Varying Degrees: An In-Depth Look at How Americans View Higher Education

By Jael Greene

Just this month, New America released a report titled Varying Degrees: New America’s Annual Survey on Higher Education. In order to better understand some of the perceptions surrounding higher education and economic mobility, the report surveyed 1,600 Americans ages 18 and over. The results revealed that while there were differences across age, gender and socioeconomic status regarding the value and goals of higher education, there were also significant common themes among the participants’ responses.

Key findings included:

  • According to participants, the “American Dream” is becoming more difficult to achieve compared to previous generations.
    • Nearly 60 percent of respondents stated that it was either somewhat harder or much harder to find a good paying job, compared to when their parents were their age.
    • 64 percent said it was somewhat harder or much harder to be able to afford a family, compared to when their parents were their age.
  • Only 51 percent of Americans strongly agree or somewhat agree that there are “lots of good-paying jobs available that do not require college degrees.”
    • 75 percent of respondents agreed that it is easier to be successful with a college degree rather than without.
  • When it comes to student success, 67 percent of respondents believed that college and universities should be helping their students to succeed, while approximately 32 percent believe somewhat or strongly that the student is solely responsible.
    • 58 percent of Americans believe that colleges put their own long-term interests before those of their students.
  • Only 25 percent of Americans agree that higher education in the United States is “fine how it is.”
    • Only 13 percent of millennials agree that higher education is “fine how it is” despite being on track to be the most educated generation to date.
  • When it comes to the cost of college, there were major differences in which types of colleges were viewed as worth the cost by respondents: two-year community colleges (82 percent agreed they were worth the cost), public four-year colleges (61 percent agreed they were worth the cost), private four-year colleges (33 percent agreed they were worth the cost) and for-profit colleges (40 percent agreed they were worth the cost).