Higher Education Creates Benefits for Society

In recent studies Americans have expressed both positive and negative views about the value of higher education. They have acknowledged that higher education is a pathway to economic success but questioned the cost of education. They have questioned the effectiveness of higher education programs but shown confidence in public institutions. In spite of diverse views about personal benefits of higher education, a recent study by Columbia University Teachers College shows that Americans believe that higher education creates benefits for society.

In Americans’ Views of Higher Education as a Public and Private Good, researchers report Americans’ thoughts and opinions about the value of higher education. Noah D. Drezner, higher education associate professor, designed the survey to look at how Americans think colleges and universities contribute to society, beyond what they do for individual people. It turns out that most of the 3,000 Americans surveyed believe higher education creates benefits for society, as well as individuals.

In the survey, researchers asked people how much they thought colleges and universities contributed in five different areas. The majority of people thought higher education contributed “a lot” or “some” in the following areas:
• 83 percent to scientific advances that benefit American society
• 76 percent to the graduates’ personal enrichment and growth
• 73 percent to America’s national prosperity and development
• 72 percent to the graduates’ wealth and success
• 61 percent to graduates’ civic participation such as voting and volunteering

In addition to believing that higher education creates benefits for society as a whole, Americans believe public investment in higher education is a good use of tax dollars. Survey participants answered the question: “Would you say that public spending on higher education in the United States is an excellent investment, a good investment a fair investment, or not a good investment?” The majority of responses supported public investment: 44 percent said it was excellent and 32 percent said it was good. Only 7 percent believed higher education was not a good investment for society as a whole.

Drezner says that this survey comes at a critical time for higher education with Congress considering reauthorization of the Higher Education Bill. He believes this information “could shape the willingness of elected officials and policy makers to support public investment in higher education.”

It also provides valuable information for employers about the value their employees see in their tuition assistance plans. Employees who have historically had lower access to higher education may be among those that most appreciate the economic value of their employer’s tuition plan: 52 percent of Blacks and 49 percent of Latinx responded that public spending on higher education is an excellent investment compared to 41 percent of White and Asian Americans. Employer contributions make higher education more accessible. This can help employees and the general public view business TAP as sound investments.

The contributions that higher education creates for society can also be attributed to employer tuition assistance. Americans believe that, in general, higher education is an investment that makes life better for most of society through personal enrichment, growth and wealth along with increased national prosperity and civic participation. Americans may also view tuition assistance plans with the same lens. Employer investment in employee higher education helps make employees’ personal lives better. This can lead to benefits for society as a whole.

Americans today believe that higher education creates benefits for society as a whole as well as for individuals. Several hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin made a statement that summarizes what this study says Americans perceive as the value of higher education: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”