Is Higher Education Really Losing the Public?

New public opinion data suggest that despite significant concerns about prices, most Americans (and many Republicans) believe a postsecondary education is essential.

December 15, 2017
 
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Last summer’s Pew Research Center and Gallup surveys showing sharply declining public support for colleges and universities -- especially among Republicans -- seriously rattled higher education leaders.

Understandably so: with the GOP running the federal government and two-thirds of the states, those trend lines can translate not just into fewer Americans willing to finance a college education personally, but also less favorable treatment of colleges and universities by politicians and policy makers.

A pair of new surveys conducted this fall offer a more nuanced picture of public attitudes about higher education. The surveys, by Civis Analytics and Echelon Insights, probably won’t make college leaders rest easy: they reveal meaningful public doubts about college affordability and the value of degrees. (More than four in 10 Americans agreed, for example, that “for most high school students today, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job.”)

But the new surveys may help focus the conversation on the issues on which higher education appears most vulnerable and on the audiences that are most skeptical.

The data suggest strongly, for instance, that Americans hold a much more favorable view of two-year colleges than of four-year institutions, and that Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly believe that most students should pursue some kind of postsecondary education or training after graduating high school.

A Summer's Worth of Troubling Data

The release of the Pew and Gallup surveys in July and August stunned and troubled many college presidents and higher ed leaders.

Asked whether “colleges and universities have a positive/negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” 58 percent of Republicans said “negative,” up sharply from the 37 percent who answered that way just two years ago. Older Republicans and self-described conservatives had the most skeptical views. Among Democrats, meanwhile, positive views of colleges and universities continued to edge up.

Gallup’s question (which it asks about a range of American institutions) was phrased “Please tell me how much confidence you, yourself, have in colleges and universities -- a great deal, quite a lot, some or very little.”

A majority of all Americans -- 56 percent -- said some (34 percent) or very little (22 percent), while 44 percent said a great deal or quite a lot. Democrats and those who lean Democratic took a more favorable view -- 56 percent confident and 43 percent less so -- while a full two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) expressed some or very little confidence. (Thirty-one percent of Republicans said "very little.")

Gallup’s survey offered some insights into the why behind the public's doubts. Of those who said they had some or very little confidence, Republicans were mostly likely to cite political or cultural reasons (32 percent said the institutions were too liberal/political, and 21 percent said colleges were “not allowing students to think for themselves” or were “pushing their own agenda”).

Democrats who answered negatively were far likelier (36 percent) to say that the institutions were “too expensive” than to proffer any other reason.

How to Interpret?

The Pew and Gallup surveys share a few things. First, both surveys lumped all colleges and universities together, as so much public discussion of higher education does. That makes it impossible to know whether a particular respondent was thinking about Harvard and its $35 billion endowment, the cherished State U where the kids went, the community college downtown or a for-profit university that's been in the headlines.

Second, the questions posed to the public solicited respondents' attitudes in ways that were broadly defined -- in Gallup's case, their "confidence" in the institutions, and in Pew's case colleges and universities' "effect … on the way things are going in the country."

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, a self-described "centrist" think tank, said she was struck by the extent to which the questions from Gallup and Pew (especially the latter) could be seen as focusing on cultural or political issues rather than economic ones. Because the surveys asked about the effect colleges are having on "the way things are going in the country," Erickson Hatalsky said, respondents may well be influenced by "whether you think we are going in the right direction as a country" -- in many ways a political question, she said.

In a blog post co-written with Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, Erickson Hatalsky questioned the idea that surveys like those from Pew and Gallup prove "that the country is giving up on higher education as a path to success  --  and that politicians who want to appeal to voters should follow that cue."

They drew attention to the Civis and Echelon surveys, which they said show "that Americans may have specific concerns about higher education  --  price worries, in particular  --  but they still highly value education beyond high school."

So what do the Civis and Echelon studies reveal?

