Four-year degree worth the cost? Americans value education, but government should pick up the tab.

Americans more likely to endorse government-funded education than a decade ago, a perspective that reflects high cost of four-year schools and ability to make a good living without attending one.

Natasha Quadlin and Brian Powell
Opinion contributors
A graduation ceremony at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2011.

Many Americans question the cost and value of a college education today, according to a new USA TODAY/Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground poll. And of the multiple higher education options available, many see a two-year community college as a more reasonable investment, according to the poll. 

In terms of a sheer cost comparison, it’s hard to argue with these data.

The cost of a bachelor’s degree program is generally much greater than that of an associate’s degree or certificate program. In fact, it costs nearly three times as much on average to attend one year at an in-state four-year college, than it does to attend a local community college for the same amount of time, according to data from a College Board report

And students often leave four-year colleges with crippling amounts of debt. On average, public college students walk away with about $30,000 worth of loans to pay back, according to the Education Data Initiative. 

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In total, Americans have accrued more than $1.7 trillion in student debt in order to attend four-year colleges, according to the data collection group. And many of them are waiting with anticipation as President Joe Biden considers whether to cancel at least a portion of federal student loans.

So, higher education is too expensive. But does that necessarily mean the public believes that college isn’t worthwhile?

College can mean greater success 

For the past decade, Brian Powell and I (both sociology professors) have been conducting similar interviews and surveys with the American public – more pointedly about the responsibility for the cost of college.

Natasha Quadlin is a UCLA associate professor of sociology.
Brian Powell is James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University.

We’ve asked more than 4,000 Americans starting in 2010 (and every few years through 2020) who should pay for college and whether higher education should be an individual good, paid for mostly by parents and students, or a collective good, paid for mostly by the state and federal government. We’ve also talked to Americans about what they think of the costs in relation to the potential benefits. 

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Most agree that success without attending a four-year college is possible. They frequently cite skilled trades such as plumbers and electricians – jobs that students can train for through cost-effective degree or certificate programs. In fact, virtually all Americans agree (us included) that it’s possible to earn high wages and have a good life without a bachelor’s degree. 

At the same time, Americans also recognize that success is much more likely with a bachelor’s degree than without one.

Read more on poll:Is college worth it? Americans say they value higher education, but it's too expensive for many

To the American public, “good” jobs are much more plentiful, and much easier to get, when students have a four-year college education. Success among those without a bachelor’s degree is seen as the exception. Success among those with a bachelor’s degree, however, is usually seen as the rule.

In our study, about two-thirds of Americans say college is worth the financial cost it requires.

More support for government to pay 

Yet, too often, critiques of the high cost of four-year colleges and universities are linked with calls to disinvest in higher education. 

But most Americans, according to our data, largely have the opposite reaction.

People are much more likely to endorse government funding for higher education than they were even a decade ago. There is also much more support for the idea of free tuition at public colleges and universities.

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In this sense, most Americans see widespread government support as the solution to making college more affordable. Americans as a whole believe deeply in higher education and its ability to enrich students and communities.

Americans just want higher education and its many benefits to come at a fair price. 

Natasha Quadlin is a UCLA associate professor of sociology. Brian Powell is James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. They are the co-authors of "Who Should Pay?: Higher Education, Responsibility, and the Public."

Join USA TODAY on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. ET for a live Twitter Spaces conversation on the cost of college.  

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