AAC&U News, June/July 2017

Facts & Figures – Higher Education and the American Dream

While most Americans believe that higher education is valuable for students and beneficial to society, they also believe that the state of the economy, self-interest, and costs inhibit some institutions from helping students achieve the American Dream. These findings are included in a recent report, Varying Degrees: New America's Annual Survey on Higher Education, based on a survey of 1,600 US adults. The report features an interactive tool to explore data that has been disaggregated by race, income, age, education level, and several other indicators. Overall, the data show that “people are aware that the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.” The themes reflected in this report will be examined in AAC&U’s 2018 Annual Meeting, “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?” The Annual Meeting will focus on making the case for higher education as a pathway to the fully realized American Dream for all students, serving as a catalyst for economic success, democratic vitality, and social participation.

Perceptions of Higher Education and the Job Market

  • Among all respondents, 59 percent believe it is harder to get a well-paying job now than it was for their parents, and 64 percent think that affording a family has become more difficult.
  • Approximately half (51 percent) of all respondents believe “that there are lots of well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree” (see fig. 1). However, “there is wide agreement (75 percent) that it is easier to be successful with a degree than without. Generation Z, who is just entering higher education or the workforce, overwhelmingly believes this to be the case (84 percent agree).

Figure 1 (click to expand)


The Value of Higher Education

  • Half of the respondents think Americans do not respect people without a higher education. “For the younger generations, this is especially the case: only 37 percent of Generation Z, 31 percent of Millennials, and 35 percent of Generation X believe that American society respects those who have not gone to college.”
  • Most Americans (71 percent) see higher education as “a social good or both a social good and a private benefit,” a result that remains similar across age groups, political ideologies (conservative or liberal), and other demographic traits.
  • Two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents said that higher education institutions should support student success. However, nearly as many (58 percent) think that institutions “put their own long-term interests first.”
  • Only one-quarter of Americans believe the US higher education system is “fine how it is,” and just 13 percent of millennials—who “are on track to be the most educated generation to date, according to the Pew Research Center”—believe so (see fig. 2).

Figure 2 (click to expand)


  • The report suggests that inequitable access to higher education could be affecting this dissatisfaction. Just 42 percent believe that “all Americans have a decent chance of getting into a good college.”
  • Low completion and graduation rates could also be affecting perceptions of higher education. While 48 percent of respondents believe that most college students do not finish their degrees, fewer (46 percent) believe that most students graduate.

More Favorable Perceptions of Two- and Four-Year Public Institutions

  • While most respondents thought all types of institutions “prepare people to be successful” or “contribute to a strong American workforce,” perceptions of whether higher education was worth the financial cost of attendance varied widely for two-year, four-year, public, private, or for-profit institutions.
  • Most respondents agreed that two-year colleges (82 percent) and public four-year institutions (61 percent) were worth the cost of attendance (see fig. 3). Respondents also widely view “public colleges and universities as being for people in their situation and putting students first.”
  • However, far fewer Americans believe that private or for-profit institutions are “worth the cost,” “for people in my situation,” or put students before the institution’s own needs.

Figure 3 (click to expand)


Did You Know?

While perceptions of public institutions were generally more positive than they were for private or for-profit schools, respondents generally looked down upon government oversight of higher education. Just 34 percent believe the federal government positively affects higher education. While this figure was higher for state government (43 percent), 57 percent of respondents also believed that “higher education institutions in my state should act with greater independence from the government.”

Unless otherwise stated, all information and graphics in this article are from the “Varying Degrees” report from New America, which carries a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license.   

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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