Higher Education

Poll: Americans give high marks to community colleges for quality, value

But community college students themselves say they’d go elsewhere if they could

Americans give high ratings to the quality of long-disparaged community colleges compared to four-year universities—and consider them a much better value—according to a new national survey.

If they knew a high school graduate who had inherited $200,000, nearly two-thirds of those polled said they would encourage him or her to go to a community college and keep the rest of the money, instead of spending it all on a four-year degree, the survey, by WGBH News in Boston, found.

“I think a lot of us think of community colleges as a last resort, but that does not appear to be where Americans are on this,” Chris Anderson, president of Anderson and Robbins Research, told the station.

Related: Why California’s community colleges will soon offer some four-year degrees

One reason is a backlash against the price of private four-year colleges and universities, said Anderson, whose company conducted the survey. Fewer than half of those polled said they considered four-year private colleges and universities a good value for the money.

“This really is bubbling into the mainstream,” he said. “The value proposition with four-year colleges may be a little bit out of whack right now.”

Three quarters of Americans still consider the quality of private universities to rate a grade of an A or B, but 63 percent give those same high grades to community colleges—only slightly fewer than the 68 percent who give public universities an A or a B, and nearly twice as many as the 34 percent who give them to online colleges.

The top words associated with community colleges were “affordable” and “cheap.”

Related: The unexpected reason some in higher ed fear free community college

On the other hand, three quarters of community college students said they would probably go elsewhere if they could—the same proportion who said they enrolled in one because it was cheaper than a four-year university or college. More than 60 percent said it will be difficult to live a middle-class life with just a community college education.

Almost 70 percent of community college students polled work while in school, nearly at third of them more than 40 hours a week, the survey found. A third of those who dropped out said job responsibilities were the reason, second only to family obligations.

Those were among several findings that suggest problems in, and public disillusionment with, higher education.

Only one in four low-income Americans said the kind of higher education needed to succeed today is accessible to everyone, compared to half of wealthier respondents. Higher-income people are also less likely to encourage their children to take community college classes than lower-income ones.

Related: Want higher-ed reform? You may be surprised where you’ll find it

While 94 percent of all those polled said a strong higher-education system is at least somewhat important to global competitiveness, half said that they rate the American education system as not strong at all or not very strong at preparing students to succeed.

The poll was conducted in late September of 1,157 Americans ages 18 and over, and 800 current and recent community-college students.

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