In Depth

Varying Degrees 2017

New America's Annual Survey on Higher Education

For 2019 data click here.

For 2018 data click here.

Americans believe in the tremendous potential of higher education—but they also feel that higher education is falling short of that promise. New America’s inaugural annual poll about perceptions of higher education reveals a gap between what higher education could, and should, be and what higher education currently is.

Varying Degrees: New America’s Annual Survey on Higher Education surveys 1,600 Americans ages 18 and older to better understand their perceptions of and knowledge about higher education and economic mobility. The survey shows unifying themes as well as differences across age, gender, generation, region, and socioeconomic status when it comes to the value of a college education, who is responsible for student success, the ideal role of government, and the goal of higher education.

Our top findings include:

  • Americans are split about whether there are lots of well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. About half (51 percent) agree that there are lots of well-paying jobs that do not require college attendance.
  • There is wide agreement (75 percent), however, that it is easier to be successful with a degree than without.
  • Only a quarter of Americans agree that our higher education system is functioning fine just the way it is.
  • Over half (57 percent) of Americans believe that colleges and universities should help their students succeed.

This survey provides an important opportunity to see how the opinions of and knowledge about higher education of older generations such as the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers compare to Millennials and their younger counterparts, Generation Z.

The survey data can help inform education policy and funding decisions that affect all Americans, but particularly current and prospective college students. This year’s findings will also serve as a baseline to measure shifts in beliefs and perceptions over time.

Watch the Event:


Explore the Data

Use our interactive tool to view the results of each question, broken out by demographic.


It is getting harder to achieve the American Dream. Megan's story shows us just that.

The American Dream

Americans believe the American Dream—from finding a well-paying job to supporting a family—is more difficult compared to their parents.

The Expectations Gap

Americans see room for higher education to improve. Only one in four Americans agrees that our system is just fine the way it is.

The Perceived Value of Public Colleges and Universities

Americans believe both community colleges (82 percent) and public four-year colleges (61 percent) are worth the cost.

Perception vs. Reality: Higher Education Finance

We tested 1,600 Americans on their knowledge of higher education finance. How well did they score?

Perception vs. Reality: The Typical College Student

We tested 1,600 Americans on their knowledge of higher education students. How well did they score?

Institution Profile: Walla Walla Community College

For a winemaking program that serves relatively few students, Walla Walla's is making a pretty big impact.

Institution Profile: CUNY-Lehman College

Now approaching its 40th anniversary, CUNY-Lehman College’s adult degree program is the oldest program of its kind in the CUNY system.

Policy Implications

How can these data help policymakers and researchers consider new ways for college to deliver on its promise?