How important is higher ed to Americans?

What do Americans think about higher education?  According to a new Gallup poll we value it a bit less than we recently did.

For anyone involved in or thinking about higher ed, this is important data.

To begin with, the big picture:

Americans view college edu_2013-2019

Note that this is partly – mostly – a shift from “very important” to “fairly important,” which isn’t the same as saying “it’s not important.”  That said, “not too important” more than doubled.  It started small, but isn’t invisible, about one seventh or one eighth of the nation.

Changing attitudes are especially pronounced by age.  Note the massive drop by people under 30:

Americans view college edu_2013-2019 by age

Gallup observes: “younger adults are now less likely than middle-aged adults and seniors to consider college as very important, whereas the different age groups held similar perceptions in 2013.”

It’s interesting to square this with the way that older folks tend to be more conservative.

At the same time there are also strong differences by race and gender.   It tends to be white males who are really losing faith, while more women and especially blacks and Hispanics still see value:

Americans view college edu_2013-2019 by gender and race

On the gender drop, “In 2013, 75% of women and 65% of men said a college education was very important.”  And about 1/6th of men see higher ed as “not too important.”

On race, things are consistent over time:

The differences in importance by race/ethnicity are generally consistent with 2013 measures, in which black and Hispanic adults were more likely than whites to view a college education as very important.

Political party differences persist as per recent trends:

Americans view college edu_2013-2019 by party

18% of Republicans is nearly 1/5th of them seeing higher ed as “not too important.”

So what do we take from this?

I don’t want to read too much into this poll, because much depends on contingencies of phrasing and timing, but it does lend credence to the notion that American faith in higher ed has eroded.  This is obviously important.

I’d note the contours of change and value as well.  The gender difference maps neatly onto changing enrollment patterns, with more men than women attending college, overall (i.e., even with stark differences in majors).  The racial differences can connect with some party differences, with today’s Democrats being somewhat more likely to support higher ed than Republicans.

The age differences make Gallup nervous.  Traditional-age undergrads and those old enough to have recently finished degrees are less excited about academia than their peers were.  It’s not hard to find reasons – debt, mental health, etc. – and perhaps we see a source for political activism.

Declining faith in higher ed: a trend worth following.

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in higher education, horizon scanning, trends. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How important is higher ed to Americans?

  1. Joe Essid says:

    What does “important” mean? What a poorly worded set of questions. Important to whom? For what?

  2. Sowmyan says:

    So much significant change in just 6 years? Shocking!

    Perhaps combined with the cost of higher education, it is not giving an adequate return on investment. But, it also appears under privileged groups value higher education.

    The gender differences by themselves are not significant. The age based difference may also add to the effect in the 6 year change.

  3. Caleb says:

    Thanks! In Vermont, there is a pronounced shortage of licensed plumbers, excavators, and electricians. They make more than teachers here usually! Also, there are plenty of *clean* manufacturing jobs that are high paying (30-40k) too out of high school. I wonder what the stats are on those jobs? My anecdotal experience is that young people don’t consider those jobs to be that attractive.

  4. Tom Haymes says:

    The distribution is not that surprising. Women and people of color still see college as an equalizer. I wonder how this data aligns with people who have actually attended, and preferably graduated from, college. Do college-educated people value college more or less? I can see an argument for both sides but that’s also a critical data point in the value education.

    Another data point of interest would to see what percentage of employers are skeptical about the value of a college education. Finally, how does this break down along the lines of wealth – women and people of color are less likely to be wealthy so there is at least some correlation there. If the wealthy start to doubt the value of college, that has serious implications for schools relying on endowments and those willing to pay high tuition costs. These are important outputs of the system. If it is failing on the output side that is doubly concerning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *