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June 29, 2020 – The University of California, the Policy Institute at King’s College London and market research firm Ipsos today (June 29) released results from a new, eye-opening international study of residents in 11 countries, including the United States, about the impact and value of higher education.

The global poll surveyed 10,500 people earlier this year in conjunction with the 2020 Fulbright lecture by UC President Janet Napolitano scheduled in July. Each year, the US-UK Fulbright Commission selects a prominent leader in international relations for this distinguished lecture series. Due to COVID-19, this year’s event will take place as a virtual conversation that will focus on the value of university research and innovation globally, and the future of higher education in times of crisis.

“I am proud to join the Fulbright Commission, as well as educators and students across the U.K., for a conversation about the important role of higher education in shaping our future,” said President Napolitano. “The survey results show that universities are critical in developing solutions to worldwide challenges. They also reveal the significant gap between perception and reality when it comes to the value of higher education in the U.S. and around the world. Hard data reveal that universities actually provide lifelong advantages in opportunity and income for graduates while boosting economic growth.”

Key U.S. survey findings:

Seventy-four percent of Americans, and significant majorities in all the countries surveyed, agreed that research universities play an important role in addressing key worldwide challenges. The U.S. is seeing this sentiment play out in real time as university researchers, including UC’s scientists and physicians across its 10 campuses and five academic medical centers, contribute to the global effort to understand, treat and ultimately defeat the COVID-19 virus.

“It’s clear the public recognize the vital importance of universities in tackling global challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic,” said Ed Byrne, president and principal of King’s College London. “Universities have made a compelling case for the benefits of their expertise in times of crisis. But as the after-effects of the extraordinary measures to control COVID-19 start to be felt, including in tighter government and individual budgets, universities will need to do a better job in demonstrating the direct value they bring to society, communities and individuals.” 

The findings also reveal broad support for continued growth of higher education and a positive opinion of universities’ impact:

  • Sixty-eight percent of Americans say access to universities should be expanded, compared with 10 percent who disagree.
  • Fifty-two percent say universities have a positive impact on this country, while 23 percent disagree.

UC has experienced strong growth in demand over the past two decades with yearly applications growing from 66,000 in 1999 to more than 176,000 in 2019. Due to UC’s efforts and state support, enrollment at UC has also increased: since the 2014-15 academic year, UC has added some 18,000 additional California undergraduates.

The survey also reveals the American public has a less favorable view of the value and skills that higher education offers:

  • About half (51 percent) of Americans polled think that a university degree does not lead to a higher salary in the U.S., compared with just over a quarter (28 percent) who think it does.
  • Thirty-six percent of people in the U.S. agree that the benefits of going to a university outweigh the expenses of attendance. This is balanced by 36 percent who disagree.

  • More people disagree (40 percent) than agree (35 percent) that universities generally help reduce problems of inequality in the U.S.
  • Sixty-one percent think the value of a degree has declined in the past 10 years in this country, compared with 22 percent who do not.

“At this time of international crisis and instability it is encouraging to see people around the world acknowledging that universities are good at solving tough problems,” said Maria Balinska, executive director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission. “However, the public’s ambivalence around the benefits universities bring to individuals and the community at large also sends a clear message to international education exchange fellowships such as the Fulbright program. We need to be more effective in promoting the work of our fellows in civic engagement, compassionate leadership and international collaboration.”

National data show that completion of a university degree does, in fact, yield sustained higher earning for college graduates over their lifetimes. The University’s data show that UC graduates go on to earn more than the state median at all education levels within about 10 years of graduating, and that many students continue on to graduate school and even higher earnings trajectories.

UC has made significant efforts to maintain the high quality of a UC degree, as well as to improve affordability, boost graduation rates and ensure that students are well-positioned for career success after graduation.

UC and national data also show the value of a university degree as an equalizer and a tool for social mobility. UC enrolls a large number of Pell grant recipients who go on to surpass their parents’ income within five years of graduation, while 36 percent of UC’s lowest income students move from the bottom 20 to the top 20 percent of the income distribution as adults. Additionally, during the last seven years at UC, enrollment from underrepresented groups has grown by 38 percent.

Communicating the value of a college degree has been part of the global conversation around higher education for many years, as evident in the survey findings.  

“This research highlights the range of positive impacts that universities create such as addressing the key challenges the world faces. But there is a more mixed view of whether people think going to university is worth it compared to the expense of doing so, and whether going to university has any impact on future earning potential,” saidKelly Beaver, managing director of Public Affairs at Ipsos. “A global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of universities who are at the cutting edge of research and who add significant value to their countries, both economically and socially.”

The survey results will be discussed in greater detail during the July 2 virtual Fulbright event, titled “A Future in Question: Higher Education and the Public Good,” and will feature President Napolitano along with leaders from King’s College London, Oxford University and the University of Edinburgh.

The full U.S. and international survey findings and an accompanying international release and summary of findings are also now available.