The American public has mixed feelings about how well colleges serve the needs of students, according to the results of a poll released on Thursday by New America, a nonpartisan think tank. Three-quarters of the respondents agreed that it is easier to be successful with a college degree, but only one-quarter said higher education is "fine just the way it is," according to the poll.

But within the results are several positive signs for academe, including a relatively glowing picture of community colleges: At least 80 percent of those who answered the poll said that community colleges contribute to a strong work force, are worth their cost, and prepare people to succeed — more-positive perceptions than for any other sector of higher education. The poll’s youngest respondents, from Generation Z, roughly defined as those born in the late 1990s to 2000, had the highest estimation of public two-year colleges.

The national survey, of 1,600 people, was conducted earlier this year, and the results are available online with tools to show responses by age group, gender, race, and even political leaning.

Higher-education experts at New America said this first survey was meant to set a baseline and doesn’t yet explain what was behind the results. But community colleges have gotten a lot of positive attention in recent years, including a growing movement by states to provide free tuition at two-year colleges and a push for more work-force preparation, said Amy Laitinen, director of higher education in the education-policy program at New America.

Perhaps the most assuring finding is that more than 60 percent of respondents said higher education was good for society, compared with about 26 percent who said it was primarily a benefit for individuals. That finding holds true for both people who identify themselves as politically conservative and those who identify as liberal.

Policy Solutions

New America plans to make this an annual poll, with some questions being asked every year and others as a way to understand the reasons for peoples’ attitudes, said Rachel Fishman, a senior policy analyst there. The responses could help shape both public policy and how institutions operate, she said.

Of the response to the question of colleges’ conflicting interests, she said, "What exactly is going on that makes Americans answer this way?"

Deborah A. Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, an advocacy group for Latino students, was a member of the advisory group that helped devise the poll questions. For her, the results show that there is a disconnect between what colleges are trying to do and how they are perceived by the public.

"I have to admit that I was a little surprised or perplexed that, over all, we as Americans believe in the value of higher education, but the current structure is not giving us what we need," she said.

Colleges should do a better job of communicating their value, she said. But it is more than just building an image: "We need to not just shift the story but do right by students," she said.