What do Americans think about higher education? New Public Agenda research

What does the American public think about higher education?

Public Agenda has released some new polling data, and it’s well worth the time of any educator looking into public attitudes, especially for funding.  The results go against some stereotypes, and don’t line up with what academics think are problems and solutions.

To begin with, last month PA found that American belief in the necessity of higher ed for a successful life has declined compared to the past few years.  Indeed, more people think “there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree”.  See how this played out after the 2008 financial crash:


Why?  Partly because of the loan specter and the job market: “46 percent of Americans say college is a questionable investment due to high student loans and limited job opportunities.”

Two more datapoints show serious skepticism about American post-secondary institutions:

  • 69 percent say there are many people who are qualified but lack the opportunity to go to college.

  • 59 percent say colleges today are like most businesses and care mainly about the bottom line.

Access and cynicism.  Is this really how the majority of Americans view their colleges and universities?

There’s more.  Public Agenda followed up with questions about what causes or could solve these problems.

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 The biggest problems weren’t reductions in state funding, nor even odious “kids these days” finger-wagging at young people.  No, the most popular culprit is… high school:


The solutions we prefer tend to be job-focused.  Read the whole thing for more.

A few thoughts:

  1. Public higher ed is doing a lousy job of convincing Americans to support us, either financially or conceptually.
  2. It’s interesting to contrast faculty who think higher ed is too job-focused with a population that thinks we aren’t job-focused enough.
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  3. I’ll say it again.  I’m glad that bashing kids these days (i.e., Boomers acting with a supreme lack of irony awareness) is more smoke than fire.
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  4. People would rather blame high schools than families or students for preparation issues.
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  5. It’s interesting to compare with this early 2015 Gallup poll or this Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll one from last October.

What do you think?

(thank to George Lorenzo‘s excellent newsletter)

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9 Responses to What do Americans think about higher education? New Public Agenda research

  1. Fascinating. Haven’t read the whole thing yet. The preparation thing I think might be on point. I’ve been doing some reading along those lines over the last few days. Academic success tends to depend on several factors, one of which is the quality of teachers. Another, of course, is support at home. I think the job-focused issue is all about framing. Preparing for a job isn’t about preparing for a specific job, which is what I think faculty assume (and sometimes schools follow that model, offering a kind of vocational education at times). But it’s easy to spin a liberal arts education into job-focused. Communication skills, problem solving, working collaboratively are all skills employers say they want. Perhaps there needs to be more career services involvement to help students translate an English degree into solid employment.

    Off to read the whole thing. . . .

  2. gmphap1 says:

    Good point “People would rather blame high schools than families or students for preparation issues.”, what’s the solution? We need to get Julie Lythcott-Haims on a future forum to learn what she thinks and make an action plan!

  3. gmphap1 says:

    I haven’t seen stats, but it seems like high school dual credit is big now. Are parents thinking that the serious issue with high school college prep is automatically resolved when their children take and pass dual credit?

  4. Judith Tabron says:

    That first graph to me doesn’t say that parents are increasingly doubtful of college, but that they are returning to pre-Recession doubts about college. The question looks like: why during the Recession were parents so clearly convinced that college was the best route for their kids? I could imagine several hypotheses there to test with further study. Perhaps in their own joblessness they felt that their kids would be more recession-proof themselves if they had a college degree. (True, at least partly; if I recall correctly, the employment of college-educated people didn’t dip as low and rebounded more quickly.)

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