Americans still believe in the value of a college credential, but they aren’t convinced higher education is fulfilling its promise to society.
That ambivalence toward colleges — general support with some real caveats — infused responses to a national poll by The Chronicle to gauge public perceptions of higher education. The goal was to probe attitudes about the value of a degree and, beyond educating individual students, institutions’ broader activities and goals.
Most people with or without a four-year degree would advise others to pursue one, our poll found. Yet many don’t think institutions do a great job educating their students — or are of great benefit to graduates. Alternatives like trade school strike many Americans as just as good a path to a successful livelihood. And colleges’ value to communities and to society also draws skepticism.
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Americans today believe in the value of a college credential, but they aren’t convinced higher education is fulfilling its promise to society.
That ambivalence toward colleges — general support with some real caveats — infused responses to a national poll by The Chronicle to gauge public perceptions of higher education. The goal was to probe attitudes about the value of a degree and, beyond educating individual students, institutions’ broader activities and goals. This is the first of several stories that will explore the poll’s findings and the issues they raise.
Most people, whether they have a four-year degree or not, would advise others to pursue one, our poll found. Yet many don’t think institutions do a great job educating their students — or that they are of great benefit to graduates. Alternatives like trade school strike many Americans as just as good a path to a successful livelihood. And colleges’ value to communities and to society also draws skepticism.
Growing dissatisfaction with higher education has been a common concern in recent years, as some polls sound a drumbeat of doom — that confidence is falling, that institutions are moving in the wrong direction, that more people think they have a negative effect on the nation.
At the same time, conservative politicians have heightened attacks on colleges, claiming that institutions further progressive agendas and indoctrinate students. Many Democrats still voice support for higher education, though often with demands to improve graduation rates and limit student debt.
Caught in the middle, college leaders are under pressure to defend their institutions’ value, and often argue that wide access to higher education is essential to the nation’s civic and economic fortunes.
Respondents to The Chronicle’s survey do reflect partisan divides. On many counts, Republicans and conservatives express deep reservations about higher education, while Democrats and liberals are mostly supportive.
But taken as a whole, the survey draws an important distinction: People view higher education as an important means for individual attainment, but not necessarily for the greater good.
Those who are reaping the financial rewards of their own degree say the benefits outweigh the costs. Nearly 80 percent of people with a college degree say the cost is worth it. That figure climbs to 88 percent of higher earners, those with a household income greater than $100,000, and drops to 63 percent among graduates with a household income less than $50,000. The results are from a representative, random-sample survey of 1,025 adults produced by Langer Research Associates via the SSRS Opinion Panel.
Over all, respondents gave higher education middling grades on how well it was spreading that benefit around. Less than a third of people think colleges are doing an excellent or very good job of leveling the playing field for success in society. A similar share say colleges are falling short on that measure.
The Advice Is to Go
Most reassuring for colleges, perhaps, is the finding that 78 percent of respondents would recommend that a close friend or relative pursue a bachelor’s degree.
That figure includes an overwhelming share, 75 percent, of respondents who have not earned a college credential and well over half, 57 percent, of those who said their own associate or bachelor’s degree hadn’t been worth it.
In open-ended comments, respondents who would advise trying for a four-year degree cited improved career prospects, as well as the added benefit of a broader worldview.
“Bachelor’s degrees are almost mandatory for higher-paying jobs,” one said. “College also exposes you to people different from where you grew up,” said another. “It helps you figure out who you are and who you want to be.” Preparation for work and life was a common theme: “Achieving a bachelor’s degree demonstrates the ability to set and achieve goals,” a respondent wrote, “to persevere toward goals, to manage your time productively, to work with teams and to face and overcome problems.”
Many people qualified their advice on attending college, noting that students should choose a course of study that warrants the time and money required.
Despite a chorus of prominent voices that espouse college for all, enrolling isn’t a prerequisite for a successful career or life, said Richard Davenport, 45, a Lutheran pastor in Fort Smith, Ark., with a doctoral degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. “It depends on what degree they are seeking,” he responded on the survey.
