Higher education can increase an individual’s economic mobility, and it has done so for millions of students who have earned degrees. But persistent gaps in educational attainment by race and income, the rising price of college and subsequent increase in student debt, and an increase in the number of students not completing their programs prevent college from being the springboard into the middle class that it should be. This may help explain why, according to our survey data, only one in four Americans thinks higher education is fine the way it is.
The sense that higher education needs to change is something Megan understands. “I had an idea that if I worked really hard—like my parents did—I could work in the field that I wanted,” she explains. “I didn’t want to do anything glamorous, but I realize that it’s a pipe dream now. I think college and higher education is enriching and should be available to all who want it, but for me and many others in my generation, it hasn’t delivered on its promise.”
The public opinion data gathered by our survey provide insights into what Americans know about, and how they perceive, higher education. These can help policymakers and researchers consider new ways for college to deliver on its promise, such as improving how it is financed, and meeting the needs of students who are older and more diverse than those in the past.