A Crisis of Oversight: How Coronavirus Deepened Voters’ Desires for Accountability in Higher Ed
The COVID-19 pandemic has paralyzed our higher education system, forcing millions of students online and creating mass uncertainty as colleges figure out how to safely bring students back onto campus while maintaining their own bottom lines. Congress has already poured more than $14 billion into saving the postsecondary system, with additional rounds of financial relief on the way. With this influx of federal dollars into higher education—and the very real need to keep institutions and students afloat—questions remain about how this unprecedented crisis will shift voters’ perceptions of higher education and whether they want the federal government to beef up or pare down its oversight of our nation’s colleges and universities.
A new national survey of likely 2020 voters finds that in this time of crisis, likely voters across the political spectrum want to see more—not less—oversight from the federal government when it comes to how taxpayer dollars are being spent in higher ed. Because voters are increasingly worried about their own finances and their ability to pay tuition bills, there is broad consensus across the political spectrum that higher education needs additional guardrails and accountability to ensure that bad actors do not profit off the pandemic and that degrees maintain their rigor and value.
The analysis that follows is based on data from an online survey conducted by Global Strategy Group of 1,000 likely voters nationwide for Third Way from June 8-14, 2020.1
Support for Higher Ed Accountability is Strong Across Party Lines.
Over the last two and half years, Third Way has fielded multiple rounds of public opinion research to better understand likely voters’ attitudes surrounding the federal role in holding the higher education system accountable for the outcomes it delivers for students. This research has consistently shown deep bipartisan support for increased federal oversight, as Americans see the need for students and their families to get a return on investment for one of the most expensive purchases they’ll make in their lives.
While voters understand that higher education institutions are not at fault for the pandemic and empathize with the difficult choices they’ve had to make up to this point, this empathy should not be confused with sympathy. With billions of taxpayer dollars and students’ futures on the line, voters feel more strongly than ever that now is the time for the federal government to strengthen its oversight of institutions as they cash bigger taxpayer checks.
- Voters are concerned there will be insufficient higher education oversight in the wake of coronavirus. By a two-to-one margin, likely voters report being more concerned at the prospect of there not being enough federal oversight around higher education institutions that accept coronavirus relief funds than they are about the possibility the government will be too heavy-handed (68% to 32%). This pattern holds across party lines, with 72% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans agreeing about the need for greater oversight.
- Republicans want more, not fewer, strings attached to how institutions spend coronavirus funds. Similarly, voters across the political spectrum demonstrated a strong preference for “giving higher education billions of dollars in coronavirus relief funds with more guardrails and accountability in place, to make sure the money is not being used to defraud students” over “giving higher education institutions coronavirus relief funds with fewer strings attached because they know how to best help their students” (76% to 24%). Remarkably, Republicans were equally committed to this sentiment, with 78% of GOP-identifying likely voters urging stronger guardrails compared to 76% of Democrats (a difference within the margin of error).
- Voters care a lot about where their taxpayer dollars are going. In a clear show of preference, likely voters support the federal government providing basic guardrails to ensure students aren’t using taxpayer dollars to attend predatory institutions, instead of abiding by the view that the federal government should not try to influence where students spend taxpayer dollars (71% to 29%, respectively).
Coronavirus has Deepened Bipartisan Consensus on Policy Priorities.
In our deeply polarized country, it is rare to see strong bipartisan consensus around federal action or intervention in any sector. However, these data (along with similar findings from past research) demonstrate that strengthened accountability for federally-funded postsecondary education presents a meaningful opportunity for Congress to satisfy voters on both sides of the aisle. For many Republican voters, this priority is grounded in a desire to ensure taxpayers and students are getting a return on their investment, while Democrats see more federal oversight as a necessary mechanism to protect our most vulnerable students from unscrupulous behavior.
In either case, the current pandemic has only intensified these fears, with voters expressing a renewed urgency to have Congress create more accountability in higher education. Tellingly, getting higher education institutions relief funds quickly falls to the bottom of the list of priorities when ranked in order of importance, with voters instead elevating policies that ensure higher education provides good value to students, protects students from predatory institutions, and strengthens accreditation standards for programs that take federal money (especially understanding more of these will now be online).
- Prioritization of accountability and oversight has increased since early March. When Third Way conducted a similar survey of likely voters in nine key states in weeks before the pandemic fully shut down our country, most of the accountability priorities we asked in this survey were rated as marginally less important compared to how they are now ranked. For instance, making higher education affordable and ensuring it provides a good value to students was a top priority to 55% earlier this spring. Now, 63% consider it a top priority. Similarly, protecting student loan borrowers from predatory institutions that lie to get them to enroll was a top priority to 52% in March, but now 61% rank it a top priority. A similar pattern persists across a variety of policies that would increase oversight attached to federal higher education funding.
- Policies to protect students trump free college or providing additional relief funds, even among Democrats. Even though college affordability and the need for additional stimulus dollars remain top of mind for voters concerned about the long-term effects of coronavirus on higher education, “making higher education free at public institutions” and “quickly getting federal coronavirus relief funds to higher education institutions to keep them open, even if that means loosening standards for accreditation” fell to the bottom of the priorities voters would like to see Members of Congress tackle in the near-term. Notably, free college—typically seen as the preeminent higher education policy for Democrats—didn’t even hit 50% for Democratic voters saying it should be a top priority.
- There is broad agreement on a wide range of specific strings that should be attached to these federal dollars. Likely voters on both sides of the aisle also strongly agree that institutions that do accept stimulus funding should have to abide by a number of federal guardrails, with only modest variation by intensity of agreement. Comparatively few believe that colleges and universities should not “be forced to abide by burdensome regulations during this crisis,” another proof point that voters want more, not less, oversight of higher education in the wake of COVID-19.
- This commitment to greater oversight is driven by concerns that students are getting less bang for their buck. Given the unprecedented circumstances and challenges of moving courses to a fully online or hybrid environment, voters conveyed some skepticism about the value of degrees earned during the pandemic. While most believe the quality of a college degree earned online due to the pandemic will be the same quality as one earned before (63%), a sizable minority believe it will be lower quality (28%), with no statistically significant differences in this viewpoint by party. Similarly, most voters expect these pandemic degrees have the same salary potential as one earned before (64%), but a considerable minority also believe it will garner a lower salary (29%). Such concerns about the value of a degree fuels the need for additional consumer protections that will ensure these students are not left high and dry if institutions are allowed to offer what some see as an inferior product for the same price.
Voters Fear the Pandemic will Induce Predatory Behavior, Especially Online.
The influx of new federal money and a looming recession could create a perfect recipe for bad actors to take advantage of students and the taxpayer dollars that come along with them. Even before the pandemic began, previous surveys found significant concerns about the lack of federal guardrails and consumer protections in higher education. Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only amplified the concerns voters have that institutions looking to protect their bottom lines will prey upon vulnerable populations if Congress does not shore up its ability to monitor these schools and hold them accountable. This concern runs even deeper as colleges shift a greater proportion of their learning online—which remains a wild, wild west for regulatory action and the ability to monitor quality.
Without strong guardrails and consumer protections, voters assume bad actors will flourish. If there are no federal requirements placed on higher education institutions that can access coronavirus relief funds, voters are extremely concerned that value and quality of instruction will decline. In particular, they are alarmed at the prospect of colleges spending funds on marketing, executive salaries, and perks instead of students (73% very concerned); politicians letting their friends open fly-by-night schools to take advantage of the stimulus (68%); institutions “double dipping” by taking in tuition as well as federal money (65%); charging students the same tuition but providing a lower quality education (63%); passing off lower quality degrees onto students (57%); and the proliferation of for-profit schools (49%). Importantly, this rank order is nearly identical among Democrats and Republicans; though Democrats are marginally more concerned than Republicans at the prospect of most of these scenarios. The largest difference by political party is around the potential for colleges to become dependent on the federal government as enrollment declines (31% concern among Democrats versus 49% concern among Republicans).
- For future rounds of stimulus funding, there is broad consensus that relief money should go to students—not to institutions as pass throughs. Because there concern that schools will use money on marketing, salaries, and other perks that feel counterproductive to student and taxpayer needs, voters indicated strong support for sending additional relief directly to students, rather than sending it to institutions in hopes that they get it to the students who need it.
- Online-only programs should have to follow the same rules. Despite the rapid move most institutions had to make to get their courses online, voters do not think this should be a pass for lax oversight. Instead, 93% of voters agree (with 53% saying they strongly agree) that online programs should have to abide by the same basic rules, like accreditation, as traditional in-person two and four-year programs. There is also a general sense that tuition should be lower for online programs, indicating that trust in the quality of online programming remains lower than in its in-person counterpart. When asked which statement voters agreed with most, 73% said “a student should pay less tuition for a college degree from an online-only program than one from a traditional in-person institution,” versus 23% who said they should pay the same and 4% who said they should pay more for an online-only program.
Higher education may not be the most salient issue on most voters’ minds as they head to the polls this coming November, but the virus and the steps policymakers take in an effort to combat its impact will shape the sector for years to come. Political conversations around higher education tend to focus on the need to make college more affordable for students, whether that be making college free on the front end or forgiving student loans on the back end. Yet, the coronavirus has revealed that these topline narratives miss a deep and growing sentiment across the electorate that we should shift our focus toward greater consumer protections and oversight to hold institutions accountable for their outcomes. With billions of dollars pouring into the system and a likely influx of new students seeking higher education in the wake of the pandemic, Congress should heed voters’ warnings that they have a responsibility to protect students’ and taxpayers’ investment in this system and ensure that all students who attend college see a return on that investment as an important pillar in our economic recovery.
Full toplines of the survey can be found here.
The precision of online surveys is measured using a credibility interval and, in this case, the interval is ±3.1%. The margin on the subsamples is larger. Care has been taken to ensure the geographic and demographic divisions of the expected national electorate are properly represented based on historical turnout.