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What the People Know

In his 1991 book, Coming to Public Judgement, Daniel Yankelovich points out the growing gap in American society between experts and policy elites, on one hand, and the general public, on the other. He sees our political culture as increasingly dominated by experts who are disdainful of the public's views on important issues because the public usually lacks specific factual information.

Yankelovich - most assuredly no advocate of public ignorance - believes that experts usually overvalue the importance of information as knowledge; they assume that accurate information always and automatically leads to good judgement.

Yankelovich identifies the underpinnings of this culture of expertise with a series of assumptions, including these three:

  • that the American people lack the relevant knowledge, are concerned largely with their own pocketbook interests, and are likely to be apathetic to issues not directly related to those interests;
  • that where the public does have a view it is likely to be reflected in public opinion polls; and
  • that on initiatives where public understanding and support are mandatory, they can be achieved through "public education," a process in which knowledgeable experts share some of their information with the voters.

The assumption is that if the public only had a better grasp of the facts as the experts and policy elites see them, then that public would align its own views with those who know more. For the experts, the formula for public consensus is often, "We talk. They listen."

A recent American Council on Education (ACE) report by two highly respected colleagues, Stanley Ikenberry and Terry Hartle (Too Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing: What the Public Thinks and Knows About Paying for College), seems to reflect this "expert" perspective on the issues of college costs and prices.

The report interprets and describes the results of polling and focus groups sponsored by ACE. Respondents in overwhelming numbers significantly overestimated tuition costs, showed little understanding of the magnitude of the national investment in student financial aid, and, despite their anxieties about college costs, spent little time thinking or talking about higher education finance.

Furthermore the respondents did not seem to understand the diverse missions and pricing structures of higher education institutions. The major conclusion, as Yankelovich might have predicted, is the need for more public education.

Although the report does discuss the imperative of college cost containment, its major thrust is that if the public had more of the relevant facts at their fingertips, their concerns would be mitigated, public confidence would be strengthened and Americans would be more willing to pay.

I have a problem with this interpretation: The report may encourage college and university leaders to place disproportionate emphasis on explaining cost and price increases, and doing so instead of addressing cost containment. "Spin control," rather than "cost control," could well widen the gap between the public and the colleges, and further undermine the credibility of higher education leaders.

It has long been known that the public seldom has accurate facts at its immediate disposal on most important public issues, but that does not necessarily mean that the public's conclusions on these issues is wrong. For example, in the report of a recent poll in the October issue of The Atlantic Monthly, respondents estimated national unemployment at 20 percent when officially it stood at 5.3 percent.

But their opinion on unemployment may be more useful for public policy than expert opinion based on the official, technical numbers. The public may quite reasonably think of employment as full-time work that enables a person to live independently with a decent standard of living. Under that interpretation, the public's estimates were close to the mark.

Hank Ezell of The Atlanta Constitution, suggested a similar situation in an article last spring: If the public considered college's cost as including books, room, board and transportation - not just tuition - some of their estimates would be pretty close to those published by The College Board.

The public may perceive useful distinctions that experts do not. For instance, the ACE survey did not ask how Americans feel about tuition increases that outstrip growth in personal and family income. The incomes of most American families have been stable or even have declined for most of the past quarter century, and rising college costs have taken a growing portion of family incomes during recent years.

Specific price levels may not be as relevant as the ACE pollsters assumed. The poll results could reflect an important aspect of public opinion that was not in the survey. Similarly, the ACE poll shows that the respondents do not see federal loans as student aid in the same way that they perceive work-study and grants - even though the loans are subsidized. There is a distinction: Ask any recent graduate who's paying off a $20,000 loan. And this distinction may be more important to the public and public policy than it is to to higher education and financial aid experts who track public subsidies.

Although I am concerned about the emphasis of the ACE report, it does contain an important message: We must give greater attention to those who are least well served by American higher education. The report found that most of the public does not know that the country spends $50 billion a year on student aid. But the reality is that most Americans learn what they need to know about using the financial aid system when they need it, not when it is presented to them as an abstract question by pollsters.

Most Americans learn, but not all, for the report goes on to find that public understanding of financial aid is least among those who most need the aid - low income, and first generation students and families. The report recognizes that "opening the doors of higher education to all Americans, regardless of their economic status, has been a central goal of policy makers for three decades."

I suggest that intensified outreach and informational efforts specifically targeted at those eligible for need-based aid could have greater payoff for colleges and for American society than would a more generalized, public relations campaign aimed at justifying college prices.

- Patrick M. Callan

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