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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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Doing Comparatively Well
Why the public loves higher education and criticizes K-12

John Immerwahr  
The following article is based on several opinion surveys conducted by Public Agenda, a non-profit public opinion survey research group. The author, John Immerwahr, is a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Villanova University.

The article is a condensed version of "Doing Comparatively Well," a report published last fall by Public Agenda, the Institute for Educational Leadership and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

By John Immerwahr

JAMES HARVEY, the senior staff writer of A Nation at Risk and author of dozens of other education reports, recounts his arrival as an immigrant to the United States in the 1950s. His uncle, already a citizen, took him aside and said, "Jim, if you want to make it in the United States, you need a high school diploma." That advice is now hopelessly outdated; today the advice would be, "Get a college degree."

What this story indicates is that, for all practical purposes, a college degree has replaced the high school diploma as a necessary ticket for a good job and a secure middle-class lifestyle. By a margin of almost ten to one (86 percent to nine percent), Americans feel that a high school graduate should go to college rather than take a decent job right out of high school.

Ninety-six percent of high school students say that it is important to go to college, and 74 percent report that their parents will be very disappointed in them if they don't go to college. In focus groups across the country, people invariably stress the importance of a higher education in today's high-tech, knowledge-intensive economy. In the past, a college education was perceived as something for the elite few, whereas today a postsecondary education is perceived as the normal track for most students.

...Since college has become, in effect, an extension of the normal educational path, it might be reasonable to expect that people would begin to think of college education with a mindset similar to what they bring to their thinking about K-12. Our research, however, suggests the exact opposite. The public thinks of the two systems very differently.

...Higher education is currently "Teflon-coated" and remarkably immune to many criticisms. By contrast, K-12 is seemingly wrapped in Velcro, so that when criticisms are thrown, they often stick. Specifically, higher education seems to be immune to the criticisms that often are leveled against K-12. The sharp difference in attitudes has important implications for education policy.

Although the public sees the two systems in very different terms, there are other important subgroups—especially the business community—who see the two systems in much more similar terms. While the public has a much more favorable impression of higher education than of K-12, business leaders have similar (and often highly critical) views of both systems.

The Knowledge Gap
In interviews with school superintendents, we frequently heard a variation of this remark: "Since everyone in the community went to school, they all think they are experts on the subject." In the dozens of focus groups we conducted on K-12 education, we found that people know, or at least think they know, a great deal about the schools in their communities. In one of our national studies, we explicitly asked people for the source of their information on public schools. More than half said that they relied primarily on their own experience or conversations with people they know.

The level of knowledge completely changes when the focus switches to higher education. People know very little about what actually goes on in institutions of higher education. Many Americans have not attended college, and many communities do not have a local higher education institution. Even those who have children in college often do not have (or need to have) anything like the level of contact with the college that they had with the K-12 schools.

Perceived Quality
Public schools have been in the news a great deal in recent years, and the public has been bombarded with stories about how children in other countries outperform American children in one subject or another. Nationwide, schools get low grades from the public. In a recent Phi Delta Kappa survey, only 18 percent of the public gave schools nationwide a grade of A or B. As is well known, people tend to give schools in their own areas higher grades, and, indeed, nearly half (46 percent) gave their local schools an A or a B.

Public Agenda studies have shown, however, that when people are probed about specific factors, the scores begin to drop, even for local schools. Our statewide studies suggest that when people say that their local schools are doing well, they often mean that they are doing well compared to schools in other (worse-off) areas, and not that schools are doing a good job compared to what they should be doing.

Higher education, by contrast, has a much better reputation in the public's mind. In focus groups, people often spoke with pride of their local universities, and had great respect for some research (especially medical research). In addition, there is a widespread awareness that students come from all over the world to attend American institutions of higher education.

Although people are concerned about the price of higher education, many feel that college is worth the money. A study by the American Council on Education asked members of the general public to compare the value of a variety of different products. Fifty-nine percent said that a four-year college education is usually worth the price, compared to 45 percent who said the same about food at the grocery store, and only 27 percent who said the same about American cars.

As a result, while many people think our K-12 institutions are losers compared to those in other countries, they see American colleges and universities as the best in the world.

In the public's view, individual motivation is a factor at every level of education. But when it comes to K-12 education, the public also believes that schools and classroom teachers have a great deal of responsibility for student problems. While people recognize that children bring lots of problems to the schools, they also blame the schools for the failure of students. Seventy-five percent of Americans say that almost all kids can learn and succeed in school, given enough help and attention.

When it comes to higher education, the locus of responsibility shifts dramatically. Once a student reaches college age, people seem to feel that it is up to the student to take responsibility for his or her own life. If a student drops out of college, the assumption is that the student was not sufficiently motivated. With virtual unanimity (91 percent to 7 percent), people think that the benefit of a college education depends on how much effort the student puts into it as opposed to the quality of the college the student is attending.

Once again, this comparison works to the benefit of higher education. In effect, when it comes to college, the public blames the problems on the consumer, rather than on the producer. For example, if a high school has a high dropout rate, people may worry and think that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. College dropout rates, by contrast, are much more acceptable to the public. In our focus groups, people seemed to regard it as normal and appropriate for a large number of students to drop out of college.

Who Pays, Who Plays?
People understand that the community itself pays for a large portion of K-12 education. The taxpayers pay for the schools. By contrast, financial support and funding of higher education are shrouded in mystery as far as most people are concerned.

Although we have not done surveys on this topic, and there may be regional differences, people in some focus groups said that higher education is largely paid for by student tuition and fees. Some focus group respondents complained about unmotivated students, and remarked that these young people were wasting their time and their parents' money. We rarely heard focus group respondents say that these students were wasting the public's money.

Since people know very little about higher education finance, it is an easy jump to think that it is the students themselves who are paying for higher education. Support for higher education usually comes from general revenue sources, so it is not obvious to people that the taxpayers are paying for higher education as well.

To put this another way, while people seem to be quite clear about the difference between a public high school (where students do not pay tuition) and a private high school (where they do), they are much less clear about the difference between a state university and a private university (which are both expensive for the individual student).

The fact that many people seem to regard even their state universities as, in effect, supported by tuition, even further takes the heat off higher education. If there are problems with a college, the problems are either the fault of the students or, at any rate, an issue between the consumers and the producers (rather than a public problem).

Safety, Discipline and the Basics
When people talk about public schools, the areas they are most concerned about are safety, discipline, and teaching the basics. In surveys conducted by Public Agenda and other national survey organizations, these items invariably appear at the top of the public's list of priorities, and the surveys also document dissatisfaction with how the schools are doing in these areas.

In several statewide surveys, we measured the gap between how important something is to the public versus how well the public feels the schools are doing in that area. There were huge gaps between the importance of safety, discipline and the basics on the one hand, and the performance of the schools in delivering on these goals on the other. In focus groups these concerns also dominated the conversation, and indeed, teachers and students themselves identified these as major problems.

Although people give their local schools good marks overall, when they are probed on particular issues, their evaluations change. Nearly half of the public believes that a high school diploma (even from their local high school) does not guarantee that a student has mastered the basics.

Once again, colleges and universities seem to be immune to many of these criticisms. While the metal-detector at the K-12 school door has become the image of education in the '90s, colleges are generally perceived, by focus group participants, as safe and pleasant places to be. Campus drinking does, of course, make the news. But while people may not approve of college drinking, there is also a sense, among many focus group respondents, that college students have been drinking ever since there have been colleges.

...People often are shocked by the discipline problems they hear about in the high schools, especially when compared to their memories of their own schools. College drinking, for better or for worse, is a familiar story. Even if this behavior is unacceptable, at least it is nothing new.

Our studies on the attitudes of leaders—business executives, legislators, college administrators and faculty—are particularly striking in this regard. When these leaders were asked about various problems facing higher education, their highest concern (identified by 88 percent of the sample) was that too many new students are not adequately prepared for college work. In addition, approximately eight out of ten professors, and a similar proportion of employers, gave recent high school graduates poor marks in areas such as grammar and spelling.

While people are aware that college graduates may not be meeting appropriate standards, some people are willing to blame the K-12 schools for bad preparation, rather than the colleges themselves. To put it another way, it is less clear to people what it is that students are supposed to learn in college, and, perhaps as a result, they are less outraged when students don't have mastery of those skills.

In most of the areas we have discussed so far, higher education seems to shine in comparison with K-12 education. The situation is different when it comes to access.

Whatever else people say about public K-12 education, they never identify access to schooling as a problem. At least in the urban and suburban areas of the country, there never seems to be any question about the availability of K-12 education. Only the quality is in question.

Access is the public's single biggest worry about higher education. People think that college is more important than it ever has been, but what scares them is that it may become priced out of reach for their children or for the children of other people like them. The issue is not the quality of higher education, but the ability of people to afford it.

There is a strong majority of Americans (89 percent) who say that "we should not allow the price of a college education to keep students who are qualified and motivated to go to college from doing so." At the same time, 49 percent feel that, in their state, most qualified people are able to go to college, while an equal number (45 percent) think that many qualified people don't have the opportunity to attend a college or university.

Interestingly, leaders are much more optimistic about the ability of qualified people in their state to get an education. Three quarters of the leadership group (75 percent) say that most qualified people can find a way to pay for it. Only a fraction, 19 percent, thinks that many qualified people cannot find a way to pay for college.

In the public's mind, higher education is much like health care. Many Americans are impressed by the miracles of modern medicine; what worries them is that it may be inaccessible to them. Similarly, higher education is increasingly seen as an essential service that may be priced out of reach.

The public's concerns about the quality of K-12 education have inspired some reformers to consider alternatives to public schools, such as charter schools or school vouchers. The public has only begun to consider this issue, and so far there is a lot of confusion and conflict in the public's thinking. On the one hand, people clearly are committed to the idea of public schools. At the same time, 57 percent of parents with children currently in the public schools would send their children to private schools if they could afford to do so.

While our focus groups suggest that people don't really understand what the voucher debate is about, the surveys also show a growing interest in the concept of vouchers. The Gallup organization has asked the same question about vouchers in several different years, and the trend seems to be one of growing support. The number of people who say they favor "allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense" has grown from 24 percent in 1993, to 33 percent in 1995, and to 44 percent in 1998.

At the same time, Public Agenda has found virtually no national support for the idea that private companies could effectively take over the public schools, and many of the experiments with privatization have not attracted favorable attention.

Although it may not yet have registered on the public's radar screen, there is a great deal of interest within the leadership community in the effectiveness of for-profit alternatives to traditional higher education systems. The for-profit University of Phoenix is widely discussed as an alternative model that may make deep inroads into the "education market."

A World of Difference
How long can higher education enjoy its current immunity from many of the criticisms leveled against the K-12 schools? Obviously, we cannot make any accurate predictions on this topic. But there are signs of erosion of higher education's relatively stronger position in the public's eyes.

We asked educators, employers and college professors what a high school diploma from their local school actually means. We found a wide divergence among the three groups, with educators most confident about the ability of the schools, and with professors and employers much more likely to be critical. Similarly, in regional surveys, we find that teachers think schools are doing a good job under difficult circumstances, but the majority of community leaders think that schools use social problems and lack of funding as a smoke screen for poor performance.

On many questions regarding higher education, the views of business leaders are diametrically opposed to those of college professors. In individual interviews with business leaders, we heard the complaint that colleges and universities are inflexible, bureaucratic and unresponsive to change. Rather than seeing higher education as a leader in technology, many of the business executives we talked to considered the teaching approaches of higher education to be outmoded. For business leaders, the concept of tenure is almost a joke, and a lot of university research is seen as little more than resumé padding.

In other words, business executives are just as critical of higher education as they are of K-12 education. Business leaders believe that both sides of the educational divide are hiding from accountability and avoiding the need for more comprehensive restructuring.

This growing convergence of criticism should be of concern to educators. At least as far as the business community is concerned, the honeymoon is already over. The question that higher education leaders should be asking themselves is this: If business leaders, who are more knowledgeable about higher education than the general public, are also more critical of higher education, is this a harbinger of the future? Will other groups also become more critical as they learn more about higher education?

Connecting Higher Education and the Public Schools
One of the most encouraging findings from our leadership studies is a high level of interest in breaking down some of the barriers between higher education and K-12 education. There is a widely shared concern among the leadership community that the K-12 schools are not adequately preparing students for higher education. For their part, K-12 educators often argue that colleges and universities are not doing an adequate job of training teachers.

Instead of continuing the blame game, with each side pointing to the other for an explanation of their own failures, these two educational entities might be interested in the support we've found for their working more closely together.

We asked leaders to tell us what they see as the greatest problem for higher education and also to tell us what changes they think would be most beneficial. Significantly, the most commonly mentioned problem was that too many students need remedial education. Eighty-eight percent of the leaders interviewed (professors, college administrators, government leaders and business executives) listed this as a very or somewhat serious concern. We presented the same respondents with a list of proposals intended to improve higher education. The one most often selected was to have higher education institutions directly collaborate with local K-12 schools to help prepare students for college. Fully 92 percent thought that this would be a very or somewhat effective way to improve higher education.

These leaders see collaboration as the most viable solution to the biggest problem facing higher education. Public Agenda studies of attitudes toward K-12 education show that the public has an enormous interest in setting clear standards for what teachers should teach and what students should learn. We see a similar interest among our leadership sample for higher standards in colleges and universities.

Our findings show, in other words, that leaders do not conceive of the country's two educational systems as walled off from each other. For leaders (especially business leaders), both systems are problematic, and both will need to work together to solve their common problems.

Photo by Rod Searcy for CrossTalk

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