The Current State of the US Higher Education System

Rebecca Lavinson,
AYPF Policy Associate

Last month, I attended the event Varying Degrees: How America Perceives Higher Education in 2018 by New America in which they discussed the results of their survey on American perceptions of US higher education. The survey was conducted on a nationally representative sample of Americans aged 18 and older. When asked, “Agree or disagree: Higher education in America is fine how it is,” 68% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, while only 25% of respondents felt higher education in America is fine. The Varying Degrees report speculates that educational attainment gaps by race and income, rising tuition fees and accompanied debt, and low completion rates are causing dissatisfaction with the current state of higher education among the American population.

American perceptions are not wrong: data from 2014 showed that tuition fees were high across the board, costing students on average $9,586 for public two-year institutions, $18,632 for public four-year institutions, and $37,990 for private not-for-profit four-year institutions per year. In 2012, the majority of postsecondary education costs were not covered by the Federal or state governments, with private expenditure on tertiary education reaching 62% , resulting in 71% of students that attended four-year colleges to graduate with debt averaging $29,400. Furthermore, in 2017, the six-year college completion rate at two-year institutions was 38% and at four-year public and private universities increased to 65% and 79%, respectively.

Higher education is more necessary than ever

80% of respondents from the Varying Degrees survey agreed “there are more opportunities for people who pursue education after high school” as opposed to entering the workforce directly after high school. This opinion appears to be supported by the data, which indicates a high school diploma may no longer be sufficient to acquire a high-paying job.

Pursuing further education enhances future opportunities. As of 2014 the median annual wage for those with a high school diploma was $35,580, and increased to $58,240 with an associate’s degree and $68,190 with a bachelor’s degree. Not only do jobs that require a postsecondary degree pay more, but the number of jobs that require higher education is growing. After the 2007 recession, a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report found that of the jobs created during the recovery, fewer than 80,000 went to workers with a high school diploma or less, whereas 3.1 million jobs went to those holding some college or an associate’s degree and 8.4 million jobs went to those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. The report also found a greater reduction of blue-collar jobs after the recession.

Who is being left behind?

There has been a shift in focus from increasing high school graduation rates to ensuring high school graduates are college and career ready, equipped with the skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education or the workforce. But once students receive their high school diploma, are they granted equal access to postsecondary education opportunities? Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, said in 1848, “education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” With the variation in enrollment rates, completion rates, and debt by income and race, education does not appear to be acting as a great equalizer.

Enrollment: Even when comparing recent high school graduates as opposed to the entire student-aged population, low-income and black students are less likely than average to enroll in higher education institutions.

Institution type: Discrepancies in outcomes between students of different incomes and races are further amplified once the type of institution where students enroll is considered. Low-income students (2014) and Hispanics (2008) made up a higher percentage of the student body at two-year institutions compared to four-year institutions, while a greater proportion of white students attended private not-for-profit four-year universities compared to black and Hispanic students.

Completion: The type of institution students attend can impact completion rates, with two-year institutions – which have a greater proportion of low-income and minority students – having lower completion rates than four-year institutions. Even within two-year and four-year institutions, blacks and Hispanics are less likely to graduate.

Debt: Completion rates can have a large and lasting negative impact on non-completers who take out loans to attend postsecondary institutions, resulting in debt and no degree. Although completers have more debt on average, the proportion of completers and non-completers with federal education debt was equivalent in 2009. Of college graduates, black students are more likely to face higher levels of debt while Pell Grant recipients, mostly from low-income families, borrowed at higher rates and borrowed more than the average borrower.

Considerations and recommendations

How do we improve education access and completion for college-ready high school graduates in the current state of high tuition fees and a debt-financed education system? Governments, secondary institutions, and postsecondary institutions need to provide a mix of student resources beginning before students start applying to higher education institutions until they graduate with a postsecondary degree.

College readiness is not just about rigorous coursework anymore. In secondary school, student resource centers and knowledgeable college advisors need to be available to support students in selecting the appropriate courses, preparing for standardized testing, completing college applications, and navigating financial aid opportunities to prepare for the next steps. This is especially beneficial for low-income and first-generation students. These support systems need to continue throughout the higher education setting by supporting students financially and providing them with academic advisors and career guidance, especially for students most at risk of dropping out. To improve the effectiveness of the available resources on enrollment and completion within secondary and postsecondary institutions, resources need to be easy to locate and navigate.

The report also noted that the government needs to take responsibility to help finance higher education for low-income students. The Varying Degrees survey finds that 60% of Americans believe “the government should fund higher education because it is a public good” as opposed to 27% that believe “students should fund their own education because it is a personal benefit.” Government spending should keep pace with rising tuition costs, and the government should provide easy access to grants and loans for all students accompanied by a sustainable repayment system.

Americans are optimistic about higher education in the US. In the Varying Degrees survey, 79% of respondents agreed with the statement: “most people who enroll in higher education benefit,” varying from a 76% agreement rate among Hispanics to an 85% agreement rate among Asians, and agreement by income level ranging between 78% and 82%. Due to the advantages of higher education, secondary and postsecondary, as well as state and federal government institutions must work together to improve the delivery. Providing these critical financial resources and student supports can be a step in improving access, completion, and equity in the US.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.