By Ronald Brownstein
March 9, 2016
Americans continue to see expanding access to education as the best strategy for widening opportunity in the modern economy, but remain conflicted as to whether to extend that commitment to dramatically widening the pathway to higher education, the Atlantic Media/Pearson Opportunity Poll has found.
The survey found that big majorities of Americans, across racial, partisan, and generational lines, support expanding access to pre-school for more young children. And when asked what would do “the most to improve the economy in your local community” a plurality of those polled picked increasing spending on both K-12 and post-secondary education over alternatives including cutting taxes or reducing foreign imports and restricting immigration.
But adults split much more closely—and fissured along more familiar political lines—over proposals to provide free, public higher education and to reduce the mounting burden of student debt.
It documented a notable divergence in attitudes about two ideas for expanding educational access that have featured prominently in the Democratic presidential campaign: creating universal access to pre-school for four-year olds (an idea associated mostly with Hillary Clinton) and allowing all students to attend a public college or university tuition-free (a proposal championed by Bernie Sanders). The former attracted much broader backing than the latter—though the poll found majority support for each.
Providing pre-school for all four-year-olds, an idea also endorsed by President Obama, drew overwhelming support. Asked to assess the impact of ensuring “that all young children at age four can attend pre-kindergarten classes,” fully 76 percent of those surveyed said such a policy would “provide more children a better chance to succeed.” Just 20 percent said it would “move children out of the house and away from their family at too young an age.”
That consensus extended across almost all of the lines that usually divide public opinion. The belief that universal pre-k would expand opportunity was shared by 73 percent of men and 79 percent of women; 73 percent of whites, 76 percent of both Hispanics and Asian Americans, and an especially resounding 88 percent of African Americans. More than four-in-five members of the Millennial Generation affirmed that belief, as did just under three-in-four members of Generation X, the Baby Boom, and the oldest respondents, from the Silent Generation. Partisan differences were greater, but universal pre-K still drew support from 86 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents, and 65 percent of Republicans. “The sooner you start in Head Start programs and pre-school programs, the sooner you start the education process and the better equipped our young adults are for college,” said Darrelle Hillmon, an African American truck driver from Kansas City, Missouri.
A solid two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that increasing the share of American adults with any post-secondary degree from around 40 percent, where it stands now, to 60 percent, as Obama has proposed, would improve the economy by enlarging the “number of well-trained workers.” Only 28 percent endorsed the competing statement that “The economy would not improve much because there will be more workers with advanced degrees than employers need.”
Opinions, though, divided along the usual crevices in public opinion. Although 82 percent of African Americans, 78 percent of Asian Americans, and 67 percent of Hispanics said the economy would benefit from more workers with post-secondary credentials, a somewhat more modest 61 percent of whites agreed. The partisan gap was wider: Democrats, by a margin of almost five-to-one, thought the economy would benefit from more post-secondary degrees, and independents concurred by just over two-to-one. But Republicans agreed that more workers with degrees would lift the economy only by a slim 48 percent to 44 percent margin. Still, all three partisan groups backed the aspiration of minting more workers with post-secondary degrees.
Questions on how to achieve that goal, though, produced much more pronounced differences. Asked the best way to combat mounting student debt, a 49 percent plurality said “colleges and universities should do more to hold down costs, even if that means larger classes, less money for sports, and fewer activities for students.” Another 43 percent said that instead “the government should provide students more financial assistance, even if that means higher federal spending.”
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