Digging Into the Data

Civis Analytics, a data science company, surveyed 5,647 members of the public in August and September and weighted the results to the U.S. population. The margin of error is two percentage points.

It asked four main questions and some follow-ups, focused fairly narrowly on individuals' economic outcomes:

  • Presented with the statement "It's easier to get a good job with an education after high school -- like a college degree or trade certificate -- than it is to get a good job without one," respondents overwhelmingly agreed, 54 percent "strongly," and 32 percent "somewhat."
  • Presented with the statement "For most high school students, pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job," 53 percent of respondents disagreed (26 percent "strongly"), and 42 percent agreed (33 percent "somewhat").
  • Presented with the statement "Most high school students should pursue career or technical training, community college programs and associate degree programs, OR a four-year college degree after they graduate high school," 89 percent of respondents agreed, 52 percent strongly.

The last of the four said, "Would you say you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the job _________ are doing in America today?" -- and filled in the blank both with "community and two-year colleges" and "four-year colleges."

The results were as follows:

Response Four-Year College Community College
Highly Satisfied 8% 12%
Somewhat Satisfied 44% 51%
Somewhat Dissatisfied 27% 18%
Highly Dissatisfied 11% 4%
Not Sure 10% 15%

The roughly two-fifths of respondents who said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges were asked to choose among five reasons why. A majority, 55 percent, said it was because they "cost too much to attend" and 43 percent chose "they don't provide students with useful real-world skills." Fewer said colleges "push students to a particular political viewpoint" (24 percent), "don't focus on useful subject matter" (11 percent) or "coddle students too much" (10 percent).

Civis then examined how different groups answered the questions. The lack of differences on many fronts stand out.

On the question of whether having some kind of postsecondary education or training improves job prospects, there was overwhelming agreement among Democrats and Republicans alike, and those with and without a four-year degree -- all were between 80 and 90 percent.

Ditto on the question of whether high school students should pursue some kind of post-high school education, be it vocational training or a four-year degree. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans and 86 percent of those with less than a bachelor's degree agreed.

Republicans were only slightly likelier than Democrats (44 percent to 40 percent) to agree with the statement that "pursuing a college degree is not a worthwhile investment because it will lead to student debt with little chance of finding a good-paying job." (Half of respondents without a four-year degree agreed with that statement, however, compared to 35 percent of people with bachelor's degrees. This group would include the Republican noncollege crowd that is often described as the "Trump voters.")

Support for community colleges crossed lines, as 64 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike expressed satisfaction with the job two-year institutions are doing.

The biggest differences came in the degree of satisfaction with four-year colleges, and the reasons for dissatisfaction. Just under half (49 percent) of Republicans said they were satisfied with the job being done by four-year institutions, compared to 60 percent of Democrats. Pluralities of both groups (40 and 45 percent of R's and D's who expressed dissatisfaction, respectively) said it was because colleges don't provide students with useful skills.

But the biggest reason cited by Democrats (by 69 percent of them) was that four-year colleges "cost too much to attend," while 46 percent of Republicans attributed their dissatisfaction to the colleges "push[ing] students to a particular political viewpoint."

One more set of data from the Civis study suggests that the stereotypical "Trump voters" -- Republicans without a college degree -- don't differ enormously from others on their views about college.

As seen in the table below, Republicans with and without four-year degrees differ little from each other -- and not all that much from Democrats -- in their answers to the question "which of the following best describes why you are dissatisfied with four-year colleges and universities?"

Reason Democrat --
No 4-Year Degree
Democrat --
4-Year Degree
Republican --
No 4-Year Degree
Republican --
4-Year Degree
They cost too much to attend 68% 68% 43% 39%
They don't provide students with useful real-world skills. 42% 47% 40% 40%
They push students to a particular political viewpoint. 5% 2% 46% 46%
They don't focus on useful subject matter 13% 11% 9% 9%
They coddle students too much 4% 7% 11% 18%

The other survey cited by Erickson Hatalsky and Miller was by Echelon Insights, which has produced a series of polls of 1,000 people in "Trump Country" (counties that went for President Obama in 2012 but President Trump in 2016, or where Trump's margin of victory was at least 20 points larger than what Mitt Romney captured in 2012).

