Americans Think Highly of Community College
New America releases 2018 survey on Americans' perception of higher education.
This May, New America, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. released its annual survey on Americans’ perceptions of higher education. According to the nationally-representative survey of adults ages 18 and older, nearly 85 percent of Americans believe two-year community colleges are worth the cost and more than two thirds think community colleges contribute to a strong American workforce, prepare people to be successful and happy in life, and are for people in their situation (figure 1).
The survey also explores the differences and similarities in opinions about various issues of American higher education related to quality, funding, and mobility across different party affiliations. The good news for community colleges is: No matter how widely Democrats and Republicans disagree on other issues related to higher education, they are aligned on questions about and have positive sentiments towards community colleges.
For example, Democrats and Republicans diverge on questions about whether higher education is good for society or an individual benefit. More than 75 percent of Democrats agree that the government should fund higher education because it is good for society, compared to only 34 percent of Republicans (figure 2). But interestingly, both groups unanimously agree that community colleges contribute to a strong American workforce (more than 80 percent for each group) (figure 3).
Similarly, while more than 90 percent of Democrats agree that state and federal governments should spend more tax dollars to make higher education more affordable, only about half of Republicans believe that is the case (figure 4). But more than 80 percent of both Democrats and Republicans think that community colleges, which are heavily dependent on public funding, are worth the cost (figure 5).
Americans’ positive views of community colleges may reflect their confidence in the public higher education system. However, also shown in the survey, only one in five think that higher education is fine the way it is--the number is the same when broken down by party affiliations (figure 6). The most cited reason is “too expensive”: nearly 40 percent listed this as the reason why higher education is not fine the way it is (figure 7).
Community colleges, known for their open admission policy, low tuition and fees, and geographic proximity, open the doors to higher education for a diverse set of students who have a variety of goals and needs, such as low-income students, first-generation college students, adults returning to college. This is what makes community colleges great, and likely one of the reasons Americans feel positive towards them.
The solid public support is a good sign for community colleges, but it doesn’t mean the job is done yet. The survey also shows that more than half of Americans believe that most people who go to college don’t graduate (figure 8). They are not entirely wrong: The most recent data from the Department of Education show that among students who were full-time first-time students in community colleges in 2013, only 60 percent returned to schools the following year, and just nearly 24 percent graduated in 3 years. Getting students to the door is one thing, getting them through is another thing, which requires extensive and thoughtful supports from college administrators. At community colleges, which serve a proportional number of underserved students, the job can be much harder.