pretty optimistic that enrollments are really thriving in a lot of areas, if we look at a larger time horizon.
I’ve thought a lot about enrollments over the past few years, especially with COVID, in terms of people’s optimism. Investment in higher education really requires us to be optimistic about the future, and about what we will be able to do in the labor market. And for a lot of people in this time period, optimism has been kind of hard to come by. So I’ll be really interested to wait and see how these enrollments continue to play out. But we’re seeing so many things happening in the sector that it’s hard to know what is causing what.
Schleifer: This is a very expensive investment for a lot of people, and it’s an investment that can be delayed, right? If someone isn’t enrolling this year, maybe that’s because they’re afraid of going into debt, and they want to try to save up money and enroll next year. We do a lot of research in health care, too. And I see these two analogous fields that are very expensive for people, that can kind of bankrupt people. But unlike health care, with higher ed one could actually wait a year, and in health care people don’t. How long can you just keep raising the prices and expect people to continue walking through the door unless they have the means to cover it?
Inside Higher Ed: I probably have a slightly more pessimistic take than it seems like you do about whether the public questioning of the value of credentials is starting to have an impact on individual choices about whether to go to college and on postsecondary enrollment collectively. I totally agree that there are too many things going on right now for us to know for sure. But as the impact of the pandemic begins to ease a little bit, and the job market slows down, I’m concerned that questions of cost and benefit are beginning to have an influence in individual decisions.
I want to shift in the time we have left to talking about solutions. The good news in some ways about the affordability focus is that, unlike people just not liking higher ed or thinking it isn’t a good thing, finding ways to make education more affordable and institutions more effective is at least, theoretically, something college leaders and policy makers can influence.
Are there conclusions that we can draw from any of your work that point the way toward things that might be done to address the public’s concerns?
Quadlin: The types of changes that I think Americans most want are not at the institutional level, but they’re instead requiring this great collective action. That’s part of the reason why this is so difficult. Because a lot of these changes on the margins will affect some students and will improve things but won’t have the real sea changes in higher education that Americans are really hungry for. We talked in the book about the programs some states have encouraged around free tuition for associate degrees and other community college credentials, which seem to be really helping students in ways that will also help the higher education landscape. But we would love to see bigger, broader action that will be on a wider scale, but that’s hard.
Inside Higher Ed: Especially at a time of increasing public division that we don’t show a lot of signs of coming out of. David, thoughts from you on potential solutions?
Schleifer: It’s clear what people’s priorities are, which is affordability, access and also career-relevant skills. As I mentioned, we asked about a lot of different ways of addressing affordability and saw strong cross-partisan support for basically all of them, which I think just shows that people are [saying], “Please, just do something.” All of the various things we asked about appeal to people. The message there is “Just give something a shot.”
In the conversation about affordability, I would say not to lose sight of completion or student success. We have this long list of things there’s cross-partisan support for—flexible credentials and stackable credentials and all partnerships so people graduate from high school with some college credits, working more closely with employers.
There is quite a mandate for substantial change. Even in an environment where we do see a lot of polarization, there’s no shortage of things that are doable if politicians and system leaders are willing to take their cues from the public.