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Americans see the value in getting a college degree, but they’re not particularly happy with our nation’s higher education system.

Those are among the results from a new survey conducted by New America, a think tank based in Washington. The report, which New America plans to update annually, is based on a survey of 1,600 American adults. The group probed people’s perceptions of higher education and economic mobility, with the results broken out by age, gender, region and socioeconomic status.

Fully three-quarters of respondents said it’s easier to be successful with a degree than without one, in a finding that generally transcended the race of respondents. Yet 51 percent believe that plenty of well-paying jobs do not require going to college, despite solid evidence to the contrary.

Of concern for colleges and universities, just one in four of the survey’s respondents feel higher education is functioning fine the way it is. The results also include sector-specific findings, with a range of results across the sectors on some questions.

A contributor to the widespread belief that higher education too often does not deliver on its promise, the survey found, is that 58 percent of respondents believe colleges put their own long-term interests first instead of those of their students.

Millennials in particular felt this way, despite being on track to be the most educated generation yet and the most experienced with the system. Among this group, 64 percent said colleges put their own interests first and only 13 percent say higher education is fine as it is, compared to 42 percent and 39 percent, respectively, for the Silent Generation (age 72 and up).

So despite 79 percent of respondents saying most people benefit from enrolling in college (see chart, below), they also realize there are few alternatives, said Amy Laitinen, New America’s director for higher education and a former official in the Obama administration.

Respondents also expressed anxiety about economic mobility after the recession, with 59 percent saying it’s more challenging to find a job than when their parents were their age and 64 percent saying it’s harder to afford a family.

And while the survey didn’t find quite the same level of skepticism about higher education that Public Agenda did in a survey last year -- just 42 percent of Americans said college is necessary for work force success, that survey found, a 13 percentage point decline from 2009 -- Laitinen said New America’s research doesn’t mean colleges are off the hook.

“It shows that Americans see the value,” she said. “But it doesn’t mean they’re happy with it.”

For example, just four in 10 believe there is a decent chance of getting into a “good” college, the survey found. And while 67 percent of respondents said colleges should help their students succeed, the survey identified a broad recognition that many college students aren’t getting to graduation.

Only 46 percent said most people who go to college finish with a degree, the survey found.

“Americans seem to be aware that we have a completion crisis,” said Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst at New America and a co-author of the report.

Positive Vibes for Two-Year Colleges

Community colleges and public, four-year institutions fared better in the survey than did for-profit or private colleges. That suggests the stigma around attending community colleges may be fading.

“Two-year community colleges really seem to be having a moment,” said Fishman.

For example, fewer than half of respondents said for-profits (40 percent) and private colleges (43 percent) are worth the cost, compared to 61 percent who said that about public, four-year institutions and a whopping 82 percent about community colleges.

Likewise, 42 percent and 41 percent of respondents believe, respectively, that private and for-profit institutions are “for people in my situation,” the survey found.

“This data is not good news for them,” Fishman said.

Community colleges also scored at or near the top, compared to other sectors, on questions of whether they contribute to a strong work force, prepare people to be successful, are for people “in my situation” and always put their students first. On that last question, 62 percent gave community colleges the nod, compared to 52 percent for public four-year institutions, 53 percent for privates and a much lower 39 percent for for-profits.

One of the more positive findings, from a higher education perspective, is that 71 percent of respondents believe college is primarily a social good or both a social good and a private benefit.

This finding, which holds true across generations and other demographic characteristics, could give ammunition to academics who complain that policy makers and the news media too often refer to higher education as a private benefit, one involving a transaction between customers and colleges that are run like a business.

New America has published a data tool to make the survey’s results publicly available.

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