Varying Degrees

Recently, there has been a shift in America’s political climate, with increasingly more people wanting evidence of the value of colleges and universities. To help policymakers, educators, and the public at large better understand these changes and identify fruitful ways to respond to them, New America requires clear and reliable information about the country’s views on higher education.

In 2018, New America partnered with NORC to revise and revamp their annual longitudinal survey, Varying Degrees, transitioning from a telephone-based survey to one using both online and telephone data sources. In 2020, NORC redesigned Varying Degrees 2020 to employ the NORC AmeriSpeak Panel for data collection in order to reach traditionally underrepresented populations; researchers oversampled African-American, Latinx, and Asian-American communities, as well as traditionally hard to reach populations such as young adults and current college and university students. In 2021, Varying Degrees 2021 researchers oversampled adults and current college and university students with students loans, and asked about potential policy changes with the new Biden-Harris administration. In 2022 (6th annual data collection), NORC, in partnership with New America, redesigned the instrument to improve flow between topical sections, and oversampled adults with student loans.

Key topics in the 2022 survey include the following questions related to respondents’ views on higher education:

  • Value of college education
  • How a college education can contribute to economic mobility
  • Who should fund education after high school
  • How institutions should be held accountable
  • Whether colleges and universities should have admissions preferences
  • Where support for loan forgiveness exists in regards to recent elections

Varying Degrees 2021 surveyed 2,174 Americans in total. Key insights from the 2022 survey include the following:

State of higher education

  • Only slightly over a third (37%) of all 2022 respondents agreed that higher education in America is fine how it is. This trend has held steady, as there were no statistically significant differences in respondents’ perceptions between 2019-2022
  • Nearly three-fourths of 2022 respondents agreed that postsecondary education confers benefits to both students (73%) and the general population (73%), suggesting that they view the return on investment just as beneficial for both groups.


  • Nearly two-thirds (63%) of all 2022 respondents reported that the government (rather than students) should be responsible for funding higher education.
    • While there were no statistically significant cross-year differences among overall respondents between 2019-2022, examining 2022 responses across political affiliation and racial/ethnic groups revealed statistically significant cross-group differences.
    • Democrats and respondents of color were significantly more likely to report that the government should be responsible for funding higher education.

Data collection for Varying Degrees 2023 is scheduled to begin at the end of January 2023. NORC expects to provide an update with 2023 findings at the end of May 2023.

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