Davenport, who agreed to be contacted by a reporter to discuss his views, said he expects that his children will go to college, since both he and his wife have advanced degrees. But in his view many large institutions have strayed from their educational missions by abandoning what he sees as core subjects, such as English, mathematics, and other sciences, as well as having placed too much emphasis on athletics.
Trade schools provide training for well-paying jobs in essential fields, said Davenport, at a far-more-affordable price. “The mentality that an undergraduate education is essential to teach you to think is garbage,” he said.
Twenty percent of respondents recommended not seeking a bachelor’s degree, warning primarily against the cost and time it takes — and the potential for racking up too much debt without enough of a financial reward.
“Degrees have become expensive pieces of paper that trap people into an unfair amount of loans for little or no return on investment. The higher education system in the U.S. feels like a scam,” one respondent wrote. “You can gain the same if not better experience from online courses for free,” said another.
While prominent conservative politicians argue that colleges indoctrinate students in progressive politics, that was mentioned by fewer than one in 10 respondents who advised against pursuing a four-year degree.
Wide Support for Alternative Paths
Underneath general perceptions of value and advice to go to college, however, lurk misgivings that reflect the work colleges have before them to earn more public support.
While most Americans still think of a college degree as a worthy pursuit, they see several other options for achieving individual success.
Given the choice of five alternatives, large majorities of respondents said each one was about the same as or better than a bachelor’s degree in trying to achieve a successful livelihood. Nearly 90 percent said trade school would be a similar or better choice, for example, and roughly comparable shares said the same about a work apprenticeship and other professional or technical training.
Even the least-popular alternative to college, union membership, got support from six in 10 people, who said it was a similar or better route.
Jennifer Kyle Herd, 55, said that if her high-school classmates didn’t go to college, as she did, they were considered to be falling behind in life. Herd, of Herndon, Va., has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and still thinks college is an “imperative to raise a thoughtful populace.” She recognizes, though, that students today have more options to train for a job.
People see real benefits for college graduates — just not to a great extent. Over all, 46 percent of people think colleges benefit their graduates a good amount, but just 24 percent see a great deal of benefit, and that share is not higher among four-year degree holders themselves.
Americans are also less convinced that institutions benefit society more broadly. Forty percent think colleges in their area provide a good amount of benefit to the local community, and just 15 percent see a great deal of benefit. Similar shares believe such benefits accrue to the state and to society over all.
Answers to this question varied based on political views. More than 60 percent of Democrats said colleges in their area benefited the local community, the state, and society over all, but the figures were closer to 50 percent for Republicans and independents.
College Grads Question Their Education
Perhaps the survey’s most alarming finding: The public is far from convinced that colleges excel at their core mission of educating students. Even graduates aren’t sold.
Just 40 percent said colleges are excellent or very good at educating students, and nearly 20 percent said they were not so good or poor on that measure.
While 56 percent of Democrats rated colleges as excellent or very good at educating students, only 36 percent of Republicans and a third of independents hold that view.
Higher-income respondents, too, have less-favorable views. Just a third of those who report household incomes over $100,000 gave colleges excellent or very good marks for their educational value.
Most surprisingly, those with more education had less-positive views on this question. Ratings were higher among people who hadn’t gone beyond high school, and lower among those with some college or a bachelor’s degree.
The findings that college graduates themselves are not very impressed with the quality of their education should give colleges pause. Has the idea of college become commoditized rather than a journey of intellectual maturation as it has often been portrayed?
In the coming weeks and months, The Chronicle will report more results from this survey to shed light on what people actually think of what colleges aim to do. Conduct research, develop a skilled work force, contribute to local economic development and to civic life — we asked people how important those activities are and how well they think colleges are doing. In response to a sense of declining confidence, more college leaders are trying to get out into communities, to tell their story, to make their case. These findings will continue to illustrate where public perceptions stand.
Findings are from a representative, random-sample national survey of 1,025 adults produced for The Chronicle by Langer Research Associates. Field work was conducted in July 2023 in English and Spanish via the probability-based SSRS Opinion Panel, in which participants are randomly recruited via address-based sampling to take surveys online or by telephone. Results have an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points; error margins are larger for subgroups.