By Lanae Erickson Hatalsky and Ben Miller
“Americans Losing Faith in College Degrees,” read a recent headline from The Wall Street Journal. The survey it cited, along with another from the Pew Research Center this summer, have spurred a rash of stories declaring 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. Yet newly released polling diving deeper into the subject counters this “common wisdom” among political pundits. Instead it shows that Americans may have specific concerns about higher education — price worries, in particular — but they still highly value education beyond high school.
Do Americans see value in higher ed?
New data from a poll conducted by Civis Analytics in August and September 2017 illustrates the issue more clearly and directly than the handful of questions that have been released in recent public polls to date. In it, they asked 5,600 respondents whether they agreed with this statement: “Most high school students should pursue career or technical training, community college programs and associate’s degrees programs, or a four-year college degree after they graduate high school.” A full 89% of the general public agreed that students should pursue education beyond high school. Asked another way, 86% 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.” By contrast, only 42% said 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,” and only 9% of the public strongly agreed with that statement (three times that number strongly disagreed).
There was almost no difference across party lines on these numbers, with both Democrats and Republicans agreeing across the board that students should pursue higher education and that doing so will make it easier for them to get a good job. Republicans were only 4 percentage points more likely to say a college degree isn’t a worthwhile investment than Democrats (just outside the margin of error). The bigger split came in looking at the responses by level of education — where it became clear that those who have a post-high school degree themselves are more likely to believe it was a good investment. In fact, only 35% of those who have a four-year degree said that for most high school students it is not worthwhile, compared to 50% among those without one. That means those who have invested in higher education (a large and growing group) are significantly more likely to feel it has improved their lives than those who haven’t. And even among those without a four-year degree group, 86% agreed that most students should pursue an education beyond high school, and 80% said that doing so will make it easier to get a good job.
Those who have invested in higher education (a large and growing group) are significantly more likely to feel it has improved their lives than those who haven’t.
These strong results show that Americans believe higher education offers a pathway to success, and they are echoed by another recent survey focusing on voters in “Trump Counties” (counties that either flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 or ones where Trump’s margin was at least 20 points bigger than Romney’s). In August 2017, a poll by Echelon Insights of Trump County voters found 84% agreed with the following 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.” That included 87% in Obama-Trump counties and 78% in Trump surge counties.
So what’s behind the shift in recent public polls?
Given those deeper dive results, what should we make of the recent public polls and headlines? There are likely three driving factors that are impacting the way people answer some of the more vaguely worded questions we’ve seen in the news.
First, higher education no longer just means a four-year degree. Voters don’t like it when a poll question makes it sound like a four-year degree is the only option — and they’re right to push back on that notion. Our higher education system runs the gamut from vocational institutes that award certificates tied to specific careers to community colleges to institutions that primarily award bachelor’s degrees, and beyond. Artificially limiting a question (or a political message, for that matter) to a traditional notion of a four-year, sleepaway college fails to capture the diversity of programs in today’s higher education landscape — and it pushes people away.
Second, many of the recent polls use questions that conflate concerns about rising costs with whether higher education provides benefits to those who pursue it. Concerns about price are real. Of those who are dissatisfied with four-year colleges in particular, 55% said that was because “they cost too much to attend.” Of the 38% of the general public who said they were dissatisfied, only 4 in 10 said that was because “they don’t prepare students with useful, real-world skills” (which means a total of about 16% of the country expressed dissatisfaction for that reason). 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.
Third, a specific group of Republicans currently has animosity toward elite, four-year institutions — a hostility which is influencing their answers to vaguely worded public polls. Pew’s survey on this topic in June 2017 showed 58% of Republicans now say colleges and universities are having “a negative effect on the way things are going in the country”, a flip from just two years prior. However, that sentiment is concentrated among self-described conservative Republicans, among whom nearly two-thirds say the effect is negative. By contrast, most moderate and liberal Republicans say colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country. This ideological fight was evident in the Civis Analytics poll as well, where Republican dissatisfaction was limited to four-year colleges, and those who were dissatisfied cited concerns that these schools “push students to a particular political viewpoint” as the number one cause (even above price).
Attacking or dismissing higher education isn’t a path to political wins. Most Americans believe it matters more than ever and that students should pursue it. Voters across the political spectrum, and with varying levels of education, solidly agree on those principles. It’s an important reminder that regardless of the headlines on opinion pages or overreactions of political pundits, the need for education beyond high school still maintains broad popularity in our country — and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky is Vice President of Social Policy & Politics at Third Way and Ben Miller is senior director for Postsecondary Education at Center for American Progress.