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Rising Debt, Rising Skepticism on College?

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Student loan debt is expected to top $1 trillion this year, a new record, and it comes at a time when the public is increasingly concerned that higher education is increasingly necessary – and increasingly out of reach.

The New York Times reported that student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year, and two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt in 2008, compared with fewer than half in 1993.

Public Agenda’s research has found the public is increasingly concerned about student debt, with nearly two-thirds saying “students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education.” That increased 9 percentage points between 2000 and 2009.

But the debate about student debt occurs in a broader context for the public, a context of colliding trends. The number of Americans who say college is “absolutely necessary” for success has increased more than 20 points, from 31 percent as recently as 2000 to 55 percent. At the same time, there’s been a corresponding drop in those who say the vast majority of qualified students have the opportunity to attend college, from 45 percent to 29 percent.

It’s important to note that the public is still very optimistic about a couple of points. Six in 10 parents say it’s “very likely” their child will go to college. Also, 62 percent of the general public believes “almost anyone can get financial help” to go to college.

But another part of the public’s reaction to these trends has been a growing skepticism about how colleges are run. Some 54 percent say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education. Six in 10 say colleges are “mostly concerned about the bottom line.”

Those trends – and those doubts – are going to put increasing pressure on colleges to make the most out of what they’ve got.



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