Colorado poll finds voters skeptical of college, more supportive of career education

Two people stand in an automotive garage next to a truck needing repairs.
Colorado Northwestern Community College Automotive Technology lead instructor Dale Updike works with student Ryan Trussell in 2021. These are the types of programs many voters say high schools should be preparing students to enter. (Matt Stensland for Chalkbeat)

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It’s more important for Colorado schools to prepare students for the workforce than to prepare them to attend college.

That’s the opinion of more than 60% of respondents in a recent poll of education attitudes among Colorado voters. Magellan Strategies surveyed a representative group of 1,550 Colorado registered voters in September. The survey has a margin of error of 2.5%.

Magellan Strategies has done regular polling about education attitudes for several years. This is the first time the firm has included questions about CTE and higher education attitudes.

Respondents cited the high cost of college and questioned how useful college is to helping graduates get jobs, even though the majority of the respondents had a bachelor’s degree or higher themselves. Registered voters as a group have higher education and higher income levels than the general population.

Magellan Strategies CEO David Flaherty said some Republicans and conservatives brought up ideological concerns — such as colleges being hotbeds of “woke” thinking — but across the political spectrum, respondents wondered about the value of higher education, sometimes citing their own experiences of high student debt and low-paying jobs. Others worried about increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence systems doing away with jobs.

“You can feel that skepticism about the availability of a white-collar job at the other end,” Flaherty said.

Magellan’s findings echo those of a national poll of Gen Z students earlier this year that also found growing skepticism among young people of the value of a four-year degree. Those respondents still thought education after high school was important, but they were more interested in trade schools, industry certificates, and two-year programs that would help them get good-paying jobs with less debt.

Flaherty said colleges should take note of the findings, especially as they brace for declining enrollment. They need to get costs under control and show families and policy makers that an education is worth the investment of time and money, he said.

The flip side is that career and technical education scores very well with voters and helps counter concerns among conservative voters that schools are on the wrong track, Flaherty said.

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Magellan found that more than half of respondents weren’t sure if their local school districts offered career and technical education, but more than 86% would have a more favorable view of their school district if they knew about such programs, which can range from auto mechanics and cosmetology to health sciences and graphic design.

The poll showed that nearly half of voters think that schools are on the wrong track, and less than a third think they’re on the right track. That’s a worse view of education than voters had before the pandemic but similar to more recent polls.

Among conservatives, negative views of schools appeared to be shaped by national conservative media, Flaherty said, with respondents noting concerns about how schools handle gender identity and whether books in school libraries contain sexual content. Progressive voters are concerned about low funding and what they see as conservative attacks on public education.

Compared to last year, more Colorado voters said schools would provide a better education if they had more money — 61% compared with 56% in April 2022. But nearly half of respondents said they doubted their local school district was managing its finances wisely.

Asked about their top priorities, respondents said schools should focus on attracting and retaining high-quality educators, raising pay to keep pace with inflation, and preparing students for the workforce.

Magellan also asked respondents how they feel about the prospect of closing schools. With lower birth rates, many Colorado school districts are seeing fewer students, which in turn means less state funding. Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district, closed 21 schools in the last two years, despite pushback from parents. Others, such as Denver Public Schools, have balked at widespread closures in the face of community backlash.

When the downsides of small schools — such as offering fewer students services and less arts programming due to budget constraints — were explained to respondents, more than half said that school districts should consider closing schools.

See the full poll results, including regional breakdowns, here.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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