What People Think About College: a Snapshot of Public Opinion

April 17, 2015

Given that the value of college is frequently challenged on multiple fronts these days, interest in how the public regards higher education runs pretty high among its champions.

The latest public-opinion poll from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, released here on Thursday, provides some new data points.

In general, "the vast majority of Americans value education beyond high school," said Brandon Busteed, executive director of education at Gallup. And they see higher education as connected to getting a good job and having a good life.

But even so, Mr. Busteed said, "when you start to ask really tough questions, things break down a little." Just 13 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed, using a five-point scale, that the country’s college graduates were well prepared for success in the work force.

That overview is in keeping with other research, and is unlikely to come as much of a surprise. But the survey asked many other questions. Let’s take at look at some of the other findings:

A majority of the public thinks higher education is available …

Sixty-one percent of respondents said that education beyond high school was available to anyone in the country who needs it.

… but not affordable.

Paying for it is another story. Only 21 percent of respondents agreed that an education beyond high school was affordable for everyone who needs it.

Some level of student debt seems acceptable to many …

When asked how much debt was reasonable for someone who had earned a bachelor’s degree, 62 percent gave an amount that was $20,000 or higher. Five percent said no amount of debt was reasonable.

… but how much depends on what degree a student earned.

For someone with an associate degree, 27 percent of respondents gave an amount that was $20,000 or higher. Ten percent said no amount of debt was reasonable.

And asked how much debt was reasonable for someone who took college classes for several years but did not graduate, 20 percent answered $20,000 or higher. The same share of respondents said that no amount was reasonable.

The idea that colleges must change has gained traction …

 Fifty-five percent of respondents strongly agreed, and 25 percent agreed, that colleges and universities need to change to better meet the needs of today’s students.

… much more than has a sense that they are changing already.

Just 16 percent of respondents strongly agreed, and 26 percent agreed, that colleges are changing along those lines.

The study is based on 1,533 interviews conducted by Gallup. Participants came from a random sample of adults in the United States who were contacted with both landline and cellphone numbers. Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish in November and December 2014.

Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at