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The College Affordability Crisis
Brianna Tucker,

As college tuition rises and the national student debt mounts, many Americans view higher education as a goal that is increasingly out of reach. Unsurprisingly, a majority of young Americans (ages 18-29) support free tuition at public institutions, however, they are the largest age group to say that college education is a risky gamble.

Free College Tuition

Americans overall are broadly supportive of several issues that are championed by leading Democratic candidates, including making college tuition free at public institutions (68%). According to PRRI’s 2019 American Values Survey, a majority of Americans favor or strongly favor (68%) making college free at public institutions, while less than three in ten oppose or strongly oppose (30%).

Support for free college tuition differs substantially among ethnic demographics, however. A majority of black (62%) Americans strongly favor making college tuition free, while 47% of Hispanic, 38% of other/mixed race, and 24% of white Americans say the same. Notably, less than one in ten black (3%) and Hispanic (4%) Americans strongly oppose such a policy, while nearly one in five white (18%) and other/mixed race (15%) Americans say the same.

Non-college-educated whites favor or strongly favor free tuition at public institutions (65%), but college-educated whites are split down the middle (50% favor vs. 50% oppose). Moreover, college-educated whites are among the highest of all racial groups to oppose or strongly oppose such a policy (50%).

Young Americans (ages 18-29) broadly favor or strongly favor free college tuition at public institutions (81%), while only 19% oppose or strongly oppose. However, support declines with age, where Americans ages 30-49 (70%), 50-65 (65%), and 65 and older (56%) agree.

Favorability of free college tuition is also staggered by education level. Among those who strongly favor making college tuition free are those with a high school degree or less (40%), followed by those with some college (36%), and college graduates (25%).

College Education: Risky Gamble or Smart Investment?

When it comes to college education being viewed as a smart investment or a risky gamble that won’t pay off in the end, Americans are narrowly divided. Half (50%) of Americans say a college education is a smart investment, while 49% say it is a risky gamble. This split in opinion is similar across black (53% vs. 45%), Hispanic (48% vs. 52%), and other/mixed race (56% vs. 44%) Americans.

Interestingly, a majority of college graduates say college education in a smart investment (60%), but a solid minority of college graduates (39%) still say college is a risky gamble.

Meanwhile, attitudes on whether college is a smart investment or a risky gamble is drastically different among college-educated and non-college-educated whites. A majority of those who say it is a risky gamble are non-college-educated whites (57%), while roughly four in ten (39%) are college-educated whites. Inversely, of those who say it is a smart investment, 59% are college-educated whites, and 42% are non-college-educated whites.

Across partisan lines, Democrats are significantly more likely to say that college is a smart investment (60%) compared to 47% of independents, and 45% of Republicans. On the opposite end, 55% of Republicans say it is a risky gamble, followed by 52% of independents, and 38% of Democrats.