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,
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.
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.
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
- Patrick M. Callan