LEADERS OF AMERICAN business, government and higher education believe
that a strong college and university system is vital to the nation's future, but
they also think too many of today's college students are poorly prepared and are
These findings emerged from a survey of 601 professors, college officials and
leaders of business and government that was conducted for the National Center for
Public Policy and Higher Education by Public Agenda, an independent, non-profit public
opinion research firm.
The survey found several areas of agreement among these leaders from various fields
-- that America has the best higher education system in the world, that postsecondary
education of high quality is vital to America's economic well-being, and that no
qualified and motivated student should be denied a college education for economic
or other reasons.
But the survey also found important areas of disagreement between educators and
leaders in other fields.
Business leaders tend to think colleges and universities are run inefficiently
and would benefit from the kind of cost-cutting and downsizing that has characterized
many American corporations in recent years. Not surprisingly, professors and college
Business executives would like to see students and their families pay more of the
rising cost of higher education, while educators believe more financial support should
come from the state and federal governments.
While all agreed that thinking and communication skills are important, educational
leaders said students should receive solid instruction in such subjects as history,
literature, philosophy and the arts -- while business executives were more interested
in specific job skills and were less concerned about the liberal arts.
The business leaders also think too much professorial time is spent on research,
not enough on teaching, and that tenure is of dubious value -- opinions that professors
and educational leaders do not share.
Business executives also tend to think racial balance should evolve naturally
on American campuses, while leaders in government and education are more inclined
to use affirmative action and other aggressive policies to solve the problem of underrepresentation.
John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and author of the survey
report, warned that these disagreements could be harmful to American colleges and
"If these disputes remain unresolved, higher education will certainly face
severe problems as it tries to navigate a future that nearly everyone agrees will
be difficult," Immerwahr wrote. "Clearly, higher education is going to
be dependent on the support of the larger community, and it is not clear how forthcoming
that support will be if a group as important as the business community continues
to harbor deep doubts about such basic questions as how well higher education is
administered or how effectively it performs its teaching mission."
One point of agreement among all the leadership groups was that too many students
are taking remedial classes in college because of poor preparation. Recent studies
have found that about 30 percent of college freshmen are enrolled in at least one
Asked to select from a list of 16 possible problems facing higher education, survey
respondents chose this as the most important -- 88 percent thought the need for remediation
was either a "very serious" or a "somewhat serious" problem.
Seventy-six percent of the respondents said unprepared students should not be
admitted to college at all, while 54 percent said they should be allowed to attend
only two-year colleges. Only 19 percent said they should be admitted to four-year
institutions and provided with remedial classes.
Two out of three respondents blame the public schools for not preparing students
adequately for college. More than 90 percent think there should be closer collaboration
between K-12 schools and higher education.
There was also general agreement that many students lack motivation and probably
shouldn't be in college at all. Sixty percent of the business executives agreed that
"many young people are wasting time and money in college because they don't
know what else to do." Curiously, 50 percent of faculty members agreed with
If students who are thought to be ill-prepared and weakly motivated are not permitted
to enroll in colleges, the result is not likely to be the increase in college-trained
workers and citizens that these same leaders believe to be vitally important, the
But the opinions of business executives veer away from those of government and
education leaders on questions of management efficiency and who should pay for rising
About half of the professors, college administrators and government leaders surveyed
think taxpayers should pay more because society as a whole benefits from a well-educated
citizenry, while only 30 percent of business leaders believe that.
Sixty-two percent of business leaders said students and their families should
pay more, since they reap most of the benefits of a college education, but only 34
percent of faculty members, 35 percent of college administrators and 39 percent of
government officials agreed with that statement.
Leaders from the different groups disagreed sharply about the desirability of
introducing business management practices into higher education.
Eighty-three percent of business executives believe that colleges and universities
must become leaner and more efficient, just as business and government have done
in recent years. Sixty-six percent of education leaders agreed with that statement,
but only 40 percent of faculty members thought that was a good idea.
One business leader said, in a follow-up interview, "What is the biggest
weakness of higher education in America today? In my judgment it is that we are not
providing education in a cost-effective way. We have built up this excellent system,
but the unit costs have gone up while the unit costs of almost everything else have
But an interviewee from the academic world had a different view: "A significant
increase in the efficiency of higher education is just not possible. For example,
it takes the same number of hours to perform a Mozart symphony today as it did when
Mozart wrote that symphony. In the same way, it takes the same amount of hours to
handle teacher-student contact as it always has."
-- William Trombley