Support for Free

Survey finds half of college presidents back or somewhat back idea of federal infusion of funds to allow two free years of public higher education. Support exceeds two-thirds at public institutions but is less than one-third at private colleges.

September 8, 2015

While Bernie Sanders has been attracting considerable support on campuses, few college presidents have been speaking out on behalf of his plan to make public higher education free. And although college association leaders have applauded Sanders and Hillary Clinton for highlighting public concerns about college affordability, they have been tepid in endorsing the specifics of the plans.

But a Gallup/Inside Higher Ed poll of college and university presidents has found that half of college presidents back or partly back an early version of Senator Sanders's plan that would provide $18 billion to states to pay for two free years of public higher education (at both two- and four-year institutions). The poll was conducted in early summer, before further details of the Sanders plan made it more generous to states and institutions, and before the release of Clinton's higher education plan, which would provide double the funding that Sanders had proposed at the time, including some funds for private colleges.

Assuming that the presidents open to the early version of Sanders's plan would be likely to support the Clinton plan (and with some perhaps more willing to support the latter plan because of its increased funding levels and some support for private institutions), the poll results suggest strong support from campus leaders for the Democratic candidates' push for greatly enhanced federal support for colleges and universities.

The question asked of presidents did not name Sanders, but said: "As you may know, one specific proposal calls for the federal government to provide states with $18 billion in matching awards to allow for free public higher education. Do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose this proposal?"

Here are the overall results:

Strongly favor 21%
Somewhat favor 29%
Somewhat oppose 19%
Strongly oppose 27%
Don't know/no opinion 5%

When the presidents are divided by whether they are in the public or private sector, a clear split emerges, which is not surprising given that the infusion of funds would be largely directed to public colleges. More than 40 percent of private college presidents strongly oppose the idea. However, private college opposition to the idea is not unanimous.

  Public Private
Strongly favor 34% 7%
Somewhat favor 37% 21%
Somewhat oppose 14% 24%
Strongly oppose 12% 41%
Don't know/no opinion 4% 7%

Asked how likely they thought it was that the federal government would adopt debt-free college in the next four years, the presidents were skeptical. Only 1 percent of all surveyed presidents thought it very likely and 10 percent thought it was somewhat likely. "Not too likely" was the answer of 47 percent, and "not at all likely" by 39 percent. (Another 3 percent said they didn't know.)

The responses for the survey came from 523 college and university presidents, and they were granted anonymity in their replies.

Full results are available from Gallup here.



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