Varying Degrees: The State of Higher Education
Americans’ opinions about higher education are dramatically shifting.
Amid skyrocketing college tuition costs and a school debt crisis, more people are asking whether a college degree is worth the money. But the skepticism about the value of a postsecondary education goes beyond just the financial concerns, with some groups challenging the value of the knowledge itself. To help policymakers, educators, and the public better understand these changes and identify fruitful ways to respond, New America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., realized it needed clear and reliable information.
NORC conducts annual surveys to keep pace with emerging issues in higher education.
With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, New America partnered with NORC in 2017 to take over an existing survey project called Varying Degrees. NORC overhauled the survey, adding online data sources to traditional telephone methods. We also revamped the survey questions to make sure their terminology was appropriate for the wide range of participants.
Each year, NORC fine-tunes the survey’s language as the public’s understanding of complex issues, such as education debt, changes. While the study comprises seven core sections, NORC adds topical sections each year to capture opinions about evolving issues. For example, the 2022 study dug deeper into student loans and the use of standardized tests in admissions.
In 2020, we began using the NORC AmeriSpeak® Panel for data collection to reach traditionally underrepresented populations, such as Black, Latinx, and Asian-American communities, as well as hard-to-reach young adults and current students.
Varying Degree’s findings generate news and inform new policy ideas.
The data reveal a higher education system at a crossroads. The 2022 survey shows that public support for U.S. colleges and universities is seriously eroding. Just 55 percent of respondents believed that postsecondary institutions were leading the nation in a positive direction, down sharply from 69 percent in 2020. The results reflect the nation's political divide, with nearly three-quarters of Democrats seeing a positive effect compared to 37 percent of Republicans.
Other results from the 2022 survey showed that most Americans still recognize that a college degree is vital to future financial success:
- 75 percent believe a postsecondary degree is worth it for the student, a number that has remained stable since 2017.
- 64 percent think U.S. adults need a college degree to ensure financial security.
- 85 percent believe two-year institutions contribute to a strong workforce, compared with 78 percent for public four-year universities and about 70 percent for private nonprofit and minority-service colleges. Just 58 percent believe for-profit colleges contribute to a strong workforce.
- Nearly half of respondents agree that the quality of online education is about the same as in-person, a sharp jump from just a third last year.
The publicly available findings drive events and policies at New America and the Gates Foundation and generate news coverage from higher education trade publications and mainstream outlets.