Strong public support for community colleges continues

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Community colleges continue to garner strong public support overall, but especially when it comes to their role in workforce development and how efficient they are, according to an annual survey by New America.

Eight of 10 Americans (79%) say community colleges are worth the cost — the most support among any higher education sector — followed by minority-serving institutions (MSIs) at 65% and public four-year colleges and universities at 64%, according to the new Varying Degrees report.

Eighty-three percent of survey participants said they strongly/somewhat agree that public community colleges contribute to a strong U.S. workforce — again the highest approval for any higher education sector — followed by four-year public institutions with 78%. For-profits had the lowest rating, with 61% participating giving them good marks.

The report also indicates that many Americans (80%) feel community colleges are for people like them, compared to four-year institutions (70%), for-profits (37%) and MSIs (36%).

Community colleges appear to have strong appeal to Americans of both political parties. Although there are some differences, well more than half of Republican and Democratic survey participants felt community colleges contributed to the workforce and that public two-year colleges are for them.

Where taxpayer dollars should go

While Americans are positive about spending more taxpayer dollars on higher education to make it more affordable, they have strong opinions about which institutions should get those funds. Overall, 76% agree with spending taxpayer dollars on community colleges, 64% on public four-year institutions and 61% on MSIs. Only 29% support spending taxpayer dollars on for-profits.

The majority of survey participants (62%) also said they felt community colleges were underfunded by states and the federal government, compared to those who felt the same about public four-years (53%), MSIs (49%) and for-profits (25%).

The report also shows that the public wants more transparency from colleges and universities about key learning and success outcomes. Nine in 10 Americans (93%) agree it is important for higher education institutions to provide publicly available data on indicators of quality, such as graduation rates and graduates’ employment rates. A majority of them also support lowering public funding for institutions that don’t meet certain key indicators of quality.

The survey shows that Americans have become more skeptical regarding if institutions are run efficiently. They are most positive about community colleges, but even that support has declined. More than half (57%) say community colleges are run efficiently, down from 62% in 2019. For public four-years, the rate dropped to 47%, a decline of 8 percentage points.

Feedback on Biden’s priorities

New America also gauged Americans’ opinions on President Joe Biden’s higher education policy priorities. About half of those polled believe the Biden administration and Congress should prioritize higher education affordability as follows: 23% believe tuition-free public two-year and community colleges are the most important policy, followed by 19% who say tuition-free public four-year colleges and universities, and 8% who say doubling the Pell Grant maximum.

Another 40% want Biden and Congress to help student loan borrowers as follows: 19% want access to income-driven repayment expanded, another 12% want the government to provide $10,000 in federal student loan forgiveness, and 8% want to prioritize improving a loan forgiveness program for public workers.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the study.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.