All Americans see the value of higher education, but race continues to be a partisan flashpoint

New Axios-Ipsos Hard Truths poll finds that American attitudes towards higher education are remarkably similar until race gets mentioned

The author(s)

  • Chris Jackson Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Mallory Newall Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Neil Lloyd Senior Research Analyst, Public Affairs
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Washington, DC, August 21, 2021 — At a first glance, American views of higher education are remarkably unified across different racial and ethnic groups. Similar levels of white, Black, and Hispanic Americans believe higher education helps people like them succeed and similar levels register concern about the cost of that education. However, as soon as the topic of race is broached, political differences emerge. When asked about admissions policies that include the phrase “from a disadvantaged community”, white Republicans are almost half as likely to support it compared to a similar policy that does not include that phrase. Likewise, while half of Black Americans believe their race puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to higher education, more than half of white Democrats feel their race gives them and advantage vs only one in ten white Republicans. But when asked about feeling comfortable on a college campus, it is white Republicans who are least likely to say someone like them would feel comfortable in most higher education settings.

Detailed findings:

1. On the surface, Americans of all stripes have remarkably similar attitudes about the promise of higher education. Likewise, everyone shares similar levels of apprehension about its cost and value.

  • Most Americans perceive all forms of higher education as helping people like them succeed professionally and financially with trade programs or community colleges (87%) getting the most positive marks, followed by professional graduate schools (83%), post-graduate universities (76%), and four-year colleges (73%).
    • There is very little difference by race or ethnicity in how Americans answer this question.
  • A large majority of Americans describe four-year colleges (89%), post-graduate (92%), and professional graduate (94%) universities as expensive. By comparison, only 40% describe trade programs and community colleges as expensive.
    • Again, there is very little difference on perceptions of cost by race.
  • Americans are divided on if a four-year college education is worth the tuition. However, a majority of those with college education (51%) agree that it is worth it.
  • Americans are divided on if all people in the U.S. have an equal opportunity to get a college degree. There are few differences by race or ethnicity on this item.

2. Difference by race and ethnicity erupt when race is even hinted at regarding higher education.

  • The impact of race, particularly with white Republicans, is particularly apparent when questions are about university admissions.
    • White Republicans are almost half as likely (40%) to support admissions policies that have a racial connotation than one that omits that (69%).
    • Among white Democrats, there is virtually no difference from the admissions policy with a racial cue (82%) than the one that omits it (77%). Black Americans also exhibit little difference in support for the two different admissions policy statements (67% to 66%).
      • Racial cueing: “Allowing universities to base admissions on a range of factors, including test scores, potential, and if the applicant comes from a disadvantaged community.”
      • Nonracial cueing: “Allowing universities to base admissions on a range of factors, including test scores and potential.”
  • Half of Black Americans believe their race gives them a disadvantage when it comes to access and opportunity for higher education.
    • More than half (57%) of white Democrats feel their race is an advantage compared to only 12% of white Republicans.
  • A large majority of white Democrats (79%) and Black Americans (81%) believe that higher education needs to continue making changes to give minority Americans equal opportunities with white Americans. A majority of white Republicans (76%) think higher education has changed enough.

3. The impact of culture wars also emerges when people are asked if ‘someone like them’ would be comfortable on college campuses. White Republicans are among the least likely to say they would be comfortable at a university.

  • White Americans, particularly white Republicans, are less likely to say people like them would be comfortable in four-year colleges or post-graduate universities.
    • White Democrats, Black, and Hispanic Americans all register about the same levels of comfort. Asian Americans generally are slightly more likely to say they would be comfortable in four-year colleges or universities.

4. Americans have generally similar views on higher education policy, with most supporting free higher education but more mixed views on forgiving student debt.

