HURST: New North Carolina poll demonstrates wide support for higher education reforms

In debate over higher education, a new North Carolina poll indicates a growing consensus for Congress to adopt a series of measures aimed at increasing higher education accountability to ensure that the degrees students earn provide value. 

polof 600 likely 2020 voters in North Carolina found voters across the political aisle in agreement that more federal oversight of higher education is needed to ensure student success. They expect college grads to at least make enough to repay their student loans, for instance. They believe institutions should do more to improve graduation rates. 

There is widespread support in North Carolina for implementing stronger federal guardrails across the entire system to make sure that both students and taxpayers are getting a real return on their huge investment in higher education, said Angela Kuefler, a senior vice president at Global Strategy Group, the research firm that conducted the poll. 

The poll comes as Congress considers reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which was first adopted in 1965 to offer college students financial assistance. Congress periodically reauthorizes the legislation with amendments that affect college and universities and their students. 

Improving access to higher education has been thrust back into the forefront by presidential candidates, particularly those seeking the Democratic nomination for next years nationwide election. Political prognosticators find it convenient to place Democrats as only interested in making college free, and Republicans as only willing to embrace less federal oversight and permit the free market to determine how best to deliver postsecondary education. 

However, there is an effort to deliver consensus on critical reforms to our nations higher education system, and leaders in Congress  including members of the North Carolina delegation playing critical roles  are poised to address these concerns during the forthcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Above all, advocates and leaders in Congress are pursuing a comprehensive set of reforms to make sure the money taxpayers, students and families spend on higher education is worth it. 

This new poll reveals a path forward for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground on improving the quality of the higher education system in the U.S. for students. 

More than 66% of survey respondents believe the federal government should provide basic safeguards to help ensure students are discouraged from taking out loans to attend predatory institutions. More the three-quarters agree the government should better ensure students succeed in higher education, such as graduating and earning degrees that generally pay more than those with only high school diplomas. 

In North Carolina, almost half of the students at four-year colleges are taking six years to graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Students are also accumulating a record amount of student debt, but many are not earning enough income from their new jobs to adequately pay off that debt. Currently, 72% of North Carolina graduates are unable to begin paying down their student loans within three years of enrollment. 

Other findings include: 

  • 53 percent strongly support (66 percent among Democrats and 44 percent among Republicans) increasing investment in the Pell Grant program to help more low- and moderate-income families send their children to college; 
  • 53 percent strongly support (51 percent among Democrats and 53 percent among Republicans) making it harder for a for-profit school to convert to nonprofit status through accounting changes that avoid some regulations; and 
  • 49 percent strongly support (49% among Democrats and 54% among Republicans) prohibiting institutions from accessing federal financial aid such as grants and loans if their graduation rate is less than 15%. 

Voters from North Carolina believe having a well-functioning higher education system is crucial to the broader success of our economy, which is why they are hungry for a greater return on our significant federal investment in this area, Kuefler said. 

Bobby Hurst is a former five-term Fayetteville City Council member.