September 12, 2016; Public Agenda

In the context of the current congressional hearings on the use of college endowments, we find that Congress is not the only one to question the value proposition of the modern university. A recent Public Agenda survey funded by the Kresge Foundation found that the proportion of the public who are convinced that a college education is important to long-term workplace success has been on a real decrease over the past six years.

In 2009, the number of people who thought a college degree was necessary was 55 percent; now, just 42 percent of Americans think so. Whereas 43 percent of Americans in 2009 said there were many ways to succeed without a college degree, today, that number has risen to 57 percent.

The American public seems to disagree with policymakers and higher education experts on this point, who deeply believe a college education is critical for the economic well-being of individuals, families, communities, and the nation.

Additional findings from the study, as stated in this article, include the following:

  • Americans seem divided on whether college is a wise investment.
  • While Americans haven’t entirely lost faith in the value of a college degree, 46 percent say a college education is a questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities. Just over half—52 percent—say a college education is still the best investment for people who want to get ahead and succeed.
  • Access remains a concern for many Americans.
  • More than two-thirds of Americans, 69 percent, say there are many people who are qualified to go to college but don’t have the opportunity to do so. Just 29 percent of Americans say the vast majority of people who are qualified to go to college have the opportunity to do so.
  • Americans say colleges care mainly about the bottom line.
  • Americans are also suspicious about the intentions of colleges and universities. Nearly six in ten—59 percent—say colleges today care mainly about the bottom line, versus 34 percent who say colleges today mainly care about education and their students.

It’s hard to say what factors figure in this trend, but we welcome comments from readers. And if we still did not get the picture, the report is accompanied by this infographic that reiterates all the points above.—Ruth McCambridge