Varying Degrees

How Americans Perceive Higher Education in 2019

This year, New America celebrates 20 years of creating and incubating the next big ideas that address some of the nation's and the world’s toughest problems. We are thinkers, researchers, problem-solvers, and storytellers, united by our goal to hold our nation to its highest ideals. We recognize the challenges presented by rapid technological and social change, and work to ensure that the solutions made possible by those changes lead to greater opportunity for all. As we reach forward toward the next 20 years of New America, we will strive to be an engine of American renewal, at home and abroad.

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Only one in three Americans think higher education is fine the way it is. It is no wonder there is a fair amount of pessimism: College costs are soaring, and students and families are increasingly on the hook to finance their own educations through earnings, savings, and loans. It seems every day there is an article about the burden and rapid growth of federal student loans, which now total over $1.5 trillion. Several recent high-profile scandals surrounding free speech, campus climate, and admissions to some of America’s most elite institutions may be contributing to this frustration too.

But Americans’ opinions about higher education are complex. Understanding this complexity is important for learning how to talk about the value of educational pathways after high school and crafting thoughtful policy solutions to meet the needs of today’s students. Against this backdrop, Varying Degrees 2019: New America’s Third Annual Survey on Higher Education surveyed 2,029 Americans ages 18 and older to better understand their perceptions of education after high school, its contribution to economic mobility, how state and federal government should prioritize its funding, and what role it plays in the 2020 presidential election.

Please join New America’s Higher Education Initiative as we take a closer look at the survey results, and discuss the implications of these findings for students, institutional leaders, and policymakers.

Follow the conversation online using #VaryingDegrees and following @NewAmericaEd.


9:00-9:30 AM: Registration & Breakfast

9:30-9:35 AM: Welcoming Remarks

Kevin Carey, @KevinCarey1
Vice President Education Policy and Knowledge Management, New America

9:35-10:00 AM: Presentation of the Data & HigherEd Polling Dashboard

Alejandra Acosta, @aleacostaed
Policy Analyst, Education Policy Program, New America

Sophie Nguyen, @SophieSG17
Program Associate, Education Policy Program, New America

10:00-11:00 AM: Panel Presentation - Behind the Numbers of the Student Loan Crisis


Diane Harris, @dianeharris
Editor at Large, Newsweek


Fenaba Addo, @fenabaaddo
Assistant Professor of Consumer Finance, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dominique Baker, @bakerdphd
Assistant Professor of Education Policy, Southern Methodist University

Sarah Sattelmeyer, @sellensatt
Manager of Project on Student Borrower Success, The Pew Charitable Trusts

11:00 AM - 12:00 PM: New America & Aspen Ascend Panel Presentation: How Students Who Care for Dependents Navigate Higher Education


Elissa Nadworny, @ElissaNadworny
Reporter/Editor, NPR Ed


Brittany Block
Ascend Parent Advisor, Jeremiah Program Alumni

Lesley Del Rio
Ascend Parent Advisor, Program Manager at Boys and Girls Club of Metro Denver

Ariel Ventura-Lazo
Ascend Parent Advisor

Joseph Yusuf
Generation Hope Scholar