Research by Public Agenda, prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"One Degree of Separation", is the third of a series of Public Agenda surveys designed to examine the problems of higher education and college completion from the perspective of those who know best: young people who've completed a postsecondary degree, and those who haven't. With fewer than half of those who enter a four-year college finishing in six years, and with a debate raging over the value of a college education, the perspective of these young Americans is more important than ever.

In our first report, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," we asked young people why they didn't finish college, and what they said is surprising. Most of those who don't finish are paying their own way, and the reason they don’t finish is because the juggling act of school, work and family is too much for them. Something's got to give, and that's usually getting a degree.

The second report, "Can I Get a Little Advice Here?", asked young people about the help they got from the high school guidance system. In too many cases, the answer is "not much." With most reporting that they got minimal assistance from over-extended high school guidance counselors, they gave them bad grades for their advice on choosing colleges and careers and obtaining financial aid. Those who got perfunctory counseling are more likely to delay college and make questionable choices.

In One Degree of Separation, we examine how 26- to 34-year-olds, both those who go on to higher education and those who don't, see their economic prospects. Do they feel secure about their future? Do they think college or other postsecondary education has value? Do they feel overburdened by college debt? Can they succeed without a diploma?

REPORT 3: Quick Links

Report 1: With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them

Report 2: Can I Get A Little Advice Here?

Report 3: One Degree of Separation Test

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FINDING No 4: High school graduates are more skeptical than college graduates about the motives of higher education institutions.

Public Agenda has been tracking the views of the general public about higher education for 18 years. Although colleges and universities generally retain the public’s admiration and respect, especially compared to other sectors like government or business, our surveys show a growing skepticism about the way higher education is run. Most Americans question whether their motives are mainly financial or mainly educational. Most also wonder whether colleges and universities are using the money they get from students and taxpayers as effectively as they can.

Most young adults share these concerns, with higher rates of high school graduates voicing concern than those with college degrees. For example, most young adults believe that there are many people in the United States who are qualified for college but don’t have the opportunity to go, a view that is held by a majority of Americans regardless of age. In fact, 71 percent of high school graduates say this is the case, compared with 59 percent of college graduates.

More than half of the public believes that colleges today behave more like “most businesses” and care more about the bottom line than about educating students. But these views are even stronger among the young adults surveyed for this project: 71 percent of high school graduates say this, as do 65 percent of college graduates. One young man in a D.C. focus group didn’t mince words: “Excuse me for my language, but I think people are really getting pimped. What they charge for things and how much just a book costs.” For this young man, the trade-off clearly wasn’t worth it. “And so many people have made millions without any [higher education],” he added.

Even so, a majority of all young adults continues to believe that someone who is willing to make sacrifices such as living at home or working part time can complete college (57 percent of all young adults strongly agreed). In fact, when asked who is to blame for the low completion rate at four-year colleges, young adults are more likely to point fingers at students themselves rather than at higher education institutions, high schools, parents, or government, regardless of whether they completed a degree.

REPORT 3: Quick Links

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One Degree of Separation Finding Four

FINDING No 4: High school graduates are more skeptical than college graduates about the motives of higher education institutions.

Public Agenda has been tracking the views of the general public about higher education for 18 years. Although colleges and universities generally retain the public’s admiration and respect, especially compared to other sectors like government or business, our surveys show a growing skepticism about the way higher education is run. Most Americans question whether their motives are mainly financial or mainly educational. Most also wonder whether colleges and universities are using the money they get from students and taxpayers as effectively as they can.

Most young adults share these concerns, with higher rates of high school graduates voicing concern than those with college degrees. For example, most young adults believe that there are many people in the United States who are qualified for college but don’t have the opportunity to go, a view that is held by a majority of Americans regardless of age. In fact, 71 percent of high school graduates say this is the case, compared with 59 percent of college graduates.

More than half of the public believes that colleges today behave more like “most businesses” and care more about the bottom line than about educating students. But these views are even stronger among the young adults surveyed for this project: 71 percent of high school graduates say this, as do 65 percent of college graduates. One young man in a D.C. focus group didn’t mince words: “Excuse me for my language, but I think people are really getting pimped. What they charge for things and how much just a book costs.” For this young man, the trade-off clearly wasn’t worth it. “And so many people have made millions without any [higher education],” he added.

Even so, a majority of all young adults continues to believe that someone who is willing to make sacrifices such as living at home or working part time can complete college (57 percent of all young adults strongly agreed). In fact, when asked who is to blame for the low completion rate at four-year colleges, young adults are more likely to point fingers at students themselves rather than at higher education institutions, high schools, parents, or government, regardless of whether they completed a degree.