Public strongly supports two-year colleges


Americans continue to have a strongly favorable view of community colleges, according to the Varying Degrees 2020 report from New America.

Based on an accompanying survey, the report says the public believes two-year institutions are a better value, more likely to contribute to a strong workforce and run more efficiently than other higher education institutions.

Nearly three in four Americans agree that people with technical certificates and associate degrees will earn more than those without them. The share of people who hold that opinion rises to 87 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees and more than 90 percent for those with graduate degrees.

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A majority of Americans also value apprenticeships. Eighty-five percent of Americans feel comfortable recommending their children or family members to enroll in an apprenticeship program. Ninety percent would do so if the apprenticeship leads to an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Approximately 89 percent of Americans believe public two-year colleges are worth the cost compared with just 64 percent of Americans who believe this to be true for public four-year colleges, and 55 percent who do so for private non-profit institutions. Only 39 percent said for-profit institutions are worth the cost, down from 46 percent in last year’s survey.

Among other findings:

  • More than four in five Americans (83 percent) agree that community colleges contribute to a strong workforce, and 81 percent believe public four-year colleges and universities do so.
  • Eighty-seven percent of Democrats and 84 percent of Republicans think community colleges contribute to a strong workforce.
  • While most Americans do not favor for-profit colleges and universities, a majority of black Americans think otherwise. Seventy percent of black Americans believe that for-profit institutions contribute to a strong workforce, significantly more than the share of white (56 percent) and Latinx (59 percent) respondents.

Support for public funding

  • About three in five Americans (62 percent) say that public community colleges are run efficiently, although there is a difference among racial groups. Seventy-one percent of black respondents say two-year institutions are run efficiently, compared to 59 percent of whites.
  • In general, 59 percent of Americans agree that public community colleges spend money wisely, down from 62 percent who agreed with that statement in last year’s survey. Only 47 percent believe public four-year colleges and universities spend their money wisely.
  • Approximately 78 percent of Americans are comfortable supporting public community colleges and 68 percent are comfortable supporting public four-year colleges and universities with their tax dollars.
  • Approximately 63 percent of Americans believe government should fund higher education because it is good for society, compared with 35 percent who believe it should be funded by individuals because they are the ones who will primarily benefit.
  • The vast majority of Americans (90 percent) believe that publicly available data on low graduation rates, high dropout rates, low earnings and high student loan default rates are important indicators of quality. A majority of respondents also believe that public financial support for colleges and universities should be tied to some of these outcomes.
  • Most Americans agree that a college or university should lose access to taxpayer dollars if it has low graduation rates (78 percent); low rates of graduates earning a living wage (74 percent); high rates of graduates earning less than the average high school graduate (72 percent); low rates of graduates paying down their student loans (68 percent); and high default rates for student loan repayments (64 percent).
  • More Democrats (84 percent) than Republicans (70 percent) think that people without education beyond high school face limitations in their career development.
  • Similar shares of both groups agree that education beyond high school offers a good return on investment and provides pathways for upward economic mobility.

A generational split

Stark differences exist among generations:

  • Only 76 percent of Millennials think that people with education after high school have more job opportunities, compared to 90 percent among people in Generation Z and 93 percent among the Silent Generation.
  • Fewer Millennials believe in the upward economic mobility provided by education after high school (88 percent) and see the return on investment from higher education (71 percent), than Baby Boomers (95 and 81 percent, respectively) and the Silent Generation (99 and 88 percent, respectively).

Since New America began annually surveying the public on its opinions about education after high school, the country has experienced a soaring economy. That boom ended with the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in closed campuses and widespread unemployment.

The 2020 survey was carried out just before the pandemic took hold.

“No one knows what this will mean for enrollments, which usually peak anytime a recession occurs,” the report states.

The latest survey results “provide an important baseline to judge how attitudes and perceptions change in the face of this public health and economic crisis,” it adds.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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