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By John Immerwahr
O
ver the last eighteen years
National CrossTalk
has
featured a number of articles about the National Center’s
remarkable collaboration with Public Agenda. The two
organizations have conducted a series of studies of public and
leadership opinion on higher education, from “The Closing
Gateway” (1993) up to our most recent study,
Squeeze Play
2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on
How Colleges Are Run.
*The studies have tracked attitudes as
both the national economy and higher education itself have
gone through a number of dramatic changes, including those
associated with the recent financial collapse and recession.
Because we asked many of the same questions from survey
to survey, the studies have allowed the researchers to tease
out two different strains in public opinion. On the one hand,
the research highlights stable and unchanging values that
have had rock-solid consistency over a decade and a half.
While these fundamental values have remained constant, the
studies have also allowed us to understand changes in the
public’s fears, concerns and attitudes toward specific issues.
These shifts are apparently driven by changing perceptions of
economic, global and technological realities. Understanding
and distinguishing between the public’s deeply held values
and its changing concerns is profoundly important for
policymakers interested in higher education.
In this article we draw on past
National CrossTalk
articles
and the studies themselves to reflect on how these changing
attitudes have played out over the years; we then go on to
speculate briefly about the implications of these findings for
higher education policy.
October 2010
Enduring Values, Changing Concerns
Increasing necessity and declining availability of higher education creates
a challenge for many Americans
Fundamental Values
The
National CrossTalk
articles have
discussed two deeply held attitudes toward
higher education:
1. The importance of higher education
as a gateway to the middle class.
As social
scientists have long observed, the vast
majority of Americans aspire to be middle
class, which can be roughly defined to
include a complex of elements such as
home ownership, a good job, healthcare, a
secure retirement, and the hope of a better
life for one’s children. Throughout the
period of our study, a college education
(and its promise of a better job) has been perceived as an
important gateway to those goals. Huge majorities have
consistently held, for example, that it is far better for a high
school graduate to go to college rather than take a decent job
offer right out of high school.
A woman fromNew Jersey (quoted in the spring 2000
issue of
National CrossTalk
) said it this way: “Today you don’t
even question whether you are going to college. It is a sign of
the times. When I was growing
up, what was important was
to make the home front, with
marriage and children, but
today it is college.” We heard
exactly the same sentiments in
our 2007 study (
Squeeze Play
2007: How Parents and the
Public Look at Higher Education
Today)
, such as the remarks of a
respondent in Atlanta who said,
“Once you have that degree,
all of a sudden it just puts you
into a whole new career field
Understanding and
distinguishing between the
public’s deeply held values
and its changing concerns
is profoundly important for
policymakers interested in
higher education.
*Previous reports from Public Agenda and the National Center
for Public Policy and Higher Education include the following.
Note that in most cases the actual survey was conducted in the
year before the study was published. In the text of this article we
give data by the year the study was done.
2010
Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost,
Harsher Judgments on How Colleges Are Run
n=1,031
2009
Squeeze Play 2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today
n=1,009
2008 “The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk About Cost,
Access and Quality”
N/A
2007
Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today
n=1,001
2004 “Public Attitudes on Higher Education: A Trend Analysis, 1993 to 2003”
n=801
2000 “Great Expectations: How the Public and Parents—White, African-American
and Hispanic—View Higher Education”
n=1,015
1998 “The Price of Admission: The Growing Importance of Higher Education”
n=700
1993 “The Closing Gateway: Californians Consider Their Higher Education System”
n=502
Americans have emphasized the importance of a higher
education for a number of years
Should high school graduates go on to college because in the long
run they’ll have better job prospects,
or
should they take any
decent job offer they get because there are so many unemployed
people already?
Percent who say that high school graduates go on to college because in
the long run they’ll have better job prospects:
79%
86%
86%
1993
1998
2003