Survey Reveals Gap Between Public and Policymakers When it Comes to Understanding Today’s College Students

Higher Learning Advocates research tests understanding of today’s college students; finding that while the pop culture archetype still holds sway with many in the general public, policymakers are attuned to demographic shifts  


Contact: Ted Eismeier,

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 18, 2018) — Today, Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan organization working to shift federal higher education policy to better support today’s students, released the results of an analysis that compares perceptions of today’s college students among beltway “insiders,” with those of the general public. The organization released the data during a student roundtable in Washington, D.C., hosted by Higher Learning Advocates founder and Executive Director Julie Peller and former House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA), who worked together on the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2008.

“The data confirms that in several key areas the public is unaware of the demographic shifts that have occurred in higher education,” said Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates. “Although policy insiders understand that the needs and aspirations of college students have evolved, the pop culture archetype for the typical college student still seems to dominate the perceptions of many Americans. The good news is that recognition in Washington of the challenges today’s students face opens the door to bipartisan solutions with the potential to make good on the promise of higher education for them.”

The data includes a nationally representative survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by Gfk Research, along with a survey of beltway insiders, including current and former Congressional staff and administration officials.

The national survey found that less than half (47%) of Americans are aware that Hispanic and African American college students are less likely to complete their degree than their white peers. One hundred percent of insiders, in contrast, were able to correctly identify the answer to the same question. Sixty-two percent of respondents believed that most first-year students live on campus, although just 13% of first-year students in fact do.

“As the reauthorization of the higher education act looms large, the data underscore the urgency of raising awareness about the emerging profile of today’s students in need of greater support and resources from a federal policy perspective,” said George Miller, former House Education and Workforce Committee chairman. “The imperative of creating pathways for continuous learning and making it possible for adult and working learners to succeed, demands that we rethink our approach to the finance and delivery of higher education in profound ways.”

The national survey also revealed a generational gap in understanding. Just 27% of respondents 65 and older were aware that a majority of college students are financially independent, meaning that they do not rely on their parents for financial support. Only 62% of those 65 and older knew that 40% of independent students live at or below the poverty line. Respondents aged 65 and older were also less likely to correctly identify statistics on the number of college students who are over 25 or working while in school.

Other findings include:

  • ‘First-Gen’ at the Forefront: 81% of Americans were aware that 3 in 10 college students are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution.
  • Real World Challenges: Although 84% of 18- to 24-year-olds are aware that the majority of college students work while learning, the public, across age groups, is less aware that many (26%) students have to balance parenthood with school or that of first-year students must find a way to commute to campus.
  • Insiders in Touch? In contrast to the public survey, insiders answered each question with 85-100% accuracy—significantly higher and more consistent than the 37-81% accuracy range of the general public.

In addition to survey data, the report includes commentary from current and former policymakers. A higher ed policy leader explained that “there is no archetype for today’s college students,” but is “rather represented by every person from every walk of life in America.” Another former White House staffer made the case that federal policy creates “a sink or swim mentality” since “colleges are given funding upfront to enroll students but have little incentive from the federal end to ensure students are completing.”

View the full results of the survey here. For more, visit to get policy solutions and learn more about the experiences of today’s students.


About Higher Learning Advocates

Higher Learning Advocates, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. We support a system of higher learning that is student-centered, equitable, outcomes-based, and focused on educational quality by advocating for policies that are based on student outcomes, make postsecondary education and student aid work for today’s students, and ensure access and affordability. We are bipartisan, strategically minded, and focused on improving postsecondary access and success for all students.