What Do Americans Think About Access to Education?

People support expanding pre-school for kids, but when it comes to free, public higher education, opinions split along more familiar political lines.

Emily Varisco / AP

Americans continue to see expanding access to education as the best strategy for widening opportunity in the modern economy, but remain conflicted as to whether to extend that commitment to dramatically widening the pathway to higher education, the Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll has found.

The survey found that big majorities of Americans, across racial, partisan, and generational lines, support expanding access to pre-school for more young children. And when asked what would do “the most to improve the economy in your local community” a plurality of those polled picked increasing spending on both K-12 and post-secondary education over alternatives including cutting taxes or reducing foreign imports and restricting immigration.

But adults split much more closely—and fissured along more familiar political lines—over proposals to provide free, public higher education and to reduce the mounting burden of student debt.

The poll explored Americans’ attitudes about the personal and public policy choices that they believe will give them, and the next generation, the best chance to achieve their goals. It includes oversamples of African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans to allow for more detailed comparisons of attitudes among racial and ethnic groups than most public surveys provide.

It documented a notable divergence in attitudes about two ideas for expanding educational access that have featured prominently in the Democratic presidential campaign: creating universal access to pre-school for four-year olds (an idea associated mostly with Hillary Clinton) and allowing all students to attend a public college or university tuition-free (a proposal championed by Bernie Sanders). The former attracted much broader backing than the latter—though the poll found majority support for each.

Providing pre-school for all four-year-olds, an idea also endorsed by President Obama, drew overwhelming support. Asked to assess the impact of ensuring “that all young children at age four can attend pre-kindergarten classes,” fully 76 percent of those surveyed said such a policy would “provide more children a better chance to succeed.” Just 20 percent said it would “move children out of the house and away from their family at too young an age.”

That consensus extended across almost all of the lines that usually divide public opinion. The belief that universal pre-k would expand opportunity was shared by 73 percent of men and 79 percent of women; 73 percent of whites, 76 percent of both Hispanics and Asian Americans, and an especially resounding 88 percent of African Americans. More than four-in-five members of the Millennial Generation affirmed that belief, as did just under three-in-four members of Generation X, the Baby Boom, and the oldest respondents, from the Silent Generation. Partisan differences were greater, but universal pre-K still drew support from 86 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents, and 65 percent of Republicans. “The sooner you start in Head Start programs and pre-school programs, the sooner you start the education process and the better equipped our young adults are for college,” said Darrelle Hillmon, an African American truck driver from Kansas City, Missouri.

Concern that universal pre-K would move young children out of the home too soon peaked at 27 percent among Republicans and college-educated whites. Steven Cline, an engineer and political independent from Austin, Texas, numbers among the latter group. “I think other developed countries in the world have proven that the over-education of youth and less focus on family time and playtime is a step in the wrong direction, that we should focus on family and culture,” he said.  “And enhancing preschool or younger kids’ education is not necessarily a guarantee for a chance at a better life and education.”

Those polled divided more over a series of questions revolving around expanding access to college. The issue was not the goal—but how much government should contribute to achieving it.

A solid two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that increasing the share of American adults with any post-secondary degree from around 40 percent, where it stands now, to 60 percent, as Obama has proposed, would improve the economy by enlarging the “number of well-trained workers.” Only 28 percent endorsed the competing statement that “The economy would not improve much because there will be more workers with advanced degrees than employers need.”

Opinions, though, divided along the usual crevices in public opinion. Although 82 percent of African Americans, 78 percent of Asian Americans, and 67 percent of Hispanics said the economy would benefit from more workers with post-secondary credentials, a somewhat more modest 61 percent of whites agreed. The partisan gap was wider: Democrats, by a margin of almost five-to-one, thought the economy would benefit from more post-secondary degrees, and independents concurred by just over two-to-one. But Republicans agreed that more workers with degrees would lift the economy only by a slim 48 percent to 44 percent margin. Still, all three partisan groups backed the aspiration of minting more workers with post-secondary degrees.

Questions on how to achieve that goal, though, produced much more pronounced differences. Asked the best way to combat mounting student debt, a 49 percent plurality said “colleges and universities should do more to hold down costs, even if that means larger classes, less money for sports, and fewer activities for students.” Another 43 percent said that instead “the government should provide students more financial assistance, even if that means higher federal spending.”

Just 24 percent of Republicans wanted government to spend more; 72 percent thought colleges should tighten their belts. Democrats tilted the other way: 56 percent want more government spending, while just 37 percent stressed constraining college spending. (Independents divided closely, with 45 percent stressing cost-savings and 42 percent more aid.) Likewise, while 54 percent of whites put the greatest emphasis on colleges restraining costs, 59 percent of African Americans thought the principal answer was for government to provide more financial aid. (Hispanics and Asians sorted in between, with 48 percent of the former and 47 percent of the latter focusing on government.) And while most Millennials looked to government, majorities of those in Generation X, the Baby Boom, and particularly the Silent Generation all pointed toward colleges and universities.

