Washington Watch: A deeper look at public opinion of higher ed


Public Agenda and USA Today recently released extensive public opinion research results that reflect some competitive edges for community colleges, amidst broader and substantial concerns about the value and affordability of college. The data may offer useful insights for community college leaders. 

The research explores a number of topics and reveals complex views about higher education.  First, the bad news. 

Only about half of Americans (49%) think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs. This view must be squared with the average annual community college tuition and fees of $3,800. The research also found that young people without college degrees are especially skeptical about the benefits of a college education, and many of these people could be the types of students that community colleges traditionally seek to serve.

Most Americans (83%) see college costs as a barrier for low-income students, with most believing that debt and inadequate financial aid are “serious problems.” A full two-thirds see colleges as stuck in the past and unable to meet the needs of today’s students, though this claim would likely be disputed by most community college leaders.

Now, the good news

There is some very good news for community colleges in the recent study. Regardless of political affiliation, 86% of Americans agree that a college education can help working adults advance their careers. At the same time, though, far fewer (64%) believe that a college education would mean that those with a high school diploma would make a better living. This suggests great openness to community college career training for incumbent workers.

Community colleges were viewed by more people as offering a good value for students and taxpayers than other types of higher education institutions.

AACC Advocates in Action, held September 22-23 in Washington, D.C., is designed is for community college leaders interested in strengthening their congressional relationships and advancing federal higher education policy for their institutions. View the draft agenda and register.

Notably as well, strong majorities across political affiliations support investments in specific public higher education initiatives that help students succeed during and after college. This includes:

  • Strong support for states to invest in flexible short-term credential programs.
  • Providing job experience to students while they learn.
  • Partnering with K-12 school systems so students can leave high school with already-earned college credits.
  • Hiring more faculty so students have the ability to take the classes they need and graduate on time.
  • Tailoring college curricula to meet employers’ needs.

All this dovetails neatly with community colleges’ emphases.

In addition, at the state level, Americans are confident in higher education’s shared economic benefits: 75% said they believe that if more people in their state had a college education,   people’s ability to earn a good living would be positively impacted, and 71% believe that their state’s capacity to attract employers would also be positively impacted. This implies support for the local economic focus of community colleges. 

Politics and policies

These data come on top of a continuing shift in the political views of college-educated individuals, who are increasingly aligned with the Democratic party. A New York Times – Ipsos poll released earlier this month showed that for the first time, Democrats received more support from college-educated whites than from nonwhite voters. White voters without a college degree continue to strongly tilt Republican; an estimated 63% voted for former President Trump in 2020.

Also, the potential for large-scale federal debt cancellation by the Biden administration has obvious political implications for higher education, on top of what it means for public policy (including fiscal policy). A recent Ipsos poll found that 82% of Americans thought that the government should prioritize making college more affordable rather than forgiving some student debt. However, 55% do support forgiving $10,000 of student debt – though that support decreases for larger forgiveness amounts – regardless of whether or not they have their own student loans. These results also underscore what would seem to be a competitive edge for community colleges.

All these factors and more have important implications for community colleges in the months to come.

About the Author

David Baime
David Baime is senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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