Higher Education in the Election

New survey suggests Americans believe education beyond high school is necessary but expensive
Blog Post
Oct. 7, 2016

Americans believe that education beyond high school is necessary for securing economic success but is an increasingly expensive proposition, according to a recent survey of 800 likely voters commissioned by New America about higher education in the presidential election.

A strong 82 percent majority of likely voters agree that education beyond high school is a necessity, but 85 percent think it is getting much harder to afford. This sentiment was felt strongly regardless of political affiliation.

Education Beyond HS is a necessity

Harder to afford educationIn terms of the presidential election, likely voters are aware of the presidential candidates’ policies and plans for higher education--68 percent indicated they knew either a great deal or some about the plans. Democrats are slightly more likely to have heard a great deal compared to Republicans (30 percent a great deal among Democrats, 25 percent a great deal among Republicans).

Familiarity with plans

Without Debt? Yes. Tuition-Free? Mixed. And “free” is the great political divide.

Overall, 70 percent of likely voters favor a plan that guarantees students the opportunity to pursue a public four-year degree without going into debt for tuition. Majorities across party lines favor this, but by large differences of intensity (68 percent of Democrats strongly favor compared to 33 percent of Republicans).

 debt free

Personal responsibility--or a “skin in the game” requirement--seems to be an important concept for debt-free college proposals compared to targeting a debt-free tuition program based on income. More voters favor providing a debt-free plan for students attending a four-year public college or university who maintain a GPA of 2.5 and participate in a volunteer or work-study program (74 percent) compared to limiting the plan to those with household incomes less than $125,000 a year (64 percent). For Republicans, favorability drops considerably with a set income threshold.

personal responsibility 

income thresholdFrom the Tennessee Promise program of free community college, to Bernie Sanders’s plan for free public college, to Hillary Clinton’s plan for debt-free college for those making under $125,000, the concept of “free” tuition at public colleges and universities has gained widespread media coverage over the past two years. Likely voters, however, are split on whether college should be “tuition-free” or “debt-free” and there is a clear divide along party lines.

A slim majority (52 percent) believe that students and families should not have to borrow loans to attend a public college or university. However, less than half (42 percent) of voters agree with the idea that public colleges and universities should be tuition-free.

The concept of graduating without debt, where some students and families are on the hook to pay or contribute something for their education, is more favorable to likely voters than free tuition.

Regardless, neither free tuition nor not having to borrow are popular concepts with Republicans. A strong majority of Republicans (75 percent) oppose free tuition compared to 38 percent of Democrats, and 74 percent of Democrats agree with not having to take out loans to attend college compared with 31 percent of Republicans.

split sample tuition free debt freeAlthough targeting based on income is less popular for debt-free college, 48 percent of likely voters believe free tuition at public colleges and universities should be targeted to those making less than $125,000, with 29 percent believing it should be available regardless of income and 19 percent saying the benefit should not exist at all.

free tuition by income 

Free college is too expensive.

Both Democrats and Republicans believe that the government can’t afford to pay for free tuition at public colleges for everyone right now. Overall, 68 percent believe that it is not affordable including a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

can't afford free tuition 

Fixing existing federal programs--especially student loan programs--received the most support.

When presented with both current and new ideas to make college more affordable, likely voters strongly supported existing policies or reforming the current system, especially policies having to do with federal student loans. Loan refinancing, for example, has strong support regardless of political affiliation--overall 90 percent of voters favor a plan that allows borrowers to refinance loans at lower rates, including 78 percent who strongly favor. Strong support extends across party lines.


Likely voters also favor income-driven repayment plans that have become popular and have been expanded in the past few years, such as Pay As You Earn. An overwhelming 87 percent favor allowing borrowers of federal student loans to make monthly payments based on an affordable percentage of their income, including 70 percent who strongly favor, and support remains strong across party lines.


Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Beach Consulting designed and administered this survey that was conducted by professional interviewers from September 30 – October 3, 2016. The survey reached a total of 800 likely 2016 voters nationwide.         

Telephone numbers for the likely voter sample were drawn from Catalist sample. The data for likely voters were weighed slightly by gender, region, age, race, and party ID to reflect attributes of the actual population. Respondents were reached by both landlines and cell phones.

The margin of error for the total sample is +/-3.5%. In interpreting survey results, all sample surveys are subject to possible sampling error; that is, the results of a survey may differ from those which would be obtained if the entire population were interviewed. The size of the sampling error depends upon both the total number of respondents in the survey and the percentage distribution of responses to a particular question. For example, if 50% of respondents in a sample of 800 respondents answered “Yes” to a particular question, we can be 95% confident that the true percentage will fall within 3.5 points, or from 44.5% to 55.5%. 

About New America’s Education Policy Program

New America’s Education Policy Program uses original research and policy analysis to solve the nation’s critical education problems, serving as a trusted source of objective analysis and innovative ideas for policymakers, educators, and the public at large. We combine a steadfast concern for low-income and historically disadvantaged people with a belief that better information about education can vastly improve both the policies that govern educational institutions and the quality of learning itself.

This survey was made possible through a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About Lake Research Partners

Lake Research Partners is a leading public opinion and political strategy research firm providing expert research-based strategy for campaigns, issue advocacy groups, foundations, unions, and non-profit organizations. 

About Chesapeake Beach Consulting

Bob Carpenter, President and Founder of Chesapeake Beach Consulting has over 25 years of research experience and over 40 years of political experience.  He has worked in many policy areas including the education arena.  Prior to founding Chesapeake Beach Consulting, Bob worked for American Viewpoint, a Republican research company.