Those same fissures cut even more deeply on the question of a free public college education. A narrow 51 percent majority agreed, “The government should provide free public college education because a post-secondary degree is now so essential to success.” Another 44 percent said, “it is too expensive for the government to guarantee free public college education and families and students should contribute.”

In a follow up question, almost exactly three-fourths of those who said they supported free tuition also said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to fund the policy. Combined with the response to the underlying question, that meant 38 percent of adults backed free tuition and would pay more in taxes to support it; another 13 percent supported the policy but would not personally pay more in taxes and 44 percent viewed it as too expensive. (Though African Americans and Hispanics came close, no ethnic group had a majority say they would pay more in taxes to fund free public higher education.) Sanders has proposed to fund the program’s estimated  $75 billion annual cost with a tax on stock trades.

The threshold question of whether to provide free public college education starkly divided respondents across the lines that increasingly define modern American politics. While 72 percent of African Americans and 64 percent of Hispanics said government should provide cost-free higher education, only 48 percent of Asian Americans and 44 percent of whites agreed. (A 52-percent majority of whites said government should not.) Support for free public higher education dropped from 70 percent among Democrats to 51 percent among independents to only 22 percent among Republicans. Likewise, support fell from 64 percent of the Millennial Generation to 52 percent of Generation X, 47 percent of the Baby Boom, and only 31 percent of the Silent Generation. College-educated whites (at just 37 percent) were even less supportive than whites without degrees (47 percent).

In interviews, those who supported free higher education tended to view it as simply updating government’s existing commitment to provide all citizens the educational foundation they need to succeed in the economy: Although a high-school degree met that threshold for earlier generations, several poll respondents argued, now it requires some post-secondary training. Nowadays, a college diploma is like the equivalent to a high-school degree [earlier] when it comes to employment,” said Hillmon the truck driver, who does not have a college degree. “[If you have] less than a college degree or at least a trade-school background, employment for anything decent is just almost nonexistent. You can get a high-school diploma, which is free public education, but that only qualifies you for entry-level positions. That's not enough to pay for the cost of living in most cities in the United States.” Adds Osiris Cruz, a Hispanic Democrat who owns a printing business in New York City: “I think a lot of countries offer free education. This is not the worst country-this is the best country. It should offer free education to people.”

Those skeptical of free tuition questioned both whether government could afford the cost—and whether that approach would undermine the value of the experience. “Everyone has to have a vested interest in what they’re pursuing,” said Cline, the Austin engineer. “‘Free’ leads to improper behavior and poorly skilled [workers] in an economy. You have to have a certain barrier of entry for any process…to make people have a vested pride in what they’re doing. So, I believe assistance? Yes. A lot of assistance? Maybe. Free? No.”

Kyle, a recent college graduate and Republican in Fort Lauderdale who works in marketing and asked not to give his last name, raised similar concerns. “It devalues the experience when it’s free,” he said. “Already these loans are so readily available, During the time you’re in college, it feels like free money and you can see it affects some people’s behavior that way. I don’t believe that anybody should be obligated to pay for my education, because it’s my decision to go.”

As these remarks suggest, support for free public college was much greater among those who, in response to a separate question, said they believed that young people today need a four-year college degree to succeed. That question closely divided Americans, with just over half saying young people did need a degree and just under half saying they did not. Among those who believed a degree was indispensable, about three-fifths supported free public college; among those who did not, the number dropped to only about two-fifths.

Traditional differences persisted, but were somewhat more muted, on a final question that asked Americans what strategy they thought would do the most to improve their local economy.

Overall, 40 percent picked “spending more money on education, including K through 12 schools and public colleges and universities.” That was followed by 24 percent who preferred “cutting taxes for individuals and businesses”; 17 percent who backed “raising taxes on foreign products to reduce imports”; and 13 percent who endorsed “reducing the number of new immigrant workers who can enter the U.S.”

Investing more in education drew the deepest support among Asian Americans (69 percent), Democrats (56 percent), Millennials (55 percent), African Americans (53 percent), women (43 percent) and whites holding at least a four-year college degree (42 percent). In all, education was the preferred choice for at least a plurality of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians; men and women; Millennials, baby boomers and the Silent Generation; and independents as well as Democrats. Tax cuts drew plurality support only among Republicans (35 percent) and members of Generation X (33 percent).

Republicans (at 20 percent) were also more slightly likely to prioritize reducing foreign imports than were Democrats (17 percent) or independents (15 percent). And Republicans (at 17 percent) and independents (at 16 percent) were considerably more likely than Democrats (just 9 percent) to see reducing immigration as the best strategy for invigorating their local economy.

While investing in education was by far the top priority for African Americans, they were also more likely (at 12 percent) than Asian Americans (5 percent) or Hispanics (7 percent) to view reducing immigration as the best strategy. Whites were the most likely to pick that approach—but at 16 percent support, it still ranked as the least popular option among them, behind investing in education (35 percent), tax cuts (27 percent), and restricting imports (18 percent).

Atlantic researcher Leah Askarinam contributed.

The Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International surveyed 1,276 adults living in the United States by landline and cell phone from February 10 through 25. The survey included oversamples of African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanics. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of sampling error for the complete sample is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points; the margins of error are larger for subgroups.