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Taking Responsibility
Opinion survey yields compelling results

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY, a report described elsewhere in this issue, is the second in a series of surveys commissioned by the National Center to explore the attitudes, values, expectations and priorities of both the general public and policy leaders. Focusing on the views of business, government and higher education leaders, Taking Responsibility follows up the first report, The Price of Admission, published last March, which surveyed the general public on a national basis.

The National Center sponsors public opinion research as part of its efforts to stimulate an inclusive, constructive public and political discourse on higher education's future. Understanding the perspectives of the many internal and external stakeholders in American higher education is a necessary condition for effective policy. Fortunately, the Public Agenda organization has agreed to conduct this series of studies. Public Agenda is widely recognized for its skill and insight in addressing a broad range of public policy issues, and, like the National Center, it is independent and non-partisan.

As is usually the case with opinion surveys, Taking Responsibility raises as many questions as it answers. For the higher education community, the best news is the high value that leaders in all the sectors surveyed attribute to higher education and to college opportunity. The report confirms the high regard that earlier surveys have consistently shown to be held by the general public. Americans' long-standing affection for higher education began with the GI Bill, and has been sustained for more than a half century. Higher education, whatever its flaws, is one of the great successes of 20th century America, and this is widely recognized.

Despite the breadth of agreement around the value and importance of higher education, much in the new study suggests that among leaders, particularly in the business world, consensus may be broad but not very deep. For instance, business leaders (like the other leaders surveyed) believe that higher education is critical to the success of the country, that U.S. colleges and universities are the best in the world, that the institutions of higher education in their states are doing a good job, and that college is a good investment for students. However, the same business leaders express skepticism about what colleges are teaching, and concern about standards. They believe that colleges are inefficient, and that student loans allow them to shift the cost of inefficiencies to students.

Taking Responsibility reveals some important differences among leadership groups on the allocation of responsibility for paying for college, but their responses have one important commonality. All are more sanguine about the affordability of higher education than, based on other studies, the general public is. While paying for college is a matter of intense concern for the public, the leaders tend to believe that any sufficiently motivated student can find a way. Some higher education leaders have attributed this gap in perceptions to public ignorance about educational costs and student financial aid. However, a more plausible interpretation is that the differing views of leaders and of the public accurately reflect the differing experiences of each group.

Almost by definition, most leaders within and outside higher education fall in the top quartile of family income. For families in this income category, college participation rates of high school graduates have soared to more than 85 percent, almost everyone except the unmotivated goes to college, and family income has kept pace with tuition. In sharp contrast, the incomes of middle and, more acutely, of lower-income families has not kept pace, and college prices have absorbed an increasingly larger proportion of family financial resources. Thomas Mortenson has reported, in the July 1997 issue of Postsecondary Opportunity. that a young person whose family income is above $75,000 per year has an 86 percent chance of reaching college by age 18-24; one whose family income is less than $10,000 per year has a 28 percent chance of reaching college by the same age. Is it possible that the gap in perceptions of leaders and the public about college costs reflects the country's growing gap in income and opportunity? And, perhaps, even a lack of empathy on the part of those who are prospering with those Americans who are not?

Another apparent anomaly: Leaders in all the sectors like high standards -- particularly admissions requirements -- and would like to see them strengthened. They dislike remediation, fear that it undercuts quality, and see the problem as getting worse. Although they believe that the nation needs more college graduates, they lean toward solutions to standards and remediation problems that would exclude large numbers from college. Where they find quality problems in higher education, they blame the public schools for not adequately teaching basic skills. Yet when asked why so many students fail to complete college, fewer than ten percent attribute dropping out to poor skills.

And a provocative finding consistent with earlier surveys of public attitudes, is the importance placed upon motivation as the key factor in determining college access and success. The public and the leaders believe that the effort of the individual matters more than the quality of the college, the financial circumstances of the student or even the skills the student brings. As the report points out, college students are adults, and they should be expected to be seriously committed to learning and, to the extent they are able, to pay a reasonable share of college expenses.

Yet placing almost all the responsibility for quality on students and on their elementary and secondary education leaves open the question of the responsibilities of the colleges and universities themselves. Does this one-dimensional emphasis on student motivation carry a "blame the victim" connotation for students whose primary and secondary education leaves them inadequately prepared for college? Can the same also be said for those who may encounter real financial impediments?

Finally, the leaders across all the sectors agreed that student preparation is the most serious problem facing higher education. The issue of remediation is one of the most volatile problems that educational and public policy leaders are confronting. Most leaders would confine remedial courses to community colleges or eliminate them -- and the students taking them -- completely. College remediation touches public frustration with public schools, but it has many dimensions. Many remedial students are older adults whose secondary education may have occurred years or decades ago in another city, state or country. In some instances, remediation may be the consequence of new, higher college standards and expectations, with which school curricula have not yet caught up. Some remedial students may be totally unprepared for college work, of course, but others may require relatively short-term assistance in a single subject while they are able to attend most regular classes. Many students, particularly older adults in community colleges and urban colleges, may be enrolled specifically because they find themselves underprepared either for college or for rewarding work. Large segments of the adult population may be underprepared and underskilled for the demands of the 21st century workforce. Do colleges and universities have a role in addressing this national problem?

I, for one, believe that they do, and that this responsibility must be exercised in close collaboration with the public schools. Bits and pieces of collaborative efforts to enhance preparation and reduce the need of young Americans for remediation are emerging across the country, but these are geographically and organizationally isolated. The pervasiveness of concern about problems at the intersection of college opportunity, preparation and remediation suggests that a greater effort may be required.

Taking Responsibility is a lode of information and insight -- recommended reading for all concerned with public policy for higher education. The differing perceptions among the policy leaders raise questions of interest, as do differences between these leaders and the general public. But it is the major finding of the report that is of critical importance: The country's policy leaders believe in the value of college opportunity. So does the general public. We must all work to assure that their belief will continue to be justified.

- Patrick M. Callan

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