Americans View Quality of Two-Year, Four-Year Colleges Similarly

Justin McCarthy

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Americans are about as likely to rate the quality of education that community colleges offer as "excellent" or "good" (66%) as they are to rate four-year colleges this positively (70%). Americans are about half as likely to rate the quality of Internet-based college programs -- those offering online-only courses -- as excellent or good (36%).

Americans' Views of the Quality of Education at Four-Year Universities, \nCommunity Colleges and Online Institutions

These results are based on a June 2-7 Gallup poll. Gallup first asked this question in 2013. Americans' opinions of each form of higher education are essentially the same as in that initial poll, with two- and four-year educational institutions rated similarly on quality and Internet-based programs lagging behind.

Community colleges are front and center in a national debate on the affordability of higher education, with President Barack Obama proposing that the U.S. make community college tuition free. While advocates of higher-education access cheer the greater admission rates at community colleges, these two-year institutions face different challenges, such as lower graduation rates and the task of transitioning students into four-year schools and, ultimately, the workforce. However, Americans view the quality of community colleges similarly to that of four-year schools.

Americans with advanced education rate four-year colleges and universities more highly than community colleges, by nine percentage points, but all other education groups view community colleges and four-year schools similarly.

Adults younger than 30 hold four-year colleges in a bit higher regard than they do community colleges, by 12 points, whereas older Americans' views of the quality of both are similar.

Americans' Views of the Quality of Education, by Age and Education Level

Roughly a quarter of Americans with postgraduate education (27%) believe the quality of online learning is excellent or good, less than the 40% of college-only graduates who say the same. Across age groups, there is relatively little difference in ratings of online education.

Bottom Line

Though it may be harder to gain acceptance into and afford four-year colleges and universities, Americans view the quality of education they provide as no better than that of community colleges. However, the public does not rate the quality of online education as positively as that of either two- or four-year colleges.

Gallup has found that although a third of Americans say online programs do a better job of providing broader curriculum choices and good value for their cost, many Americans believe they lack in some key areas including reliable testing and grading, high-quality instruction and their value to potential employers. Online education is not an either/or proposition, as brick-and-mortar colleges routinely incorporate online coursework in their offerings. But in terms of college programs that are solely Internet-based, it seems unlikely that they are going to overtake traditional colleges anytime soon in public perceptions of quality.