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The Price of College, and its Value

by Scott Bittle

Monday, September 6th, 2010


Is college overrated?

The Washington Post opened up a debate when it ran a story last week questioning whether high-priced college degrees actually pay off economically. While the story quoted several critics, this isn't a majority view. Public Agenda's surveys show that most Americans are convinced a college education is necessary to get ahead. And federal statistics show that people with college degrees earn more over their lifetimes.

But if most Americans are so convinced of the value of college, why are we having the argument?

One reason may be how the public is processing two conflicting worries: their conviction that college is necessary is rising, even as they're increasingly worried that a diploma is out of reach financially.

In our Squeeze Play studies, we've found the number of people who think that a higher education is "absolutely necessary" for success has jumped dramatically, up from 31 percent as recently as 2000 to 55 percent in our last two studies, in 2008 and 2009. Yet nearly seven in 10 also say there are many qualified people who don't have access to higher education, up from 47 percent in 2000.

When those trends collide in the public's thinking, one result is skepticism about how colleges operate financially. Six out of 10 Americans in our Squeeze Play survey now say that colleges today operate more like a business, focused more on the bottom line than on the educational experience of students. The number of people who feel this way is up by 8 percentage points since 2007.

Six in ten Americans agree that "colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices." Over half (54 percent) say that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education."

It's these kind of doubts that the critics of colleges may be tapping into: not so much that there isn't value in college, but that colleges may not be doing everything possible to keep their prices in line. You can believe something is absolutely necessary, and still wonder whether you paid too much for it.



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