By: Nycole Stawinoga, Program Manager, Research & Communications

Today, a college degree is more essential than ever before to secure a well-paying job. Yet, almost anyone can tell you that the financial cost of attaining that degree is becoming more and more burdensome as college tuition, fees, books, and room/board costs continue to rapidly rise. What does this mean for higher education in the U.S.? How do Americans perceive the U.S. higher education system? Do they think the higher education system is working? Do they think attending college is still worth it? New America answers these questions and more in its recent publication “Varying Degrees: New America’s Annual Survey on Higher Education.” For the report, New America surveyed 1,600 Americans on issues related to higher education and economic mobility in the U.S. The results help provide a better understanding of what Americans know about and how they perceive higher education in the U.S. The report’s key findings include:

  • Finding a high-paying job is not easy. According to the report “over 90 percent of children born in the average American household in 1940 made more than their parents, but only half of millennials . . . will earn more over their lifetimes than their parents.
  • Nearly 75 percent of those surveyed believe it is easier to be successful with a degree and 79 percent believe those who enroll in college benefit. Despite this, only 25 percent of those surveyed believe the higher education system in the United States is “working fine.”
  • New America’s report cites data by the U.S. Department of Education (USED) that found “just over half of first-time, full-time undergraduates manage to obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years,” despite the benefits of attaining a college degree.
  • This could, in part, be because college is expensive. According to the report, from 2006 to today, the Consumer Price Index increased 63 percent for tuition & fees and 88 percent for textbooks compared to only 21 percent for other goods such as food, energy, and housing.
  • While college is expensive, minorities do not receive the most financial aid, despite the perception by some to the contrary. In fact, “although students of color (especially African American, Latino, and Native American) are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college and are disproportionately low-income,” USED statistics cited in the report find only 44.2 percent of available financial aid is awarded to minority students.

All students need access to high quality, affordable higher education opportunities. This is especially important for students from underserved populations. According to New America’s survey results, Americans do not think the U.S. higher education system is working, suggesting there is still more work to do to achieve this goal. This includes ensuring all public colleges and universities have sufficient sources of government funding and ensuring all students, especially underserved learners, have access to financial aid. Further, there is a larger role that institutions of higher education can play to help ensure all students achieve higher education success. More than two-thirds of Americans surveyed, “believe that colleges and universities should help their students succeed.” It’s clear that we still have work to do to ensure that degree attainment and the promise of the American Dream is one that all our students can achieve.