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Bar chart of responses to a question about the value of a four-year college degree.

The Wall Street Journal

Tracking public opinion about higher education can be a confounding experience. Pollsters ask slightly varied questions on roughly similar themes, which can make comparing their results difficult and leave those interested in the results lacking clarity. That can result in headlines like these over the last couple of years: “Gen Z’s Distrust in Higher Ed a ‘Red Flag,’” “Public’s Impression of Higher Education Improves (Somewhat)” and “Not All Americans Think College Is Worth It.”

A new public opinion survey released Friday leaves relatively little doubt about the trend line on at least one key issue: the perceived value of getting a four-year college degree. It is declining and at this point is more negative than positive.

The new Wall Street Journal–NORC poll (subscription required), conducted by the national newspaper and the nonpartisan research group NORC at the University of Chicago, finds that 56 percent of Americans agree with the statement “A four-year college education is not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” Just 42 percent chose the other option: “A four-year college education is worth the cost because people have a better chance to get a good job and earn more income over their lifetime.”

Those numbers have reversed themselves over the last decade. Polls in 2013 (by CNBC) and 2017 (by the Journal and NBC) asked the identical question, and Americans were 53 percent favorable and 40 percent negative in 2013 and evenly divided (49 percent positive, 47 percent negative) in 2017.

The Wall Street Journal did not publish all the data in its article on the survey results Friday, but it reported that respondents in “all age groups as well as residents of cities and suburbs” were now more likely to answer this question negatively than positively.

Democrats, those with a college degree and “those earning more than $100,000 a year” continue to hold a more positive than negative view, the Journal reported. The newspaper did not provide any information about demographic breakdowns by racial or ethnic group. Other recent surveys have shown that Black Americans hold a more favorable view of the value of college-going than do their peers of other races.

Other recent surveys of public opinion have found stronger support for the value of credentials other than the bachelor’s degree, and for community colleges more than for four-year institutions.

The Journal quoted Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, as saying of the survey results “These findings are indeed sobering for all of us in higher education, and in some ways, a wake-up call … We need to do a better job at storytelling, but we need to improve our practice, that seems to me to be the only recipe I know of regaining public confidence.”

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