higher education

5 public opinions about the state of higher education

National poll gauges public perception on the value of a degree and race-based admissions criteria

“Over the past year, Americans have been confronted with national news stories about sexual assault, free speech, racial conflict, and mental health on college campuses,” says Pulitzer-prize winning editor Ken Cooper, who oversaw the project for WGBH News. “We decided it was critically important … to take the country’s pulse on some fundamental questions about higher education, including whether or not Americans still value a college degree.”

1. Value of a college education
The poll measures broad sentiments about the value of attending college. When asked about the value of attending college, considering the costs to attend and the benefits of graduation, 68 percent of respondents stated college is worth attending. However, when asked if a college degree is needed, 55 percent did not believe it was necessary to graduate from college to get ahead in life.

2. Admissions and race
Survey respondents believe admissions should be based on a variety of factors, with 70 percent believing admissions should be based on more than simply grades and exam scores. Athletic talent, musical talent, leadership, and overcoming hardships such as health issues and poverty are all seen as positive factors in the admissions process. Eighty-six percent of respondents believe it is important for colleges and universities to create a racially and ethnically diverse campus. However, 72 percent oppose the use of race as a factor in college admissions. This percentage was consistent among white and non-white respondents. The finding contrasts with 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, upholding that colleges can use race as one factor in deciding which applicants to admit.

3. Mental health and assault
Overall, 61 percent of Americans believe colleges and universities are doing a good job of providing a safe social environment for students. However, they believe colleges and universities are doing too little to combat sexual assault and mental-health issues on campus. Half of those surveyed believe colleges and universities are not doing a good job looking after the mental-health needs of students, while 54 percent do not believe these institutions are protecting students from sexual assault.

4. Free speech on college campuses
Overwhelmingly, Americans perceive college campuses to be partisan environments, with 59 percent believing they lean towards one particular political viewpoint and 77 percent of respondents identifying colleges as leaning liberal. Seventy-nine percent of respondents see this as a problem and 20 percent do not identify it as a problem. Fifty-seven percent of people surveyed believe people whose speech may be deemed offensive should still be invited to speak on college campuses.

5. Support for public universities
Among respondents, support for public colleges and universities remains strong, until asked about higher taxes to ensure these universities remain affordable. Seventy-six percent of those polled have a favorable opinion of public colleges and universities and 78 percent would be concerned about reduced funding for these schools. However, 49 percent of respondents are opposed to paying higher taxes that would enable additional residents to attend these schools.

Commissioned by the news team at Boston public media producer WGBH, the national poll surveyed 1,002 adults 18-65, across ethnic, geographic, and economic groups. The poll was conducted August 21– 25, 2018 by Abt Associates, based in Cambridge, Mass. The margin of error for most results is +/- 3.5 percent.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

Laura Ascione