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The Perceived Value of Public Colleges and Universities

Photo: Lorianne DiSabato / Flickr
The Perceived Value of Public Colleges and Universities

Findings by Generation

For years, tuition and fees have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation. From 2006 to today, the Consumer Price Index for tuition and fees increased 63 percent, compared with 21 percent for all other items (such as food, energy, and housing). And students and families are not just feeling the crunch over the price of tuition and fees. The cost of textbooks and college housing has increased 88 percent and 51 percent, respectively, over the past 10 years. Given that Americans believe that it is easier to be successful with a college degree than without, and that many jobs require a college degree, what types of institutions are most worth the cost?

Americans believe both community colleges (82 percent) and public four-year colleges (61 percent) are worth the cost. They also strongly believe that these public institutions prepare students to be successful and contribute to the American workforce. They see public colleges and universities as being for people in their situation and putting students first.

But while a majority of Americans think all types of colleges and universities contribute to a strong workforce and prepare people to be successful, there is a drop-off compared to public institutions when it comes to “being worth the cost,” “being for people in my situation,” and “always putting students first.” People do not believe that private and for-profit universities are worth the cost (43 percent and 40 percent respectively) and also do not believe that private and for-profit universities are worth the cost (42 percent and 41 percent respectively).

Although a majority of Americans believe that institutions overall put their own long-term interests before those of their students, when asked about each type of institution, this seems to be more the case for private, for-profit institutions. Most Americans believe that public and private institutions always put students first; they do not feel the same way about the for-profit colleges and universities, where only 39 percent believe this to be the case.


When looking at generational differences, Generation Z—people currently the same age as traditionally-aged college students—are most likely to believe that community colleges are for people like them (75 percent), prepare people to be successful (85 percent), and always put their students first (71 percent). Generation Z is also more likely to say that public four-year colleges and universities are for students in their situation (80 percent) and put their students first (57 percent).

Interestingly, the Silent Generation and Generation Z align in their perceptions of the for-profit sector. While most people agree that for-profit colleges and universities prepare people to be successful, this is especially the case for Generation Z (71 percent) and the Silent Generation (67 percent). Generation Z and the Silent Generation are also more likely to believe that for-profits contribute to a strong American workforce (67 percent and 65 percent, respectively). In addition, a small majority of members of Generation Z (50 percent) and the Silent Generation (51 percent) believe that for-profits are worth the cost, compared to 31 percent of Millennials, 38 percent of Generation X, and 37 percent of Baby Boomers.


Two-year community colleges


Four-year public colleges or universities


Four-year private colleges or universities


For-profit colleges or universities

The Perceived Value of Public Colleges and Universities

Findings by Household Income

Americans believe that public colleges and universities are for people in their situation and are worth the cost. There are some interesting differences that emerge, however, when looking at the data by income. Lower- and middle-income (68 percent for both) Americans are much more likely to see community colleges as being for people in their situation compared with upper-income Americans (58 percent). Upper-income individuals agree more that community colleges are worth the cost (88 percent) compared with lower- (76 percent) and middle-income (83 percent) Americans.



When it comes to private and for-profit institutions, regardless of income, Americans do not see these institutions as being for “people in my situation” or as being worth the cost. Lower-income Americans are more likely to think that private, for-profit schools are for them (46 percent) compared with middle- (42 percent), and upper-income (40 percent) Americans. Lower-income Americans are also more likely to believe that for-profits are worth the cost (46 percent).