Download PDF Version
Preface and Methodology
Executive Summary
I. The Importance of Higher Education
II. Concerns about Price, Confidence about Accessiblity
III. The Role of Government
IV. Other Ways to Keep College Affordable
Probing Behind the Findings
About the Author
About Public Agenda
About the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

home   about us   news   reports   crosstalk   search   links    

Page 4 of 12

I. The Importance of Higher Education

In the view of most Americans, a college education has now taken on the importance that a high school education had in the past, and has become a necessary ingredient for a good job and comfortable lifestyle. This value is shared even more widely among African-American and Hispanic parents.*

  • 84% say that it is extremely (37%) or very (47%) important to have a college degree in order to get ahead.1
  • 87% strongly (68%) or somewhat (19%) agree that a college education has become as important as a high school diploma used to be.2
  • 76% say that the country can never have too many college graduates; only 18% say it's possible to reach a point where too many people have a college degree.3
  • 77% say that getting a college education today is more important than it was ten years ago.4
  • 62% of parents of high school students say that a college education is absolutely necessary for their child to get; another 35% say it's helpful but not necessary, and only 3% say it's not that important.5
  • 66% of those who did not go to college wish that they had,6 and 62% of those who did not go to college feel that having gone to college would have made a significant difference in their current standard of living.7
This is not to say, however, that Americans believe a college education guarantees success, or that a lack of a college education condemns people to failure. For example, 67% say that there are still many ways to succeed in today's work world without a college education.8

Hispanic parents and African-American parents stress the importance of higher education in even higher numbers than white parents, or the population at large
(see Table 1).

Preparation for jobs and career is seen as the primary role for higher education, but the public also stresses the importance of general skills such as maturity and getting along with others.

  • 78% strongly agree (38%) or agree (40%) that college is not doing its job if its graduates are not prepared to enter the job market.9
  • 96% say that career training is a very (72%) or somewhat (24%) important goal for colleges and universities.10
  • 64% say that the primary purpose of a college education is to prepare students for specific careers, rather than preparing them for work in general or providing them with general knowledge.11

But many also say it's important for college students to gain general life skills--for example, strong majorities say it is absolutely essential that college students gain a sense of maturity and how to manage on their own (71%) and learn to get along with people different from themselves (68%). Sixty percent say the same about gaining specific expertise and knowledge in the careers they have chosen.12

When asked in another way about the relative importance of a well-rounded education versus job training, the public is divided. Half (51%) of the public say that if they had a child in college, it would be more important for their child to get a well-rounded education; 40% think that training for a well-paying job would be more important. 13

The majority of Americans feel that colleges and universities do a reasonably good job (especially compared to public high schools), but opinion is divided on whether a higher education is worth the prices that are charged.

  • 57% say that colleges in their state are doing an excellent (15%) or good (42%) job, compared to only 33% who say that their public high schools are doing an excellent (6%) or good (27%) job.14
  • 75% are completely (19%) or somewhat (56%) satisfied with the quality of education received in American colleges and universities today.15
  • 58% say colleges are doing enough to prepare students for the global economy.16
  • 54% say a four-year college education is usually worth the price, 36% say that it is sometimes worth the price, and 9% say it is rarely or never worth the price.17

Americans are especially divided about the value of college when a price tag is mentioned. Forty-seven percent say that a person gets enough out of a college education to justify spending from $7,000 to $18,000 a year for it, as compared to 40% who think the expense is not justified.18

*Percentages in the text or tables may not equal 100% due to rounding or missing answer categories. Unless otherwise noted, the results we report are based on surveys of the general public.


National Center logo
© 1998 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications