Public Confidence in Higher Education Is Waning

By Rachel Fenton

A recently released Public Agenda survey found that Americans increasingly question the necessity of a college education.  The findings are from a July 2016 telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,006 Americans age 18 and older. The survey asked the question, “Do you think that a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world?”  It found that a declining percentage of Americans answered “yes”, with 42 percent saying college is necessary for workforce success, a 13 percentage point drop from 2009.  

Other findings are below:

  • 57% of Americans say there are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree, a 14 percentage point increase from 2009.
  • 46% of Americans question whether a college education is a good investment due to high student loan balance and limited job opportunities.
    • Still, more than half of Americans (52%) consider a college education the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed.
  • Americans remain concerned about access to college, with 69% of believing that many people who qualify for college lack the opportunity to attend, an increase of 22 percentage points from 2000.
  • In 2016, 59%of Americans said that colleges cared mainly about the “bottom line”. This stands in contrast to the 34% who believe that colleges mainly care about education and their students.


The waning public confidence in higher education runs counter to efforts to boost college completion.  Public Agenda suggests that experts and policymakers “focus on measuring and communicating the benefits and outcomes of a college education in the labor market” in order to build public trust in the benefits of higher education.


Public Agenda plans to release additional findings in October.