Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education have completed a series of studies on public attitudes toward higher education, beginning with two relatively small-scale surveys in 1993 and 1998. In 2000, we published a much more extensive study entitled Great Expectations: How the Public and Parents—White, African American, and Hispanic—View Higher Education. Great Expectations painted a rather rosy picture of public attitudes toward higher education. Many Americans thought that higher education was extremely important and was generally doing a good job. Although people were clearly worried about its high cost, most Americans felt that the task of providing a higher education to the next generation was “difficult but doable.” Seventy-five percent of parents of high school students, for example, said that it was certain or very likely that their oldest child would attend college, and the vast majority (93%) of those who expected their child to go to college said that they would “find a way to work out the costs.”
In Great Expectations, we concluded that “for most Americans, higher education is a public policy success story.” We also said that this positive outlook was rather fragile, and we speculated that an economic downturn could “upset the apple cart,” especially if access to higher education seemed threatened. We were particularly concerned about the situation for African Americans and Hispanics. Great Expectations had found that African American and Hispanic high school parents—seemingly more so than white parents—attached a great deal of importance to higher education as a way for their children to become successful, and we were worried that “if an economic downturn makes access to higher education more difficult for minority groups, then the dashed hopes that follow could be especially disheartening.”
The country has, in fact, experienced tough economic times in the years since we wrote those words. Many state governments are in a state of economic crisis, and public higher education is competing with other services (such as K–12, highways, and prisons) for scarce public resources. The tough times have taken their toll on higher education in terms of cutbacks and sharp increases in tuition and fees.
To examine some of the impacts of these changes on public attitudes, we have recently completed another small-scale survey. The survey included 16 substantive questions, all of which had been used in our previous studies; it was conducted in October 2003 and included 801 adult respondents. We also called several of our respondents back for more in-depth discussions of the views they had expressed in the surveys.
Public opinion on higher education has remained relatively stable. This is not surprising, since there is often a lag between objective changes and public opinion, particularly when it comes to subjects that are not at the top of the public’s agenda. But there are some signs that public attitudes toward higher education have become more troubled, especially for those groups most affected, including parents of high school students, African Americans, and Hispanics. In this memo we will review both the areas of stability and also some of the statistically significant changes over time.