As sociologists who study the financing of higher education, we have a keen interest in how students and families pay for their education, including how Americans would like these systems to change. For the past ten years, we have been interviewing Americans to understand their notions of responsibility vis-à-vis higher education. Over time, we have documented significant shifts in the way Americans think about this issue. More and more of them support public investment in higher education.
How we conducted our research
Our primary data comes from national telephone surveys we conducted in 2010 and 2015 through the Indiana Center for Survey Research. We spoke with 831 respondents in the summer of 2010 and 847 different respondents in the summer of 2015. As we describe in detail in our book and the documents published here, the respondents were broadly representative of American adults in terms of the main demographics and social attitudes. We then conducted follow-up web surveys through Qualtrics in fall 2019 with 1,201 respondents and summer 2020 with 1,223 respondents. Notably, we collected 2020 data after the start of the covid-19 pandemic, primarily to assess whether the pandemic had changed people’s views on this issue.
We start every interview or survey with two key questions. First, we ask who should be primarily responsible for funding college education. Should it be students, parents, the federal government, or state and local government? Second, we ask who should have the second greatest responsibility, with the same possible answers.
We do this because when we collate their responses, we learn a lot about how respondents approach college funding. The people who choose “students” and “parents” whom we classify as individualists: They believe that individuals should be responsible for higher education, with little government involvement. The people who choose the “government” we classify as collectivists: They believe that the government should facilitate access to higher education by assuming the main financial responsibility. People who list both an individual and a government actor endorse a shared responsibilitywhich requires individual investments but with significant contributions from public sources.
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Over time, more Americans have endorsed collective or shared responsibility for college funding.
When we began conducting interviews in 2010, the results were clear: Most Americans, about two-thirds, preferred individualistic college funding, in which students and parents pay. (Note: when we talk about percentages, they are actually predicted probabilities derived from models with controls for age, race/ethnicity, gender, education, and income.)
This did not surprise us. Historically, Americans have believed deeply in autonomy and individual responsibility. Federal financial aid forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) assume that parents will pay some or all of their children’s tuition, treating this individualistic approach as given.
Decades ago, when one of us analyzed federal data on these same issues from the 1980s, the results were almost identical to what we found in our 2010 survey. virtually the same between 1980 and our survey in 2010, we assumed that this individualistic trend would persist in the future.
That’s not what happened. When we conducted interviews again in 2015, we found that Americans were much more receptive to public investment in higher education. In fact, our sample was evenly split between those who preferred an individualistic solution and those who wanted the government to contribute much more substantially to funding college education. That’s what we found again in our tracking surveys in 2019 and 2020: Americans increasingly believed that the government should have substantial responsibility for funding higher education.
In 2020, shared responsibility was the most common answer (40%), followed by individualists (36%) and collectivists (23%). While collectivists are still the smallest group overall, they have nearly tripled their share of responses in just a decade: In 2010, only 9% of respondents preferred a collectivist solution in which the government funds higher education , as you can see in the figure. below.
Rising debt and rising tuition fees have led more Americans to believe the government should help pay
Although this rapid change in public opinion surprised us – generally, American public opinion is very slow to change – our interlocutors gave perfectly logical explanations.
They talked about the increase in student debt, which has only accelerated. They spoke of higher education as a right rather than a privilege and the need to earn a bachelor’s degree to earn a middle-class living. They also talked about expanding access to college for those who have no hope of paying their own fees.
As one man we spoke to said, “We’re a black family living off another family’s extra income. And no matter what I do, I know that my children will not have the opportunity to access higher education. We can’t afford it.
If the government were to invest more in higher education, according to our interviewees, cost would be much less of a barrier for students on the economic margin.
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This year, as College Decision Day approaches, President Biden and his administration are considering forgive federal student loans. Just as families decide how they will fulfill their responsibility for college, Biden decides what is and should be the role of government. For generations, college has been viewed as an individual good, but our data suggests that more Americans are willing to see the burden of college shared collectively.
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Natasha Quadlin (@nquadlin) is an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.
Brian Powell (@brianpowelliu) is the James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University.
Together they are the authors of “Who should pay? Higher Education, Accountability and the Public” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2022).