Traditionally, the United States higher education system has been the envy of the world for its high quality, accessibility to millions of Americans, ability to train generations of skilled workers, and its contribution to creating the vast American middle class. Today, however, higher education is experiencing new pressures. A new generation of students—including many minorities, children of recent immigrants, and middle-aged and older Americans—is seeking access to colleges and universities. This is happening precisely when public funding for higher education seems more strained than ever. At the same time, other countries are ramping up their own higher education systems to compete in the global economy.
Recently, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education called for reforms such as greater accountability and productivity in higher education. This report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda explores how the American public is thinking about higher education today. Are Americans pleased with the system as it exists, or are they looking for change? How is the system working from the public’s point of view and from the point of view of parents whose children may soon be students?
To explore this question, Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts opinion research on public policy issues, designed and fielded a random sample survey of 1,001 Americans, including oversamples of African-American and Hispanic parents with children in high school. The project included five focus groups around the country and interviews with more than two dozen corporate, media, philanthropic, and legislative leaders. The study also examined a series of similar public surveys, going back to 1993, to see how the public’s views have changed (or stayed the same) over time. See page 42 for a more detailed description of how the study was conducted, and visit publicagenda.org for full survey results. Funding for this research was provided by Lumina Foundation for Education as part of its Making Opportunity Affordable initiative.
The overall message from the public is mixed. People stress the importance of higher education and generally think colleges and universities are providing high quality education. Although most parents say that they will find a way to send their own children to college, there is widespread concern about the rising price of education. And it is clear that this growing concern about higher education is most troubling to many minority parents. There is no powerful call for change now, but the study also suggests some warning signs for higher education leadership. People are more critical of colleges and universities than in the past, but so far, the public thinks about higher education primarily from the perspective of the benefits it provides the individual consumer. In contrast to the growing leadership debate—which is strongly captured in the leadership interviews conducted for this project—the public has minimal understanding of the policy choices with which the country is beginning to wrestle.
Ten key findings emerged from the research, which we summarize here and present in more detail in the following pages:
Americans have stressed the importance of higher education in all of our surveys going back to 1993. Nearly all those interviewed (87 percent) believe that a college education improves job prospects. While people have emphasized the importance of higher education for years, the new research shows a steady increase in the percentage of people who stress that higher education is a career and social necessity. For many people, a college education is not just desirable but, in effect, the only path to a good job. A woman in Denver expressed a view we heard frequently: “To me, it’s unfair to that person who is smart and qualified and can’t go to college, because his door is closed where maybe another child’s isn’t. If you tell him he can’t get a college education, you’ve almost handicapped him.”
The public also voices satisfaction with the education that colleges and universities are delivering (although, as we will see later, there is some evidence that public satisfaction with the system as a whole is beginning to erode). Higher education consistently gets higher marks for quality than does education at public secondary schools. Although people are obviously concerned about costs, 67 percent believe that college is worth the money despite its expense. Today 66 percent say that colleges and universities are teaching students the important things they need to know, up from 53 percent who said this nine years ago.
This picture is darkened considerably by a nearly universal perception that the cost of education is rising dramatically. In fact, 59 percent of Americans say that higher education costs are going up as fast as or even faster than health care costs. There is also widespread concern about loans, with nearly 8 out of 10 people (78 percent) agreeing that students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education.
Rising costs have caused widespread concern regarding the opportunity for a higher education. Today more than 6 out of 10 Americans (62 percent) believe that many qualified and motivated students do not have an opportunity to receive a higher education. Notably, their concerns are at their highest point since the recession of the early ‘90s, when many Americans feared that college was out of reach. Although the economy today is generally perceived as strong, more people than ever are worried about higher education opportunities. In other words, where college is perceived as more necessary than ever before, it is also perceived as less available.
In the public’s mind, the problem falls differently on different sectors of the population. Sixty percent believe that the middle class is hardest hit by rising college bills since wealthy people can afford it and poor people may be eligible for financial aid. This finding is less surprising when we remember that hardly any Americans consider themselves either poor or wealthy (92 percent think of themselves as middle class or working class). Nor does this mean that people necessarily believe that opportunity is greater for poor people. In focus groups, respondents told us that many poor people cannot take advantage of the financial aid that is available because they lack the information, mentorship, or support necessary to go to college. Many also point out that academically qualified poor people are sometimes hampered by demanding external problems, such as the need to work to support their families, concerns about childcare, and lack of self-confidence.
