What Americans think about college, according to Gallup: love, concern, and racial difference

Gallup logoA new Gallup poll reveals some American attitudes about higher education.  The results of “Postsecondary Education Aspirations and Barriers” are quite useful for academia.  Americans seems to view colleges and universities like a beloved family member who’s run into serious personal problems: with care and concern, marked by persistent racial differences.

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In some ways we’re still bullish on higher education. 96% see having “a degree or professional certificate beyond high school” in a good light, both for “getting good job” and for “having a high quality of life.”  We think college has some virtues when it comes to job preparation: “About three-quarters of U.S. adults (73%) agree or strongly agree that employers value the knowledge and skills students obtain through the process of earning a college degree…”

We’re even ok with going into debt, if asked the right way:

More than half (62%) say that $20,000 or more in debt is reasonable, and 40% say that $30,000 or more in debt is reasonable for attaining a bachelor’s degree.

We are also very helpful to other people trying to get into tertiary study.  Which is a very American thing, based on our history of volunteerism and civic engagement:

One-third (33%) say they have mentored a student who was enrolled in college. More than one-third (36%) say they have given money to a college or university to support future students. Nearly half (47%) say they have given money to an organization that awards college scholarships or grants, and a majority (60%) say they have encouraged an employer to provide training or education opportunities to employees. Have you ever done any of the following?

However, Americans see major problems with access to higher education.  39% – more than one third – don’t think that “education beyond high school is available to anyone in this country who needs it.”  Worse, 79% – more than three quarters of Americans adults – answered “Do you think education beyond high school is affordable for everyone in this country who needs it?” with a “no”.

And we think schools need to transform themselves for the better: “Eight in 10 (80%) U.S. adults agree or strongly agree that colleges and universities need to change to better meet the needs of today’s students.”

We do see one big change under way, in what Americans think of when they imagine higher education.  While the four-year residential undergraduate experience is the most representative one in the Gallup survey, others were pretty important, including “professional certificate to use in their workplace”, associate degree , and “an online learning environment where students log in to classes.”

In fact, our admiration of online learning seems to be rising:

Gallup poll: American attitudes towards online education in 2015

More notes:

1. We care a lot more about what skills a graduate possesses than what they majored in  and especially the campus they attended:

When it comes to the factors organizations prioritize in deciding whom to hire, a strong majority of U.S. adults (81%) say that the job candidate’s knowledge and skills in the field is very important. Far fewer say the job candidate’s university major (47%) or the institution (31%) he or she graduated from are very important factors in the decision.

2. One academic hierarchy is clearly widely shared by Americans:

About three-quarters (74%) agree or strongly agree that traditional colleges and universities offer a high-quality education. In contrast, about six in 10 (61%) agree or strongly agree that community colleges offer a high-quality education, and about four in 10 (41%) agree or strongly agree that online colleges offer a high-quality education.

That last one is a big point.  Online education keeps on rising. (and see below)

3. Racial differences are pretty clear, with latinos being more positive about tertiary education than blacks and especially whites: “Hispanics (72%) and blacks (73%) say it is very important to increase the proportion of Americans with a degree or professional certificate beyond high school, compared with 56% of whites.”  “Higher percentages of Hispanics (73%) say that an education is available to anyone in this country who needs it, compared with whites (58%).

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”  Latinos and blacks think campuses are changing themselves for the better much more than whites do:

[A]bout four in 10 (42%) U.S. adults agree or strongly agree that colleges and universities are changing to better meet students’ needs. Hispanics and blacks are more optimistic that this is happening, with 56% and 55%, respectively, agreeing or strongly agreeing, compared with 38% of whites.

Nonwhites are more satisfied with college outcomes for employment, too:

Just 13% strongly agree that U.S. college graduates are well-prepared for success in the workforce. The percentage of those with an associate degree or higher who strongly agree with this statement is even lower, at 6%. On the other hand, blacks and Hispanics are more optimistic, with 53% and 55%, respectively, agreeing or strongly agreeing that graduates are well-prepared, compared with 30% of whites.


Just under three-quarters (74%) of U.S. adults agree or strongly agree that a college degree or professional certificate leads to a better quality of life. This includes roughly seven in 10 whites (71%) and eight in 10 blacks (80%) and Hispanics (83%).More than three-fourths (78%) of adults in the U.S. agree or strongly agree that a good job is essential to having a high quality of life. This includes 86% of Hispanics, 84% of blacks and 76% of whites.

Plus this strong difference in views about types of degrees (not majors): “Adults in the U.S. are most confident that having only a bachelor’s degree (29%) can lead to a good job, with 44% of Hispanics strongly agreeing with this statement, compared with 27% of whites.”

This makes latinos the most aspirational of Americans, given their relative degree attainment: “Lumina finds just 28% of blacks between the ages of 25 to 64 have a postsecondary degree, compared with 44% of whites. The Hispanic attainment rate, at 20%, is even lower.”

They also seem to be the most traditional in a couple of ways, majors and campus branding:

Hispanics are significantly more likely (74%) than whites (42%) to say that a candidate’s major in college is very important to employers in the hiring process. More than twice as many Hispanics (54%) as whites (26%) say the college or university that a job candidate graduated from is very important to employers when deciding whom to hire.

Yet latinos are nontraditional in their relative embrace of online learning;

When asked if the quality of education from an online college or university is just as good as the education received at a traditional college or university, 39% agree or strongly agree. Half of Hispanics (52%) agree or strongly agree with this statement, compared with 36% of whites. This finding suggests relatively strong support of online higher education among Hispanics.

4: speaking of race, Americans aren’t very interested in diversity in higher education.   In response to one question “How important do you think each of the following factors are to colleges and universities?”, we picked “Having a diverse student population” dead last, after: “Teaching students skills and knowledge that can be applied in the workforce, Increasing the graduation rate, Providing support and services so that students can be successful in college, Having alumni who can donate back to the school, Getting top students to attend”.  Asked “Which of these factors would you say colleges and universities value most?”, only 5% of Americans saw diversity as the leading answer.

5. I had some problems with the study.

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 I wish it had  disaggregated certificates from undergraduate degrees.

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 And I wonder why aren’t Asian-Americans broken out as a racial category?

Reflecting back to my Monday morning post about inequality, I wonder how these attitudes factor into politics both academic and national.  Perhaps the positive attitudes towards higher education will give campus leaders a sense of relief and achievement.  Maybe it’ll give some leaders pause before mounting more cuts to government funding for higher education.  On the other hand, Americans’ concerns about access: how will those play out?

(thanks to Lili Saghafi)

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3 Responses to What Americans think about college, according to Gallup: love, concern, and racial difference

  1. Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
    more from Bryan Alexander on higher education. Last was on inequities (don’t miss that one either): this one is on public perceptions ~ how others, potential stakeholders, see higher education.

  2. Pingback: What do Americans think about higher education? New Public Agenda research | Bryan Alexander

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