Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
REPORT 1:
WITH THEIR WHOLE LIVES AHEAD OF THEM
REPORT 2:
CAN I GET A LITTLE ADVICE HERE
REPORT 3:
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION

FINDING No 4: High school graduates are more skeptical than college graduates about the motives of higher education institutions.

Public Agenda has been tracking the views of the general public about higher education for 18 years. Although colleges and universities generally retain the public’s admiration and respect, especially compared to other sectors like government or business, our surveys show a growing skepticism about the way higher education is run. Most Americans question whether their motives are mainly financial or mainly educational. Most also wonder whether colleges and universities are using the money they get from students and taxpayers as effectively as they can.

Most young adults share these concerns, with higher rates of high school graduates voicing concern than those with college degrees. For example, most young adults believe that there are many people in the United States who are qualified for college but don’t have the opportunity to go, a view that is held by a majority of Americans regardless of age. In fact, 71 percent of high school graduates say this is the case, compared with 59 percent of college graduates.

More than half of the public believes that colleges today behave more like “most businesses” and care more about the bottom line than about educating students. But these views are even stronger among the young adults surveyed for this project: 71 percent of high school graduates say this, as do 65 percent of college graduates. One young man in a D.C. focus group didn’t mince words: “Excuse me for my language, but I think people are really getting pimped. What they charge for things and how much just a book costs.” For this young man, the trade-off clearly wasn’t worth it. “And so many people have made millions without any [higher education],” he added.

Even so, a majority of all young adults continues to believe that someone who is willing to make sacrifices such as living at home or working part time can complete college (57 percent of all young adults strongly agreed). In fact, when asked who is to blame for the low completion rate at four-year colleges, young adults are more likely to point fingers at students themselves rather than at higher education institutions, high schools, parents, or government, regardless of whether they completed a degree.