One useful datapoint on how Americans think about higher ed availability and affordability

Gallup published another poll about how Americans view higher ed.  It’s not a big poll, but offers several key points that anyone interested in academia and the US should consider.

First, what do we make of higher ed accessibility?  How available do Americans think higher ed is?  The question itself is precise:

“Do you think education beyond high school is available to anyone in this country who needs it?”

higher ed availability_Gallup2020

Yes, a majority think post-secondary education is available… but that majority has slipped over the past eight years.  In contrast, 40% think not, and that number has grown steadily through the same period.  But overall we see capacity there.

In contrast, do we think higher ed is affordable?  You won’t be surprised at the answers to this second question:

higher ed affordable_Gallup2020

A pretty solid three quarters of Americans say: no.  And that proportion has remained roughly stable for almost a decade.  That’s a durable, damning majority for higher ed to face.

Third, check out the breakdown on availability by age:

higher ed availability by age_Gallup2020

OK boomer

That is a substantial generation gap.  A majority of 18-29-year-olds think higher ed is not available, and they are alone in this attitude.  Clear majorities of folks 50 on up think it is available.

Let me remind you that 18-29-year-olds represent a majority of college and university students.  How many currently enrolled students are this frustrated?  What does that mean for the people teaching and supporting them?

Add this to last month’s Gallup poll about how Americans value higher ed a bit less – especially young people – and the picture is not a good one.  Unless we’re only talking about older people, the majority of whom seem (by this data) to be fine with where colleges and universities are headed.

Looking ahead a decade, should we anticipate greater intergenerational tension?  Should we expect more state and federal moves to address affordability?  What strategies can colleges and universities adopt to rebuild their reputation, especially among younger people, while improving affordability?  One more question: how much of this is about perception mixed with storytelling, and how much based on reality?


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1 Response to One useful datapoint on how Americans think about higher ed availability and affordability

  1. Keil Dumsch says:


    You bet we’ll have intergenerational tension and lots of it. Judging from the debate about the Warren debt relief plan, much of the younger generation sees college as an unaffordable scam and wants debt relief, while the older generation seems to be taking the “I paid my loans back, so should you” view.

    Yes, the federal and state governments and colleges will take measures to make college more affordable than it presently is, but this won’t matter to many prospective students. Anything other than free (including both upfront costs and opportunity costs) is still too expensive for many people. With alt credentialing, direct-to-work employer-provided job training, cheap online schooling and bootcamps, and job training in high school all growing in importance, there is not much colleges can do to compete on price with these vastly more affordable options.

    Colleges can try their best to rebuild their reputations but it will be a tall order. Higher ed is increasingly viewed as a scam, with a corrupt admissions process, a largely useless curriculum and not much job training, and degrees that don’t guarantee jobs. Even if colleges do fix their reputations, it won’t help them fill seats since college is inherently unaffordable for many people, and we are starting to get alternatives (see above paragraph).

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