New national survey highlights perceptions of U.S. higher education

A newly released survey by New America, Varying Degrees: New America’s Annual Survey on Higher Education, surveys 1,600 individuals nationwide to better understand the perceptions of and knowledge about higher education and economic mobility. This survey provides insights into the opinions about higher education across generations, ethnicities and several other demographics.

Some key findings emerge regarding the perceived quality of higher education, its accessibility – especially among underserved populations, and the critical role a college education plays in enabling socioeconomic mobility in today’s post-recession economy. The results also articulate striking contrasts: for example, only a quarter of Americans agree that our higher education system is functioning fine just the way it is. However, there is wide agreement (75 percent), however, that it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.

The results also show that people generally believe the American Dream is increasingly out of reach. However, they recognize that higher education is an important social good, and critical to achieving the American Dream. Not only do individuals with a college education make more over their lifetimes, a more educated population benefits society in multiple ways, including by increasing tax revenues and lowering unemployment.


The survey covers five topic areas:

The American Dream

Despite the recession being officially over and unemployment the lowest it has been since 2007, the recovery has been felt unevenly. Many people are still unemployed or underemployed, and any wage increases have mostly been wiped away by escalating housing and healthcare costs. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the survey shows that Americans believe the American Dream—from finding a well-paying job to supporting a family—is becoming more difficult compared to their parents. The exception is the Silent Generation (ages 72 and over), whose parents grew up during the Great Depression.

The Expectations Gap

Even though roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that higher education leaders should assist in the success of their students, 58 percent believe that colleges overall put their own long-term interests first instead of those of their students.

The Perceived Value of Public Colleges and Universities

Survey respondents believe both community colleges (82 percent) and public four-year colleges (61 percent) are worth the cost. And while a majority of Americans think all types of colleges and universities contribute to a strong workforce and prepare people to be successful, there is a drop-off compared to public institutions when it comes to “being worth the cost,” “being for people in my situation,” and “always putting students first.”

Perception vs. Reality: Higher Education Finance

Nearly half of respondents in New America’s annual survey said that they did not believe states have cut funding to higher education in the last ten years. In other words, despite higher tuition bills at their colleges and universities, many Americans are not convinced that state legislatures are necessarily to blame. States’ financial retreat from their higher education systems in recent decades has not been consistent. For example, after adjusting for inflation, state legislatures across the U.S. have eliminated a combined total of more than $1 billion over the last ten years from their higher education budgets.

Perception vs. Reality: The Typical College Student

Respondents were asked the age of a typical college student, what kind of institutions students attend, their enrollment intensity, and whether or not students complete the degrees they begin.


Additional in-depth information on the survey is available here.