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of opportunity or a whole new segment of opportunity to get
work. You just totally disassociated yourself from the high
school graduate.”
Given the importance of higher education, it is hardly
surprising that access to higher education has assumed, at least
in the public’s mind, the status of a virtual right. The public’s
logic is straightforward. Since a college degree is closely linked
to a good job, to deny a motivated and qualified student access
to a higher education is to say to that person, in effect, “You
have no chance to become full partner in American life.”This
idea is clearly unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans.
Nearly nine out of ten Americans have consistently endorsed
the idea that no qualified and motivated student should be
priced out of obtaining a higher education.
2. Reciprocity.
The demand for access to higher education,
however, has always been balanced in the public’s mind by a
second equally important value, which we call “reciprocity.”
Although people believe that no deserving person should
be locked out of the American middle class, they also do
not believe that people should “get something for nothing.”
There is a deep attachment to the view that people don’t
really appreciate things that they don’t have to work for. The
public seems to prefer a sense of reciprocity, where there is a
balance giving and getting. As much as Americans stress the
importance of higher education, they have also emphasized
the idea that students should “pay for part of their education”
and that financial aid should go only
to those who “work hard and seem
to take individual responsibility.”
National CrossTalk
, spring 2000)
As a result, most Americans
seem to reject the European
conception that higher education
should be a free entitlement. The
respondents in our surveys believe
instead that students should
contribute at least something to
the cost of their higher education.
An Alabama man articulated a
sentiment that we heard in virtually
all of the dozens of focus groups and
interviews conducted over the years: “I think that anyone, no
matter how destitute they are, should work or do something
to help defray their educational expenses, because they will
appreciate it more than if it was just a gift handed to them on a
silver platter.” (“Great Expectations,” May 2000)
Many people also believe that having to make sacrifices for
a college education actually increases the benefits of a college
education. In our 2007 survey, large majorities said that
students who have to make sacrifices (such as going part-time
or living at home) actually learn more than students who get
an education entirely paid for by their parents. A California
woman, interviewed for
Squeeze Play 2007
put it frankly: “I
think the ones who work for it are actually more on the ball
than the ones who went to Stanford, and Daddy paid for it and
gave them the yacht in the summertime. When I see the kids
who don’t work for college and have been handed everything,
they don’t seem to have gotten anything out of their degree.”
Although people like the idea of students working for
their education, in reality the option of students working and
going to school at the same time may be more problematic
than many realize. A recent Public Agenda survey of young
adults ages 22 to 30 conducted for the Bill &Melinda Gates
Foundation showed that many college students who drop out
say they do so because they are attempting to work and go to
school at the same time. For many, this becomes a balancing
act that eventually overwhelms them. (“WithTheir Whole
Lives Ahead of Them,” Public Agenda, 2009)
Another aspect of the public’s belief in reciprocity and the
emphasis the public places on student effort is the long-held
conviction that what a student gets out of a higher education
depends largely on what the student puts into his or her
experience in higher education (as opposed to the quality
or reputation of the school). People seem to believe that a
motivated student can learn a great deal even in a college that
does not have the latest equipment or the smallest classes,
while an unmotivated student won’t learn much even at the
best institution.
Nearly nine out of
ten Americans have
consistently endorsed the
idea that no qualified and
motivated student should
be priced out of obtaining
a higher education.
Students who sacrifice to get an education learn more and
appreciate their education
Percent who say they agree with the following:
Strongly agree
Somewhat agree
People who make sacrifices will appreciate college because they
sacrifice to get it
73% 19%
They will learn more because they are more disciplined
47% 26%
Students don’t appreciate the value of a college education when
they have no personal responsibility for paying for it
45% 22%
Students who sacrifice will miss out on the best parts of the
college experience
19% 27%
Which of the following two
statements comes closest
to your own view?
The benefit a student gets from attending
college depends on how much of an effort
he or she puts in
The benefit a student gets from attending
college mostly depends on the quality of
the college he or she is attending
Don’t know
71% 88% 86%
23% 11% 11%
Percent who agree strongly or somewhat that we should not allow the price of
a college education to keep students who are qualified and motivated to go to
college from doing so:
(n=700) (n=1,015) (n=801) (n=1,001) (n=1,009)