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A Growing Number Of Americans Are Questioning The Value Of Going To College

Cal State Los Angeles graduate wearing caps and gowns sit at their commencement ceremony in the sun. Some are wearing yellow sashes; others are wearing pink leis.
The share of Americans who believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country has declined since 2020, according to recent survey.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images North America)
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The share of Americans who believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country has dropped by 14 percentage points since 2020.

That's according to the latest results of an annual survey conducted by New America, a nonpartisan think tank. Since 2017, the organization has been collecting data on Americans' attitudes about the value of education after high school and how that education should be funded.

Many of the report's findings have remained stable over time – for example, the general consensus that post-secondary education offers a good return on investment for students remains. But there's been a steep decline in the overall perception of higher education's impact on the country.

That decline is driven by economic challenges, according to Sophie Nguyen, who co-authored the report.

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The nationally representative survey included about 1,500 adults and was conducted in the spring of 2022, "when people started to feel the effects of gas price increases," Nguyen says. "People started to feel that an economic recession is actually coming."

In line with previous years, the survey finds that Democrats and Republicans disagree about multiple aspects of higher education. While 73% of Democrats believe colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, only 37% of Republicans feel that way.

Americans also remain divided on who should pay for higher education. Most Democrats (77%) say the government should fund higher education because it's good for society, while the majority of Republicans (63%) say students should pay for post high school education because they benefit from it.

A new question on this year's survey asked respondents about the minimum level of education they believe their immediate or close family members should receive in order to be financially secure. While nearly three-quarters of respondents agree some sort of postsecondary education is required for their child or close family member to achieve financial security, there are partisan divides. Only a quarter of Democrats say that a high school diploma or GED is sufficient to achieve economic security, compared to 39% of Republicans who say so.

Despite the overall agreement on the value of higher education, many Americans are concerned about affordability. Only about half of respondents think Americans can get an affordable, high-quality education after high school.

Across the political spectrum, says Nguyen, people "are pretty aligned on the affordability questions." But, she says, they don't agree on how to solve these affordability issues. "I think that's translated to the current policy environment we're living in right now."

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