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Americans Say Postsecondary Degree Vital, but See Barriers

Americans Say Postsecondary Degree Vital, but See Barriers

by Valerie J. Calderon and Shane J. Lopez

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Americans widely agree that having a degree beyond high school is important. More than seven in 10 say it is very important to have a certificate or degree beyond high school, and another 25% say it is somewhat important.

Importance of postsecondary education

These findings are from a Nov. 9-Dec. 4, 2012, study by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation with a random sample of U.S. adults. The survey finds that two in three Americans say higher education is very important to getting a good job and to improving earning potential. And seven in 10 say it is very important to a person's financial security in the future.

Finances play a role in importance of postsecondary education

Importance of postsecondary education for financial security

Affordability Is Significant Barrier to Higher Education

The vast majority of Americans say higher education is not affordable for everyone who needs it. About one in four U.S. adults think it is affordable for all.

How affordable is higher education?

Americans also see cost as a major barrier for adults in the workforce who want to go back to school. Twenty-eight percent say cost is the biggest barrier to re-enrollment in school for adults who do not have a postsecondary credential or degree. This hurdle to re-enrollment is second only to the responsibility of caring for family, which 36% of U.S. adults say is the most significant roadblock. Another 15% say job responsibilities are the biggest barrier, and 4% blame a lack of information.

Biggest Barrier Preventing Adults from Re-enrollment

It may be that the cost of higher education and family responsibilities together create a compounded barrier for adults thinking about going back to school.

Despite these perceived barriers, 41% of those surveyed who do not yet have a college degree or credential indicate they have thought about going back to school to earn one. Twenty-one percent of those without a degree say they are very likely, and another 17% say they are somewhat likely to go back to school to earn one.

With many adults who lack a postsecondary degree or credential at least somewhat likely to go back to school to earn one, higher education institutions will likely need to remove barriers, such as high costs, in order to get these adults to enroll.

Have you thought about going back to school?

How likely are you to go back to school to earn a college degree?

Americans Want More Flexibility in Higher Education

Americans express strong support for redesigning pathways to higher education attainment. When asked whether they think students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom, nearly nine in 10 (87%) say yes.

Should students get credit for skills acquired outside the classroom?

Additionally, 75% of Americans indicate that they would be more likely to enroll in a higher education program if they could be evaluated and receive credit for what they already know. While younger adults were more likely than older adults to say they would be more likely to enroll, a majority in all age groups, including those aged 65 years and older, indicate they would be more likely.

Would you be more likely to enroll in higher education if you were evaluated and received credits for what you already know?

Nearly as many (70%) favor awarding college credit based on mastery of course content, rather than on time spent in the classroom.

Should people be able to test out of a course if they master the content before the course is over?

Removing Barriers to Higher Education Attainment

Americans say higher education is important and feel a college degree or certificate affords more financial and job security. However, barriers exist to re-enrollment and degree attainment for many, including the demands of supporting and caring for a family and the high cost of tuition and fees.

To help more Americans pursue the goal of additional education and a good job, education leaders and major institutions may need to create alternative pathways for people to obtain degrees and certificates. Educational institutions may need to be more creative in their support of students who are struggling to meet family responsibilities and do well in school. Ultimately, to meet the demand for it in the United States, higher education will need to be more accessible and affordable for all who need it.

Read the full report: America's Call For Higher Education Redesign

Survey Methods

The following report presents findings from a quantitative survey that Gallup conducted on behalf of Lumina Foundation. The overall objective of the study was to determine the perceptions of the general American population about several important issues pertaining to higher education, including degree attainment, quality and value, costs, and innovative learning models. The study measures public attitudes about higher education generally, as well as other topics, namely, barriers to degree attainment and responsibility for financing higher education. To achieve these objectives, Gallup conducted 1,009 interviews with individuals 18 years and older residing in landline-telephone households, cellphone-only households, and cellphone-user households.

Gallup conducted surveys in English only from Nov. 9-Dec. 4, 2012. Up to three calls were made to each household to reach an eligible respondent.

The data set was statistically adjusted (weighted) using the following variables: race/ethnicity, gender, education, and age as defined by the most recent data from the Current Population Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The final overall results are representative of the U.S. adult population 18 years and older.

The questionnaire was developed in consultation with representatives from Lumina Foundation and Gallup. All interviewing was supervised and conducted by Gallup's full-time interviewing staff. For results based on the total sample size of 1,009 adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points. For subgroups within this population (e.g., education level, gender, and income), the margin of error would be greater. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls. The following paper presents key findings of the survey. Reported frequencies may not add up to 100% due to rounding or the exclusion of "don't know" and refused results in some cases.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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