Fall 2015 Articles, Misc, Social Issues

Students Lean Towards Viewing College Education as a Privilege, not a Right

collegeGetting a college education is increasingly unattainable because of costs. Student debt is climbing to unsustainable levels. To many, this makes getting a college education a privilege because by definition a privilege is a right or benefit that is given to some but not others.

The Guardsman magazine, an online journalism project focusing on life at small colleges, recently published an article about college education being viewed as a right versus a privilege. They concluded that as of now, objectively speaking, attaining a college education is a privilege in the United States because of the significant financial burdens it imposes. They also argued, however, that college education should be granted as a right as well.

Question Wording Matters

We asked State students if they thought college should be a right or a privilege, but we asked the question three different ways. When asked, yes or no, if college education is a right, 52% answered, “yes.” However, when we asked them if college education is a right or a privilege, students then shifted towards privilege, with just 46% saying it is a right. The major difference occurs when we asked, “is college education a right, a privilege, both or neither?” In this final version of the larger question, 41% of students say it is a privilege, 38% say both, and only 18% think college education is a right (4% had no opinion).

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Our results suggest that more NC State students view college education as a privilege rather than a right, although the precise breakdown depends a lot on how the question is asked and the answer options that are provided. It can appear that a slim majority believes college is a right, but that result seems to be a product of the particular question wording. Once they are given more options, more students choose “privilege” than otherwise.


These are the results for this semester’s “Big Poll,” conducted bi-annualy since 2010 (November 5-10, 2015). The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 4,500 NCSU undergraduates, generating a 24% response rate for completed surveys (and 26% for partially completed). Sampling error is +/-2.93% for completed interviews and questions asked of the full sample; it is higher for sub-groups and questions asked of only portions of the full sample.

In addition to sampling error, other forms of error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, but these are not precisely quantifiable. We do not apply post-stratification sample weights to adjust for possible demographic imbalances in our sample because our measured demographics closely approximate the known student parameters for age, year in school, and gender. Weighting the data would be unlikely to change the reported results by more than 1-2% percentage points for any question results.

Click here to see the full set of results: Toplines Fall 2015 Big Poll

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