Considering the importance of a college education, Americans’ broad concerns about cost, and the growing sense that higher education may not be available to all, one might assume that the issue would be at the top of the public’s policy agenda. This has not been true historically, however. One reason for this finding may be the existence of “pressure valves” in the system, that ease the public’s sense of anxiety. One major factor that reduces the urgency is that most Americans continue to believe that, despite rising prices, it is still possible for anyone who really wants to go to college to do so. Eighty-six percent believe that those who really want a college education can get one if they are willing to make sacrifices such as going part-time, living with parents, and working. The obstacles may be higher than ever, but there is still a faith that people who really want an education can overcome them if they try hard enough. Indeed, many people believe that having to make more sacrifices to get a higher education may actually benefit the student. Another pressure releaser is the public’s view that a good education in college is more about how much effort students put into their studies than what kind of school they attend. Some experts and leaders may see strong distinctions between the educational opportunities at a two-year versus a four-year institution, but most of the public does not. Seven in 10 Americans (71 percent) believe that students at a two-year community college can learn just as much as they would in their first two years at a four-year college or university.
Parents of high school students are even more likely than the public as a whole to think that college is necessary. More than three-quarters of parents (76 percent) say that they are worried about being able to pay for college. At the moment, however, the vast majority say that their oldest high school age child will go to college and that they will find a way to pay for it. In other words, although people are clearly worried, they still think that college is possible for their own children. But as we will see later, parents are increasingly questioning whether they are getting their money’s worth.
Anxiety about higher education is more widespread among minority parents. Even African-American and Hispanic parents from more financially comfortable households show heightened concerns compared to their white counterparts. Earlier Public Agenda studies show that minority students have similar attitudes—these young adults were more likely than young whites to doubt whether a qualified student could find financial aid and many reported they were not able to attend their first-choice college because of cost.
Despite the pressure valves and the generally positive attitudes people still have about the quality of education that colleges and universities provide, there are some important warning signs of growing public discontent with the system. Fifty-two percent of Americans agree that “colleges are like a business,” caring mostly about their own bottom line, rather than educational values; 44 percent say that waste and mismanagement are “very important” factors in driving up college costs, with an additional 37 percent saying they are “somewhat important.” Almost half of those surveyed (48 percent) believe that their state’s public college and university system needs to be fundamentally overhauled. A return to the conditions of the early 1990s (tough economic times combined with rapidly escalating college prices) might push the public’s criticisms to much higher levels.
An emerging debate in the leadership community concerns the relationship among higher education cost, quality, and access. Many higher education leaders see these factors as balanced against each other, and fear that efforts to increase access (without substantially more resources) will come at the expense of quality. Some higher education critics, by contrast, feel that greater efficiencies can make it possible for colleges and universities to educate more people, with available resources, and without compromising quality. The public, for its part, has little knowledge or understanding of the issues at stake; indeed, only a tiny fraction understand even the basics of higher education financing. But the public’s first instincts appear to side with the critics. The public is committed to quality in higher education, but unlike higher education leaders, they don’t see a tradeoff among quality, access, and cost. Over half (56 percent) say colleges could spend a lot less and still maintain excellence.
The public clearly has not thought much about higher education policy issues, and leaders from government, business, and the nonprofit sector have rarely tried to engage typical Americans on these issues. As a result, people tend to think about the issues only as they affect individual students. In this research, we asked the public to engage with some higher education policy choices. Not surprisingly, since most Americans believe that community colleges provide equal educational quality, they support the idea of making greater use of them to hold down college costs (68 percent). The public is also attracted to the idea of making more efficient use of college facilities by having classes on nights and weekends and utilizing the Internet (supported by 67 percent). The public also likes the idea of having students take more college-level courses in high school (56 percent). But not all changes are acceptable. Less than a third support the idea of reducing the number of courses required for a degree so that people can graduate in fewer than four years (supported by only 30 percent). Roughly the same number (31 percent) backs the idea of consolidating programs even though students might have to travel farther to study their chosen field. In other words, the public does not see any reason to make serious tradeoffs and is only receptive to choices that don’t seem to have negative impact on quality or access.
To help us understand the broader context, Public Agenda interviewed 26 leaders, mostly from the government, media, foundations, and corporate sector. While this small group by no means constitutes a representative sample of leadership opinion, a number of interesting themes emerged, which we illustrate in this report with representative quotations. Like the public, the leaders we interviewed stressed the importance of higher education, but typically, they focused on its benefits to society over and above the benefits for the individual consumer. As a group, the leaders were also much more critical of higher education, and a number of them felt that colleges and universities had lost touch with their most fundamental mission of education.
While there was broad support for reform (much more so than what we found among the public), there was no consistent theme on the direction that reform should take. The leaders from state government were more unified in their views, calling for greater accountability and productivity from their state higher education institutions.
A record number of Americans now say a college education is necessary for success in the workplace and the vast majority say costs should not prevent qualified students from attending.