Only half of Americans think public higher education is worth the cost of tuition

A recent survey reveals how U.S. adults feel about tuition costs and accessibility versus the benefits of a college education.

Only about half of Americans (49%) believe the economic benefits of a college degree outweigh tuition costs.

A study by Public Agenda, in cooperation with USA Today, highlights responses from 1,662 Americans 18 years and older addressing their concerns about the state of public higher education.

Here are the major takeaways from the study:

College is too expensive

As mentioned previously, only 49% of respondents believe the economic benefits of a college degree exceed the cost of tuition. Skepticism is even greater among respondents without college degrees.

The majority (83%) believe the cost of tuition is a barrier for students who come from low-income families. In addition, 66% of respondents think colleges aren’t meeting the needs of students. However, more Americans believe community colleges provide value for students and taxpayers.

When asked about the goals of college institutions, the majority believe that career readiness and a well-rounded education should be their first priority.

College leads to opportunity

On a positive note, most respondents believe that a college education helps adults advance in their careers (86%), while only about half (52%) feel that public higher education strengthens the economy as a whole.

71% of respondents say earning a college degree helps lead to a more informed and engaged citizenry. In contrast, about half of respondents think their democracy is strengthened by those who have earned a college education (51%). Some respondents denied the idea that Americans without a college degree are seemingly less capable and less responsible than those who do hold a college degree.

On a state level, most believe in the shared economic benefits that result from public higher education. Three-quarters of survey-takers believe people are more capable to learn and make a good living in their state when they have a college education and 71% say their state would be able to attract more employers.

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College needs to be accessible

A majority of respondents across the board, regardless of political affiliation or race, agree on several ways to make public higher education more affordable, among them taxing the wealthy to make public higher education more affordable and community colleges free of charge.

Results vary across political lines on whether Americans believe racial discrimination makes access to public higher education more difficult: 24% of Republicans; 72% of Democrats; and 49% of Independents. However, the majority, regardless of political affiliation, support efforts to improve college access for Black and Latino students. This is also the case for low-income students.

Increase funding transparency

Finally, most people agree to invest in public higher education when they know what they’re paying for. Most Americans believe that public higher education should be mostly paid for by the government or evenly split between the government and students. Increasing public higher education funding was supported by 61% of respondents.

A strong majority also believe in investing in programs that help college students succeed, such as flexible credential programs; creating opportunities for students to gain job experience while taking classes; K-12 partnerships that allow high school students to obtain college credit; increasing college faculty so students’ graduations aren’t delayed;  and creating a curriculum that relates more closely to potential employers’ expectations.

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a University Business staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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