A new survey from Teachers College finds that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe higher education is an excellent or good investment of public funds, and that higher education benefits society at large through scientific advances, the encouragement of national prosperity and development, and civic participation.
Americans are similarly confident that a college education benefits individual graduates through personal enrichment and growth, and the wealth and success that a college diploma can bring. The surprise in the findings, said Noah D. Drezner, Associate Professor and Program Director in Higher and Postsecondary Education at Teachers College and lead author of the survey,
This research brief extends our understanding of public views of American higher education. Since their inception, American universities and colleges have been charged both with enabling talented individuals to advance through higher education and with enhancing the quality of American life through scientific discoveries and the invigoration of the American economy. To what extent do Americans believe these promises have been met?
“Societal benefits, or public good, of higher education institutions are often overlooked in contemporary discourse that is normally focused on the personal benefits to individuals, such as jobs, salaries or return to individuals on their investment of tuition and lost income. What’s exciting about what we found is that Americans have a high regard for the value of higher education to our society.”
– Noah Drezner, Associate Professor of Higher Education
Drezner says the societal benefits, or public good, of higher education institutions “are often overlooked in contemporary discourse that is normally focused on the personal benefits to individuals, such as jobs, salaries or return to individuals on their investment of tuition and lost income. What’s exciting about what we found is that Americans have a high regard for the value of higher education to our society.”
Released July 16, the national survey of more than 3,000 adult respondents is the second installment of The Public Matters: How Americans View Education, Psychology and Health, launched in June to measure Americans’ opinions about issues across the College’s three main areas of research and teaching. The program’s inaugural survey,
This research brief examines Americans' views of stakeholders in education: parents, teachers, teacher unions, academic researchers, business leaders, and think tanks. Whereas in the past only elected officials were considered legitimate policy actors, today there are more groups of people competing to shape education policy. But we know very little about which stakeholders are seen as credible by the public, and why.
The higher education survey comes at potentially critical time for higher education, as Congress considers federal funding cuts as part of the Higher Education reauthorization bill. A public opinion poll showing that Americans support public spending on higher education “could shape the willingness of elected officials and policymakers to support public investment in higher education,” Drezner says.
More than three-quarters, or 76 percent, of the respondents see public spending on higher education in the United States as an excellent or good investment, returning benefits to individuals and society as a whole. About 17 percent called it a fair investment, and only seven percent said it has not been a good investment.
Respondents rated the contribution of higher education in five areas – two capturing its benefits to society, two measuring the benefits of a college degree to individuals, and one with both public and private benefits.
- Eighty-three percent say higher education institutions contribute a lot or somewhat to scientific advances that benefit American society and the public good, while 73 percent say they contribute a lot or somewhat to national prosperity and development.
- Fewer respondents (76 percent) say higher education institutions contribute a lot or somewhat to graduates’ personal enrichment and growth, while 72 percent believe a higher education contributes a lot or somewhat to advances in the personal wealth and success of individual graduates.
- Meanwhile, 61 percent say college contributes a lot or somewhat to civic participation – considered by Drezner to be both a public and private good.
The survey found significant differences across gender, race and ethnicity, age groups, and geographic location in respondents’ views about whether higher education is a good use of public funds. For example:
- Women are significantly more likely than men, and younger Americans more likely than older ones, to view public spending on higher education as an excellent investment. In addition, urban Americans value investment in education more than their suburban and rural counterparts.
- About half of black and Latinx respondents – groups that historically have faced barriers to obtaining a college degree – say public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment. Among whites and Asians, the figure drops to 41 percent.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of adults aged 18-44 say public spending on higher education has been worthwhile. This figure drops to 40 percent for respondents aged 50-65.
The survey, which Drezner coauthored with Teachers College’s Oren Pizmony-Levy, Assistant Professor of International and Comparative Education, and Aaron Pallas, Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology & Education, also comes as colleges and universities in general – and the liberal arts in particular – have been criticized as too expensive, elitist, politically liberal – even irrelevant in contemporary America.
The study provides evidence that this debate is most heated between liberals and conservatives, with 56 percent of self-identified liberals saying public spending on higher education has been an excellent investment, compared with 32 percent of conservatives and 45 percent of moderates. Nearly half (47 percent) of liberals say higher education has contributed a lot to scientific advances that benefit American society, while only 31 percent of conservatives and 32 percent of moderates agree.
A smaller number of liberals (34 percent) believe higher education contributes a lot to graduates’ personal enrichment and growth, while 26 percent say it contributes a lot to their wealth and success, compared with 23 and 20 percent of conservatives, and 26 and 23 percent of moderates, respectively. One-third (33 percent) of liberals say higher education contributes a lot to America’s national prosperity and development, compared with 21 percent of conservatives and 25 percent of moderates.
“One open question is what underlies the ideological difference in attitudes toward higher education,” Pizmony-Levy says. “Our study cannot fully answer this question, but there are a couple of possible reasons for this difference. For example, political conservatism is associated with a preference for the status quo and traditionalism. American higher education, however, typically challenges the economic status quo and facilitates social mobility.”
Among the study’s other key findings:
- Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely than whites to say higher education institutions contribute to both the public good and to private interests. For example, about one-third of Asian, black and Latinx respondents say higher education contributed a lot to graduates’ personal enrichment and growth, whereas less than one-fourth (24 percent) of whites say so.
- But, contradicting those findings, two groups that historically have enjoyed easier access to higher education are more likely than others to say that higher education institutions have a positive effect on both the public good and that of private individuals. For example, 48 percent of college-educated respondents, and 47 percent of respondents in households making more than $100,000 per year, believe higher education contributes a lot to “scientific advances that benefit American society.” This figure drops to 32 percent of respondents in households earning less than $50,000 per year.
“What I find most interesting is the breakdown of these opinions by gender, race and ethnicity,” Drezner says. “Overall, no matter of how you ask the questions (public investment or contributions to society) women and underrepresented minorities in higher education show greater appreciation for the benefits of higher education to the individuals and society as a whole. In other words, those populations who only recently gained access to colleges and universities are more attuned to the contribution of higher education than those who historically have benefited from access.”
About half of all 3,000 respondents support increased public spending on post-secondary education. The survey found a link between how Americans value public investment in higher education and their willingness to increase public spending on higher education. For example, about 70 percent of respondents who said they consider higher education an excellent investment of public dollars favor increased spending on four-year colleges and universities and two-year community colleges.
The Public Matters: How Americans View Education, Psychology and Health conducts and analyzes periodic public opinion surveys on topics related to the three main areas of inquiry at Teachers College. Funded by the Teachers College Provost’s Investment Fund and drawing on the infrastructure and survey research expertise at the College, The Public Mind contributes to policy debates by introducing a new source of reliable and valid public opinion data and analysis.