Magazine Research Corner

The Ways Americans Value Higher Ed

We asked US adults what colleges and universities have to offer individuals, the economy, and the nation. Here are the results.

Spring 2023

In what ways and areas does the US public see the benefits of the college experience? To find out, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), in collaboration with Morning Consult, surveyed a representative sample of 2,210 US adults in August 2022.

When trying to discern the public perception of the value of higher education, researchers often confront survey respondents with stark binaries. For example, “Is higher education most valuable for helping people build skills or for helping people flourish in their lives?” This approach problematically suggests that higher education can’t be valuable in both ways. To counter this approach, for our research we assumed that higher education is valuable in multiple areas. We then sought to understand what types of statements best express value within each area. Specifically, we asked American adults to indicate their agreement with a series of statements that reflect higher education’s contributions in four areas: (1) strengthening the economy; (2) developing a person’s skills; (3) supporting a healthy democracy; and (4) increasing a person’s quality of life.

The results indicated relative consensus among American adults regarding specific statements in the four areas. Somewhat surprisingly, we did not find consistent or large differences between political parties, by race, or by gender. However, perhaps reflecting broader contestations around concepts like “democracy,” “citizenship,” and “civic engagement,” the survey results did show the least amount of agreement around statements expressing the ways higher education contributes to a healthy democracy.

Understanding the value proposition for higher education is informed by how people feel about higher education in general. To help frame our findings, we wanted to know how people feel about the comparative value of the higher education institution that serves their local community versus the value of higher education as a whole. The results, consistent across every demographic group—and by political party—suggest that colleges and universities need to do more to communicate their local impact and value. Here, we explore this and other key findings from the survey.

Click here for a PDF of the full spring 2023 Research Corner.

Illustrations by Josie Norton