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Mitigating the Rising Cost of Higher Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The VCU Wilder School Office of Research and Outreach
March 11, 2024

Perspectives on the cost of higher education are complex, as are strategies to make higher education more affordable. While many agree that the rising cost of higher education is a problem that needs to be solved, policymakers and the public often have differing ideas as to what policies would be most helpful. To gain further insight into this issue, for the past few years the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll has asked Virginians if they feel that higher education is worth the cost, as well as for their perspectives on policies for making higher education more affordable.

Currently, the average total cost at a four-year institution in Virginia is $26,484 per year. In the January 2024 Commonwealth Poll, a minority of respondents agreed that the cost of a four-year college education is worth it, but most respondents said that they would favor making a community college education free.

Data for this poll was obtained via telephone interviews with a representative sample of 812 adults, ages 18 or older, living in Virginia. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline and cell phone from December 28, 2023, to January 13, 2024. The margin of error was +/- 5.46 percent.

When asked whether the current cost of a four-year degree at an in-state college or university in Virginia is worth it, 50 percent of respondents said that it was not worth the cost, while 39 percent said the current cost was worth it. The percent who agreed that the cost of higher education is worth the cost is lower than when we asked this question in August 2023 (when 47 percent agreed that the cost is worth it), and slightly higher than in January 2023 (when 38 percent agreed that the cost is worth it).

When we look at demographic breakdowns, agreement generally increased with the income and age of the participant. Individuals with a family income of less than $20k were less likely to agree (21 percent) than those with family incomes of $150k or more (55 percent). The same pattern emerges with age, as only 15 percent of those 18 to 24 years old agreed, compared with 51 percent of those 65 years or older.

Poll participants were also asked which of the following policies they thought would help make college costs more affordable:

  1. The commonwealth of Virginia should invest more money from the budget into higher education,
  2. The commonwealth of Virginia should freeze tuition for an extended amount of time to keep costs down for students,
  3. Higher education institutions in Virginia should be required to cut costs to a certain percent to keep costs down for students and
  4. The commonwealth of Virginia should make community college free for all students to keep costs down.

The most popular option for Virginians was for higher education institutions in Virginia to be required to cut costs to a certain percent to keep costs down for students, with 71 percent choosing this option. The second-most favored option was offering free community college for all students, with 63 percent agreeing that this would be helpful. Of the remaining options, 53 percent said that additional state funding could help solve the problem, and 52 percent said that they thought a tuition freeze would be helpful.

When we look at these results by demographic breakdowns, Democrats were most likely to favor free community college. This option was the least preferred by Republicans, who tended to think that cost-cutting measures would be more helpful. Racial and ethnic minorities were also most likely to say that free community college would help to mitigate the cost of higher education, while white participants, like Republicans, favored cost-cutting measures. Age also had an impact on participant perspectives, with free community college favored primarily by younger participants and cost-cutting measures favored primarily by older participants.

In addition, our January 2023 Commonwealth Poll asked participants if they thought student loan forgiveness at the federal level could help mitigate the rising cost of higher education. In this case, 52 percent of participants said that they supported this policy while 42 percent were opposed.

There’s no question that education is of vital importance, and that policymakers and the public should continue working to find ways to make higher education affordable to all who want it. As debates over the cost of higher education and policies to mitigate it continue, polls such as these can help provide policymakers with the information they need to make decisions as they work to promote more inclusive and accessible education for all.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decisionmaking to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we provide services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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