Who Should Pay for College?

February 27, 2018

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of visiting scholars.

Over the last several decades, the cost of college in the United States has risen significantly. As CNBC reported in November, between 1988 and 2018, tuition at public four-year institutions in the U.S. increased by 213 percent, while tuition at private institutions rose by 129 percent. At the same time, more students than ever aspire to attend college—meaning that many end up incurring substantial student loan debt in the process. In 2013, student loan debt passed the $1 trillion mark.

During the 2016 presidential primaries, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders proposed free public college for all to address the combination of rising tuitions and student debt, praising the federally funded public higher education systems in countries such as Germany and Norway. “In the richest country in the history of the world,” he said, “everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay.” However, his Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton challenged the idea. “I am not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids,” she said on the Today show. Instead, she proposed making public college “debt free” by calculating tuition based on family income. Meanwhile, in the Republican primaries, candidate Ted Cruz rejected all forms of government funding for college, stating, “Get the federal government out of education altogether.”

While it’s common to hear politicians debating the costs of college and who should pay for them, what does the general public think about these issues? At RSF, visiting scholar Brian Powell (Indiana University) is studying public opinion regarding who should bear the primary responsibility of paying for higher education. In an interview with the foundation, Powell discussed his ongoing research and described some surprising shifts in public sentiment over who should pay for college that have occurred in recent years.

Q. Some of your current research focuses on public opinion regarding who should pay for college: Do most people in the US today think that parents, students, or the government should bear the primary responsibility of paying for college? How do opinions tend to break down by education, race, age, and other demographic factors?

Powell: My research team and I conducted more than 1,600 interviews—half in 2010 and the other half in 2015—in which we asked respondents who they thought should be primarily responsible for the funding of higher education. This is the first time in three decades that this question has been asked of a national sample. We also asked Americans to discuss their views regarding whether a college degree is important for success and a happy life, whether college is worth it, and whether attending college is even possible for most Americans.

In 2010, nearly half of our sample (48%) assigned responsibility for paying for college to the parents of students. Slightly over one-third (34%) assigned responsibility to students, and less than one-fifth (18%) assigned responsibility to the government. These figures, however, changed in 2015—most notably a sizable increase in the percentage of Americans who said that the government should be primarily responsible (31%).

We also asked respondents who they thought should be the second most responsible party for the cost of education beyond high school. In 2010, when we asked about shared financial responsibility for college costs, 65% of respondents said that parents and students should share the responsibility; 11% said that students and the government (either state or federal) should share the responsibility; 16% said that parents and government should share the responsibility; and 9% said that state and federal governments should share the responsibility. In other words, despite much rhetoric from politicians and commentators about expanding college opportunities to all and the need to increase college attendance and graduation rates to be more competitive in the global market, the general public thought that responsibility rested primarily on individuals and their family—at least in 2010.

Between 2010 and 2015, however, public views began to change.  The percentage of Americans who thought that parents and students should jointly pay for college dropped strikingly from 65% in 2010 to 50% in 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who saw the government as at least partially responsible increased from 35% in 2010 to 50% in 2015.

Views regarding responsibility also varied along sociodemographic lines.  Some of these differences—especially by age and race/ethnicity—are stark and speak to different visions of what government should be and should do.  For example, our interviews found that racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to endorse both the idea of government responsibility and the idea of parental responsibility. To racial minorities, students’ responsibility should be to focus on their schoolwork, while parents and government’s responsibility should be to facilitate students’ success by reducing the financial burden on students.

Age differences also are pronounced. Older Americans (65 and over) are much more likely than other age groups to see parents as responsible and much less likely to see both students and government as responsible.  In contrast, younger Americans (under the age of 30) are the least likely to see parents as responsible and the most likely to see government as responsible.  Interestingly, young Americans are the only age group that places more responsibility on students than on parents.  

Income is tied to Americans’ views regarding college funding—with the most financially advantaged Americans placing the most responsibility on parents (and secondarily on students) and the least responsibility on the government. Surprisingly, Americans’ own education is not strongly linked to their views regarding the funding of college.  In addition, gender differences in these views are very small.  In contrast, the political divide is pronounced—with nearly three-fourths (72%) of liberals and only one-third (33%) of conservatives believing that the government should assume a key role in college funding.

Q. You found that public opinion on who should pay for college changed dramatically in a five-year period. In what ways did public opinion change? What factors might account for this dramatic shift, and how does this change compare to other shifts in public opinion?

Public opinion change is very slow.  There are exceptions—such as the rapid changes in Americans’ views regarding same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. But these are exceptions: public opinion typically moves at a glacial pace.

That’s why the changes in Americans’ views regarding the funding of college—changes that exceed the rate of change for same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana—are so remarkable. 

Why do many Americans increasingly see college funding as a government responsibility?  The increasing cost of college and especially the much publicized increasing or, in the words of several of our respondents, “crippling” debt that college graduate confront is a likely candidate.  I believe that changes in the economy and, in turn, the increasing requirement for a college degree to financially succeed also played a role in the change in public views.  Finally, there may be a spillover effect of the increasing public support for Obamacare and the appreciation of the role that government can assume in improving the life chances of Americans.

Q. How might investigating public opinion help policymakers better craft legislation on making higher education more accessible?

The case for looking at public opinion is compelling.  As I contend in my book (with Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman) Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family (2010), public opinion matters. It is not a coincidence, for example, that public officials’ “evolution” toward the acceptance of same-sex marriage occurred precisely at the time that a majority of Americans were in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriage. It also is not a coincidence that federal courts increasingly took on legal challenges to same-sex marriage bans precisely as American public opinion was changing.

Other former Russell Sage visiting scholars and grantees also have persuasively documented the powerful effect that public opinion can have in driving policy change. Public opinion is not the only factor driving legislative or court action.  But if the American public continues to shift its views in the direction of greater support for government aid for college, we likely will hear more politicians speak about this issue and, more importantly, and see more legislative action that can make college more accessible to all Americans.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


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