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New Public Agenda Report: Americans Question the Value of Higher Education, but Overwhelmingly Agree on Solutions to Improve Access, Equity, and Affordability

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New Public Agenda Report: Americans Question the Value of Higher Education, but Overwhelmingly Agree on Solutions to Improve Access, Equity, and Affordability

A cross-partisan majority supports straightforward solutions to improve public colleges, including state funding and programmatic flexibility

New York, NY –  Americans across political affiliations believe the nation’s public higher education systems aren’t living up to their promise of economic opportunity for students, according to Public Agenda/USA TODAY’s latest Hidden Common Ground report released today. The report also finds cross-partisan agreement on solutions to improving college affordability, access, and equity.


The report features findings from a national survey that asked Americans about the state of higher education, including its impacts on students, the community, and democracy – and about specific policies that can expand access, equity, and affordability. The report is the latest in the Public Agenda/USA TODAY Hidden Common Ground® initiative, which aims to challenge the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided and incapable of working together to create equitable and productive solutions to the challenges of our time.

“Americans are losing confidence in higher education-not because they think a college degree doesn’t matter, but because high costs and low success rates make college a risky proposition for students and families,” said Andrew Seligsohn, President, Public Agenda. “Contrary to the narrative that the American public is irreparably splintered, citizens across political identities support common-sense solutions that will better position students from all economic backgrounds to graduate, bringing the benefits of a college education to their families and communities. Policies like interest-free student loans and free community college all found widespread support, showing Americans will get behind ideas that solve the real problems they face.”

Below are highlights:

  • Once viewed as a sound investment for economic prosperity, higher education is seen by many Americans as an expensive gamble. Amid concerns about declining enrollment, young people without degrees are most skeptical of whether the benefits of college outweigh the costs.
    • A vast majority of Americans (86 percent) agree getting a college education can help adults advance their careers – including 92 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Republicans, and 81 percent of i But 63 percent of Americans say higher education is too time-consuming and expensive for working adults.
    • Two-thirds of Americans (66 percent) view higher education as stuck in the past and unable to meet the needs of today’s students.
    • Half (51 percent) of Americans say that college is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities.
    • Majorities are concerned that financial aid is inadequate for both low-income and middle-income students (78 percent and 76 percent, respectively).
    • Only 30 percent of young people (ages 18-34) without degrees or college experience say a college education is a good investment — compared to half of young people with degrees and two-thirds of middle-aged and older people with degrees.
    • Americans’ skepticism of higher education is symptomatic of broader concerns about economic fairness: Nearly three in four (72 percent) Americans say the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.
  • Americans are overwhelmingly on the same page about specific strategies that will improve college affordability and completion. And the vast majority support common-sense solutions that will put degrees and credentials within reach for more people, including Black, Latino, and low-income students.
    • Democrats, independents, and Republicans are united in their support for specific policies and practices to improve higher education access, equity and affordability, including:
      • Requiring public institutions to clearly inform students of how much debt they are taking on (86 percent overall; 91 percent D, 81 percent R, 93 percent i)
      • Tax incentives for employer-sponsored tuition benefit programs (79 percent overall; 85 percent D, 77 percent R, 80 percent i)
      • States offering interest-free student loans (77 percent overall; 86 percent D, 69 percent R, 78 percent i),
      • Making public community colleges free (68 percent overall; 82 percent D, 57 percent R, 66 percent i)
    • Majorities of Americans (68 percent) back increasing taxes on wealthy households to make public higher education more affordable, including 84 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Republicans.
    • Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents support state investments to improve college access, affordability, and degree completion for Black, Latino, and low-income students, including:
      • Funding for more effective guidance and advising for Black and Latino students (75 percent overall; 89 percent D, 63 percent R, 71 percent i) and for low-income students (84 percent overall; 90 percent D, 81 percent R, and 86 percent i)
      • Increased financial aid for Black and Latino students (69 percent overall; 86 percent D, 54 percent R, and 66 percent i) and for low-income students (82 percent overall; 89 percent D, 78 percent R, and 79 percent i)
    • They also support providing additional resources to the public colleges, universities and community colleges that are doing an especially good job at helping Black and Latino students (73 percent overall; 89 percent D, 64 percent R, and 62 percent i), and that are doing an especially good job at helping low-income students complete their degrees (74 percent overall; 87 percent D, 67 percent R, and 71 percent i).
  • Americans are more likely to support government investments in public higher education when they know what specific programs their tax dollars will fund. They also believe that states should sustain their investments in public higher education – even in tough economic times – especially when they learn that the vast majority of students attend public institutions.
    • Cross-partisan majorities believe that states should maintain funding for public higher education institutions during hard economic times. Support is even stronger when people are informed that most college students attend public institutions (78 percent overall; 83 percent D, 73 percent R, 75 percent i).
    • When asked about state investment in general, a modest majority of Americans support increased funding for public higher education, although there is not majority cross-partisan support: three-quarters of Democrats (75 percent) and less than half of Republicans (46 percent) support increased state funding in general.
    • But when asked about state funding for specific initiatives at public institutions, most Americans support investments in programs such as internships and “earn while you learn” training programs (88 percent), flexible and short-term credential programs (85 percent), dual credit programs for high school students (83 percent) and more.
    • Across political affiliations, most Americans think that public higher education should either be funded equally by government and students (31 percent) or mostly by government with some student contribution (30 percent).
  • Americans agree that higher education helps people become more informed and engaged citizens. Only half think our democracy overall would be stronger if more people had a college education.
    • Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of Americans say that getting a college education helps students become more informed, engaged citizens, with modest differences across partisan lines.
    • At a broader level, however, only about half (51 percent) say our democracy would be stronger if we had a more educated populace, including two-thirds of Democrats (64 percent) but just 39 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents.

This research was supported by Lumina Foundation. The findings do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation or its officers or directors. This report is based on research funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This research was conducted in partnership with HCM Strategists.

To read the full report, please visit here.

Any references to the survey must be credited and linked back to Public Agenda/USA TODAY.

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This report summarizes findings from a survey conducted by Ipsos and designed by Public Agenda, from May 3-6 2022, among a national sample of 1,662 American adults (18+). The interviews were conducted online in English and the data were weighted to approximate a target sample of adults based on age, race/ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and region. Results from the full survey have a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The research also draws from three demographically diverse online focus groups that Public Agenda conducted in January 2022.

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