  • A majority of Americans support making higher education free.
    • Ranging from supermajority support (73%) for making trade programs and community colleges free to any U.S. citizen to a bare majority (59%) supporting making four-year colleges free to any citizen.
  • Americans are more likely to support forgiving student debt for public service workers (i.e., teachers, first responders, social workers) and those with an income below $50,000 rather than forgiving up to a certain amount ($10k, $50k, etc.) for all people.
    • Over half of Democrats think public service workers (52%) and lower income earners (56%) should have their student debt erased, whereas 51% of Republicans say no one should have their student loans forgiven.
  • Views of testing are split with half the country (53%) supporting a national test system to determine admission to elite universities and half (51%) supporting the abolishment of standardized tests.
    • Black (65%) and Hispanic (60%) Americans are slightly more likely to support the abolishment of standardized tests.

5. Views of COVID-19 as a main issue have increased from our April-May Hard Truths poll, up 11 points to 41%. Only one in ten say education is a major topic of worry.

About the Study

This Axios/Ipsos Hard Truth Higher Education poll was conducted August 11th to August 18th, 2021 by Ipsos using our KnowledgePanel®. This poll is based on a nationally representative probability sample of 1,992 general population adults age 18 or older.

The survey was conducted using KnowledgePanel, the largest and most well-established online probability-based panel that is representative of the adult US population. Our recruitment process employs a scientifically developed addressed-based sampling methodology using the latest Delivery Sequence File of the USPS – a database with full coverage of all delivery points in the US. Households invited to join the panel are randomly selected from all available households in the U.S. Persons in the sampled households are invited to join and participate in the panel. Those selected who do not already have internet access are provided a tablet and internet connection at no cost to the panel member. Those who join the panel and who are selected to participate in a survey are sent a unique password-protected log-in used to complete surveys online. As a result of our recruitment and sampling methodologies, samples from KnowledgePanel cover all households regardless of their phone or internet status and findings can be reported with a margin of sampling error and projected to the general population.

The study was conducted in both English and Spanish. The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race/ethnicity, education, Census region, metropolitan status, household income, race/ethnicity by gender, race/ethnicity by age, race/ethnicity by education and race/ethnicity by region. The demographic benchmarks came from 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) from the US Census Bureau. The weighting categories were as follows:

  • Gender (Male/Female) by Age (18–29, 30–44, 45–59, and 60+)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Non-Hispanic, Black/Non-Hispanic, Other or 2+ Races/Non-Hispanic, Hispanic)
  • Education (Less than High School, High School graduate, Some College, Bachelor and beyond)
  • Census Region (Northeast, Midwest, South, West)
  • Metropolitan status (Metro, non-Metro)
  • Household Income (Under $25,000, $25,000-$49,999, $50,000-$74,999, $75,000-$99,999, $100,000-$149,999, $150,000+)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by gender (Male, Female)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by age (18-44, 45+)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by education (Less than college grad, Bachelor and beyond)
  • Race/Hispanic Ethnicity (White/Other non-Hispanic, Black Non-Hispanic, Hispanic) by Census region (Northeast, Midwest, South, West)

The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults. The margin of sampling error takes into account the design effect, which was 1.39. The margin of sampling error is higher and varies for results based on sub-samples. In our reporting of the findings, percentage points are rounded off to the nearest whole number. As a result, percentages in a given table column may total slightly higher or lower than 100%. In questions that permit multiple responses, columns may total substantially more than 100%, depending on the number of different responses offered by each respondent.

About Ipsos

Ipsos is the world’s third largest Insights and Analytics company, present in 90 markets and employing more than 18,000 people.

Our passionately curious research professionals, analysts and scientists have built unique multi-specialist capabilities that provide true understanding and powerful insights into the actions, opinions and motivations of citizens, consumers, patients, customers or employees. We serve more than 5000 clients across the world with 75 business solutions.

Founded in France in 1975, Ipsos is listed on the Euronext Paris since July 1st, 1999. The company is part of the SBF 120 and the Mid-60 index and is eligible for the Deferred Settlement Service (SRD).

ISIN code FR0000073298, Reuters ISOS.PA, Bloomberg IPS:FP www.ipsos.com

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The author(s)

  • Chris Jackson Senior Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Mallory Newall Vice President, US, Public Affairs
  • Neil Lloyd Senior Research Analyst, Public Affairs

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