The questions largely mirrored those asked by Civis, with the exception of the one on whether college is a good investment.

Eighty-four percent of the respondents strongly (59 percent) or somewhat agreed that "it's easier to get a good job with an education after high school, like a college degree or trade certificate, than it is to get a good job without one." Democrats (87 percent) were only slightly more likely than Republicans (80 percent) and self-described Trump voters (81 percent) to agree.

The proportions expressing satisfaction with two-year colleges (62 percent) and four-year colleges (56 percent) were similar to those in the Civis survey. Republicans actually were slightly more satisfied with community colleges than were Democrats (62.5 percent versus 59.4 percent), but far less satisfied with four-year institutions (52 percent versus 65.6 percent).

And the divide between the parties on the reasons for their dissatisfaction with four-year colleges was large: 73 percent of Democrats said the colleges cost too much to attend and 48 percent said they don't prepare students with useful skills, while 52.6 percent of Republican voters (and 54.2 percent of Trump voters) said they were dissatisfied with four-year colleges because they "push students to a particular political viewpoint." Roughly four in 10 GOP voters also cited concerns about price and skills preparation.

What It All Means

When layered on top of the Pew and Gallup studies, Erickson Hatalsky said, what the new data suggest is that "people continue to think that higher education is necessary for economic success and worth it -- there is no party split there."

The point at which "big shifts" in polling numbers occur, she said, like those in the Pew survey, is "when you embed other questions about cultural and political issues" into perceptions of higher education. Those political and cultural worries apply much more to four-year colleges than two-year institutions, as the more granular data from Civis and Echelon show. "Support for community colleges is off the charts," Erickson Hatalsky said.

That doesn't mean college leaders can afford to ignore the public opinion data, which include real warning signs, she and Miller said. The concerns about the price of college and student debt are real, and those concerns are likely driving the doubts about whether college is "worth it," they wrote. (A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll published in September found Americans fairly evenly divided over whether getting a four-year degree was "worth the cost," with 47 percent agreeing that it wasn't "because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off." That number had risen sharply from four years earlier, primarily because of increased doubts from Americans with some college but no degree and those between the ages of 18 and 34, the Journal found.)

“Of the 38 percent of the general public who said they were dissatisfied [with four-year colleges], only four in 10 said that was because ‘they don’t prepare students with useful, real-world skills’ (which means a total of about 16 percent of the country expressed dissatisfaction for that reason),” Erickson Hatalsky and Miller wrote. “Questions on public polls that ask if ‘college’ is ‘worth it’ are likely capturing specific frustrations about rising prices (particularly at four-year schools), rather than a viewpoint that higher education generally offers no value over the long term.”

Much of the growing enmity for higher education from Republican political leaders has been aimed at wealthy research universities and elite colleges, such as criticism of $60,000 annual tuitions or large endowments (most recently in the tax reform legislation now before Congress), doubts about the value of research and the liberal arts, and escalating complaints about perceived political correctness and liberal bias.

The biggest worry in letting perceptions stand that Americans doubt the value of college generally, Miller and Erickson Hatalsky argue, is that politicians will seize on those conclusions to argue for cutting funding or other support for the various forms of postsecondary education and training.

"I find it frustrating that we're seeing politicians denigrate higher ed, and that it's really a tracking conversation," Erickson Hatalsky said. "You hear a lot of statements about how 'not everybody should go to college,' but usually it's 'other' people who shouldn't go to college -- and the other are usually low-income people, kids of color. Members of Congress aren't sending their kids to community college or vocational school. To me that is super problematic."

The bottom line on public attitudes about higher ed? Pay attention, but don't overreact, Erickson Hatalsky said.

"This is not the moment of the end of higher ed," she said. "People don’t shift opinions about their own life that quickly."

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