Blogpost: Accounting for the personal and public benefits of higher education

By Kyle Southern

Nearly all Americans believe in the importance of higher education to enable social and economic mobility, but they carry deep concerns about its affordability and the ability of people with jobs and families, but no postsecondary credential, to complete their degrees.  These findings are included in the recently released report by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign.

Lumina and Gallup surveyed more than 1,000 Americans in late 2012 to gauge their attitudes and beliefs about the importance and accessibility of higher education.  Selected findings include:

  • Two-thirds of respondents indicated improved job prospects as a very important reason to earn a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma
  • Most respondents who did not have a postsecondary credential at the time of the survey indicated they would feel more financially secure if they had earned such a credential
  • More than a quarter of respondents felt American higher education has declined in quality in recent years
  • Only 26 percent of respondents agreed that higher education in this country is affordable for any student who desires to pursue a postsecondary credential

These findings tell us that Americans know that education beyond high school is important for enhancing an individual’s success, but they are simultaneously conflicted about whether the investment of time and money is worth the investment.  Policymakers at the state and national levels are concerned about the rising costs of tuition and fees, and recent economic turmoil has altered the way many Americans think about their job prospects and whether going back to college would improve their employability.  Further, a survey of young people last year found three-quarters of 14- to 23-year-olds had “some” or “major” concerns about their ability to pay for higher education.

Americans of all ages are rightly concerned about the costs of higher education, and they are right to believe postsecondary credentials can serve as gateways to improved job prospects.  However, pursuit of higher education cannot only be seen as a benefit to the individual degree seeker.  Higher education also serves to enable a more engaged and well-informed citizenry. Institutions of higher education play essential leadership roles in the production of knowledge and the provision of care across the country.  The perception of higher education as an economic benefit to individuals, rather than also seeing it as a broader social benefit, risks further enabling a policy structure that reduces public support for the field.

Only considering the personal benefits of higher education, therefore, can lead to reductions in public support for higher education that lead to the increased costs of postsecondary programs to which so many Americans point as a barrier to entry or degree completion.

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