- Almost half of adults in the U.S., 47%, think online education is of roughly the same quality as in-person instruction, increasing sharply from about a third who said the same last year, according to survey data released Tuesday by left-leaning think tank New America.
- But four out of five respondents said online education should cost less than in-person instruction, the survey found. More generally, people are almost evenly divided over whether students can get affordable, high-quality education after high school.
- The belief that higher education is benefiting the U.S. is declining. In 2020, 69% of respondents to the New America survey said colleges were having a positive effect. This year, just 55% said that. Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say higher ed was positive, 73% vs. 37%.
New America has been collecting data for its Varying Degrees survey for six years. That covers a period of significant change in the U.S., including divisive election cycles, the coronavirus pandemic, a reckoning with racism spurred by the police killing of George Floyd, and economic turmoil.
In light of those changes, New America makes the case that views on higher ed have changed little.
"While there has been relative consistency in Americans’ views about educational opportunities after high school, there are some signs over the past couple of years that positivity has declined somewhat," a report on the survey said.
But various data points reveal important changes over time, partisan splits and different experiences based on race.
Most respondents, 64%, said U.S. adults need some type of postsecondary credential to have financial security. Slightly more than a quarter said a bachelor's degree or more is needed. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say a high school diploma was enough to generate financial security.
Similarly, 76% of respondents called education after high school a good return on investment for students. That share has been largely stable since data collection started in 2017. But again, Republicans were less likely to favor higher ed than Democrats.
Well over half of respondents said the government should do more to fund higher education, with 80% saying states should spend more tax dollars to make higher ed more affordable and 78% saying the federal government should do so.
However, public colleges and minority-serving institutions are the only segments of higher ed that should get tax dollars, according to most respondents. About eight in 10 said they were comfortable with spending tax money on public community colleges, 68% supported such spending for public four-year universities, and 63% said it should be spent on minority-serving institutions.
Less than half of respondents, 45%, were comfortable with taxpayer dollars going to private nonprofit colleges. That was still higher than the 33% who supported public money for for-profit colleges.
A substantial majority said colleges should lose access to some government funding if they poorly perform — 78% supported restrictions based on low graduation rates, 73% supported restrictions based on whether graduates earn a living wage, and 70% favored yanking funding when students had high debt compared to their earnings.
A third of people with student debt owe more than they did when they first borrowed. One-third of borrowers have defaulted on their loans at some point, the data shows. Even more borrowers who are Black or earn low wages have defaulted at some point — 46% of Black borrowers have defaulted, as have 48% of borrowers making less than $30,000 per year.
The survey also offers some insight into test-optional admissions policies, which have spread widely during the pandemic. Just 6% of respondents said ACT or SAT scores should be required and used heavily during admissions, while 38% said they should be required but used in combination with indicators like grades.
On the other hand, 42% said test scores should be optional and used in combination with grades. Only 11% were in favor of disallowing test scores and requiring colleges to use other information in admissions.
New America interviewed more than 1,500 adults in April and May for the survey. The think tank oversampled several relatively small groups — Black, Latinx, Asian American and student loan borrowers — to gain statistically reliable information about them.