Survey | Education

APM Survey: Should public higher education be free?

And is a college degree worth the cost?

Photo: Evan Frost | MPR News

Photo: Evan Frost | MPR News

March 11, 2019

The APM Research Lab, in collaboration with APM Reports’ Educate team and The Hechinger Report, conducted a survey to see what Americans believe about the value of a college degree—relative to its cost—and whether they felt that public higher education should be free. Our nationally representative survey of 1,003 American adults (18+) was conducted between November 27-December 2, 2018.

Survey respondents were asked these two questions:

  1. Would you support or oppose making tuition at public colleges and universities free for anyone who is qualified to attend?

  2. These days, would you say that getting a four-year college degree is worth the cost, or not?

KEY FINDINGS:

  • All together, 72 percent of Americans say they would support free tuition at public colleges and universities for qualified applicants.

  • Support for free college tuition is particularly strong, reaching 80 percent or higher, among women, those age 18 to 44, Latinx and non-Hispanic Black respondents, Democrats, part-time workers, and parents with a child (under age 18) living at home.

  • Despite the widespread desire for free college, a majority of Americans agree that college is worth its current high price tag: Nearly 6 in 10 Americans—regardless of whether they attended college or not—say the cost of college is worth the investment.

  • However, 36 percent of Americans say that college is not worth the cost. When this group was asked to choose which of two responses was closer to why they believe this, the majority (60%) said, “people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt.” Alternately, 36 percent of the group who believes college is not worth it agreed with this statement, “you can get a good job without a four-year degree.”



Who supports and who opposes free tuition for public colleges?

A majority of all the groups we analyzed support free tuition for students qualified to attend public colleges, except for Republicans who are split (47% support, 50% oppose). Support is particularly strong, reaching 80 percent or higher, among: women, those age 18 to 44, Latinx and non-Hispanic Black respondents, Democrats, parents, and part-time workers. Other meaningful differences in this data exist by sex, age, education, household income, race, political affiliation, and employment status, as detailed below.

The data show approximately 80 percent of Americans adults below age 45 support free tuition for public college and universities, compared with 57 to 66 percent among those age 55 and older. Additionally, Americans age 45-54 are more likely than those of traditional retirement age to support this idea, with 72 percent of the former group saying this.

82% of American parents support making tuition free at public universities and colleges.

Americans with a high school degree or less education are more likely than those with at least some college education to support tuition-free public higher education for those qualified to attend (79% and 67%, respectively).

About 80 percent of those with a household income of less than $50,000 support free tuition for public higher education institutions compared to two-thirds of U.S. residents with a household income of at least $75,000.

By race, the data reveal that 66 percent of the White non-Hispanic population support free college tuition for public institutions compared to over 80 percent of Black non-Hispanic and Latinx adults. Opposition to the idea is twice as high among non-Hispanic whites (30%) compared to the Black and Latinx populations (12-15%).

The greatest divide on this issue follows political lines: 9 in 10 Democrats support free tuition for public college and universities for qualified applicants, while the share drops to 7 in 10 for Independents, and just under half for Republicans. Conversely, a full half of Republicans oppose free tuition for public higher education institutions, while 27 percent of Independents and nine percent of Democrats feel the same way.

Eighty-two percent of parents (or guardians) with children under age 18 in their household support making tuition free at public universities and colleges—compared to 68 percent of adults without children at home.

Eighty-three percent of adults in the United States who are employed part-time support free tuition for qualified applicants; the share drops more than 10 points for full-time workers (71%) and 20 points for retirees (63%). Explore responses by employment status and other characteristics in the viz below.



Who thinks college is worth its cost?

A majority of Americans (58%) agree that a four-year college degree is worth its current high price tag—regardless whether they attended college or not. There is broad, general support for the value of a four-year post-secondary degree, with at least 50 percent of Americans saying they think the cost is worth it regardless of age, income, sex, region, education, race, or metro status. However, there were some groups more likely to feel college is worth the cost than others.

The most notable difference among groups was by respondents’ educational attainment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was much more support for the cost of college education among those who had completed a four-year degree than among those who had not: 7 in 10 Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree say a college degree is worth the cost, compared with about 5 in 10 for those with some college (including a 2-year degree or certificate) or less education.

Regionally, residents of the South are more likely to see value in a college degree (64%) than those in the North East or North Central United States (49-54%). Additionally, people living in metro areas of the country are somewhat more likely to say a college degree is worth the cost compared to those in non-metro areas (61% and 51%, respectively).

Roughly 60 percent of adults in each age group compared indicate that college is worth the cost, except for those age 55 to 64, where support falls to half. 

Political affiliation reveals that Republicans and Independents align on this topic while Democrats diverge. Fifty-five percent of Republicans and Independents believe a four-year college degree is worth the cost, while that share increases to 69 percent among Democrats.

Explore responses by political party and other characteristics in the viz below.

While 58 percent of all Americans agree that a four-year college degree was worth the cost, 36 percent of Americans say that college is not worth its price tag. In a follow-up question, when the latter group was asked to choose which of two responses came closer to explaining why they believe this, the majority (60%) said, “people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt.” Alternately, 36 percent of the group who believes college is not worth it agreed with the statement, “you can get a good job without a four-year degree.”

THIS IS OUR SECOND SURVEY RELEASE REGARDING AMERICAN'S’ VIEWS OF HIGHER EDUCATION. CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT AMERICANS THINK ABOUT GOVERNMENT FUNDING FOR PUBLIC COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES.