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
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
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
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
...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
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
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
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.