U.S. voters want higher ed reform. Will it play a big role this election season?

Most voters believe higher education's purpose is to set students up for future career success (57%) rather than cultivate more informed citizens (43%)—when forced to choose between the two.

Election season has voters thinking about higher education reform and what lawmakers can do to reduce costs and improve outcomes, according to a new survey by Third Way, a center-left think tank based out of Washington D.C.

Of the 1,500 registered U.S. voters surveyed, nearly two-thirds (64%) believe action must be taken to address affordability and the ROI of college degrees, describing the two issues as “top” or “major” priorities.

Affordability is the issue that voters across party lines unanimously agreed needed to be resolved the most. Over 81% of Republican and Democrat voters believe the prices are increasing. Whether colleges have lowered their tuition or not, 62% of voters don’t believe the public has enough information on the costs to make informed decisions.

“Zeroing in on debt and cost, voters want to see real accountability, with policymakers and institutions on the hook for higher education reforms that deliver for taxpayers,” Ben Cecil, senior education policy advisor at Third Way and the report’s author, wrote.

More from UB: Higher ed funding: A look at 2 surprising trends

The change U.S. voters want to see

Most voters believe higher education’s purpose is to set students up for future career success (57%) rather than cultivate more informed citizens (43%)—when forced to choose between the two.

Still, 68% believe the problems are solvable without a complete system overhaul. While only 56% currently view the higher education system favorably, eight in 10 believe in the value of a four-year degree.

At the federal level, voters want policymakers to regulate all higher education institutions, including public, private and for-profit schools. Nearly two-thirds of voters (62%) say the system needs guardrails to prevent students from taking out loans that would leave them in a worse financial position than if they didn’t enroll in the first place. Lastly, 71% of colleges and universities should be analyzed on their ability to provide their graduates with a return on their investment. President Joe Biden has already begun to crack down on predatory loans through his gainful employment framework.

U.S. voters believe colleges should be held more accountable for ensuring student success inside the classroom and beyond. Some 87% believe colleges can do more to “get students across the finish line,” and 87% recognize students need to be taught skills different from those of just 10 years ago to be successful in today’s job market.

When did higher education become such a pressing issue?

Campus protests, the new FAFSA Form and Biden’s war against student debt have impacted higher education’s reputation. However, survey data credits a simpler reason: the pandemic. More than two-thirds of voters (69%) believe COVID caused higher education to suffer a “drop in quality.” Republicans (75%) and Democrats (64%) were fairly on par in this evaluation.

Here are some other sentiments voters expressed about the pandemic’s effect on higher ed:

  • It’s more difficult for students to learn and harder for them to remember (70%)
  • Institutions are less able to keep up with the job market (64%)
  • The rise in online classes and its substitution of in-person classes has reduced higher ed’s value (63%)
  • Institutions don’t provide as much value as they did in the past (62%)

Voters also identified a crisis around the value of the credentials colleges and universities are currently offering. Over two-thirds of voters (68%) said that students need new types of degrees to adjust to succeed in a changing job market.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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