Large Majorities Favor Increased Federal Spending for Higher Education, As Called For In Reconciliation Budget Plan

A large majority of voters support increases in federal spending on higher education, a central principle in the reconciliation budget plan currently being negotiated in Congress.

Two specific proposals also being considered for the reconciliation budget plan-increasing Pell Grants and federally-supported tuition-free community college-also elicit support from large majorities.

In the innovative survey of 2,613 registered voters, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC) at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, respondents were given a briefing on the current cost of higher education, and evaluated arguments for and against increasing federal spending and specifically for tuition-free community college. The survey content was reviewed for accuracy and balance by experts on both sides of the issue.

When initially asked if the federal government should offer more financial assistance for getting a college or university education, 64% of voters support the idea, with 90% of Democrats and 62% of independents, but only 35% of Republicans.  After considering the different options for increasing federal spending in higher education, the percentage favoring some increase in federal spending increases to seven-in-ten, including as much as 53% among Republicans.

“Support for increased federal assistance for higher education is fairly robust and grows to seven-in-ten as Americans deliberate about the specific options,” commented PPC Director Steven Kull.

Respondents evaluated a specific proposal for increasing the maximum amount of a Pell Grant for low-income students, from $6,500 to $8,300 a year, based on the President’s American Families Plan combined with his 2022 budget proposal. They were told that this would increase spending by about $8.5 billion a year. A robust 70% of respondents favored the proposal, including 53% of Republicans, 88% of Democrats, and 64% of independents.

Further analysis was conducted by dividing the sample six ways, depending on the Cook’s Political Report PVI ratings, reflecting the partisan orientation of the respondent’s Congressional district. When asked about the Pell Grant increase, majorities in very Republican (67%) to very Democratic (79%) districts favored the proposal.

The survey also found support for federal spending for higher education that is not tied to a means test. A majority of 62% support the federal government, as called for in the American Families Plan, funding tuition-free community college for all students in states that request it, including 89% of Democrats and 58% of independents, but only 32% of Republicans. Respondents were told that this policy is estimated to cost the federal government around $11 billion a year.  In the analysis of Congressional districts, 56% in very Republican districts and 76% in very Democratic districts support the proposal.

The number in favor increases if the federal subsidies are not limited to community college. An additional 9% favor increased federal support for community colleges if it extends to all colleges and university students, including an additional 12% of Republicans and 5% of Democrats.   Thus, including those who want to increase support for community college and those who insist on a broader federal role, 71% of respondents favor some type of increase in federal support for college education, not means-tested, including 44% of Republicans and virtually all Democrats.

Looking more closely at Republicans reveals some sharp demographic variations. While only 35% of Republicans support the general principle of increasing federal spending on higher education, 56% of Republican 18-34 year-olds and 55% of non-white Republicans are in favor.  Similarly, for federal support to make community college tuition-free, only 44% of Republicans are in favor, but Republican support rises to 54% among 18-34 year-olds, 57% among non-whites, 51% among women, 57% among those with less than a high school education, and 54% of those who make less than $30,000.  Increases in Pell Grants were supported by a majority of Republicans overall, but only by 48% of Republican males and 49% of those earning over $150,000.

The survey was conducted online from July 29 – August 23, 2021 with a probability-based sample of 2,613 registered voters and had a margin of error of +/- 1.9%. The sample was provided by Nielsen Scarborough from its larger sample of respondents, who were recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of households.

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