People Esteem Community Colleges but Question How Well Higher Ed Serves Students

May 11, 2017

The American public has mixed feelings about how well colleges serve the needs of students, according to the results of a poll released on Thursday by New America, a nonpartisan think tank. Three-quarters of the respondents agreed that it is easier to be successful with a college degree, but only one-quarter said higher education is "fine just the way it is," according to the poll.

But within the results are several positive signs for academe, including a relatively glowing picture of community colleges: At least 80 percent of those who answered the poll said that community colleges contribute to a strong work force, are worth their cost, and prepare people to succeed — more-positive perceptions than for any other sector of higher education. The poll’s youngest respondents, from Generation Z, roughly defined as those born in the late 1990s to 2000, had the highest estimation of public two-year colleges.

The national survey, of 1,600 people, was conducted earlier this year, and the results are available online with tools to show responses by age group, gender, race, and even political leaning.

Higher-education experts at New America said this first survey was meant to set a baseline and doesn’t yet explain what was behind the results. But community colleges have gotten a lot of positive attention in recent years, including a growing movement by states to provide free tuition at two-year colleges and a push for more work-force preparation, said Amy Laitinen, director of higher education in the education-policy program at New America.

Perhaps the most assuring finding is that more than 60 percent of respondents said higher education was good for society, compared with about 26 percent who said it was primarily a benefit for individuals. That finding holds true for both people who identify themselves as politically conservative and those who identify as liberal.

J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive of the Association of Community College Trustees, said he was pleased to see the positive views of community colleges, which have benefited from the growing attention of policy makers in recent years. But that attention and the public view of higher education as a societal good have yet to translate into increased support in the form of tax dollars, he said.

Concerns About Priorities

Concerns about higher education’s role are consistent with decades of polling that show flagging confidence in public institutions in general. Several polls, conducted by The Chronicle and other organizations since at least 2001, show those concerns have spilled over onto colleges, both public and private, even as the importance of a college credential has increased as a ticket to the middle class.

In addition to New America’s work, two other recent surveys of public opinion have found dissatisfaction with higher education.

A poll published on Monday by PRRI showed that more than half of respondents who identified as white and working class agreed that college was a "gamble that might not pay off," instead of a smart investment. More than 60 percent of white, working-class men said that was the case.

Data: Backgrounds and Beliefs of College Freshmen

Use this exclusive interactive tool to explore 50 years of statistics from UCLA's Freshman Survey.

The New America poll also plumbed some public malaise about people’s economic futures. Nearly 60 percent of those polled agreed that it is harder to find a good job now, compared with their parents’ generation, and nearly two-thirds said it was harder to afford having a family. Only 51 percent said there were well-paying jobs available for those who had earned a college degree.

A study published online in April in the Journal of Higher Education found only 14 percent of the American public reports "a great deal of confidence" in how colleges and universities are run. In addition, the likelihood of that confidence varies greatly, depending on race, religion, political leanings, and views about the relationship between science and religion.

One author of a report on that study, David R. Johnson, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Nevada at Reno, said that although there had been many polls showing a decline in confidence in education, more could be done to consider the public view of postsecondary education. In particular, he said, polling should ask not only whether higher education is important but also whether colleges do a good job.

The New America poll found many who believe higher education is not doing all it could for students. In addition to the poor response on whether higher education is "fine just the way it is," the poll found that a majority of respondents, 58 percent, thought colleges were putting their own long-term interests ahead of students’. At the same time, most also responded that it was a college’s responsibility to help its students succeed.

Policy Solutions

New America plans to make this an annual poll, with some questions being asked every year and others as a way to understand the reasons for peoples’ attitudes, said Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst there. The responses could help shape both public policy and how institutions operate, she said.

“What exactly is going on that makes Americans answer this way?”
Of the response to the question of colleges’ conflicting interests, she said, "What exactly is going on that makes Americans answer this way?"

Deborah A. Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, an advocacy group for Latino students, was a member of the advisory group that helped devise the poll questions. For her, the results show that there is a disconnect between what colleges are trying to do and how they are perceived by the public.

"I have to admit that I was a little surprised or perplexed that, over all, we as Americans believe in the value of higher education, but the current structure is not giving us what we need," she said.

Colleges should do a better job of communicating their value, she said. But it is more than just building an image: "We need to not just shift the story but do right by students," she said.

“We need to not just shift the story but do right by students.”
Erin Knepler, a higher-education expert and another member of the poll’s advisory group, said the strong dissatisfaction expressed by younger respondents could finally mean that colleges will have to seek new ways to reach those students outside of the traditional classroom. Only 13 percent of the Millennials polled think higher education is fine just the way it is, she noted.

Mr. Brown, of the Association of Community College Trustees, sees many ways that institutions can adapt to better serve the public. In particular, he said, the various sectors could cooperate better to help students find the best paths to postsecondary education. There are plenty of well-paying jobs that need some training after high school but less than a four-year degree, he said.

And the nation needs to think about how to better educate its growing population of minority and first-generation college students in order to include them in the economy. To that end, he said, colleges should become more prescriptive: "Why do we assume they know what to do when they show up?"

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at