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of people who believed that it was impossible to succeed
without a college degree had risen to 55 percent, almost twice
what it had been when we first started tracking this in 1999.
In public opinion research, such a sharp increase in such
a short period of time in responses to a general question is
extremely unusual.
2. Growing perception of the inaccessibility of higher
This increase in the perception of the necessity
of higher education has been accompanied by an equally
sharp increase in the percentage of those who believe that a
college education is becoming unavailable to many qualified
and motivated individuals. Over the years, we asked the
public if it is true that there are many qualified and motivated
students who don’t have an opportunity for a higher
education. Back in 1993 during the recession years, six out of
ten Americans endorsed that sentiment. In the later 1990s, as
the economy improved and people became more optimistic,
the percentage of people who felt that college was unavailable
dropped significantly. Even before the financial crisis the
trend began to reverse itself, with more and more people
feeling that a higher education was inaccessible. When
the financial crisis hit, the numbers jumped even higher,
reaching 69 percent in 2009, the highest percentage we had
ever measured.
This concern about inaccessibility is paralleled by another
concern about the growing price tag of a higher education.
The public has been concerned about higher education tuition
and fees for a long time; our recent studies show that many
people think that higher education expenses are escalating
rapidly. In our most recent study, 65 percent said that college
prices are growing faster than other things, and of those who
said this, more than seven out of ten said that college prices
are growing as fast or even faster than healthcare. And while
loans may be widely available, many people are concerned
that students are borrowing too much. In 2009 we found
that more than eight out of ten agreed that students have to
borrow too much money to attend college.
Changing Concerns
The public’s commitment to the importance of higher
education and to the concept of reciprocity has remained
largely unchanged over the years, but in many other ways the
public’s views on higher education have been surprisingly
fluid. The biggest driver of these changes appears to be the
public’s perception of changing economic conditions, and,
in that sense, the history of public attitudes has mirrored the
state of the economy. The first
analysis of our public
opinion research was issued in October 1993 and reflected the
public’s position during the recession years of the early 1990s.
That issue discussed the deep anxiety about higher education
that we found, especially among Californians who were hit
especially hard by the recession. As the economy eased up
through the boom years of the 1990s, people’s fears lessened,
and we saw a decrease in the public’s anxiety about higher
education. Our studies in 1998 and 1999 documented the
high-water mark in public optimism about the accessibility of
higher education.
Some of the most striking results, however, were from
a series of our three most recent studies. The first was done
in 2007 just before the financial crisis hit; we followed
that research with studies in both 2008 and 2009, which
documented how attitudes changed as the financial crisis
developed. Not
surprisingly, public
anxiety and concern
rose sharply as
the economic
disaster unfolded.
Two indicators
are especially
1. Increasing
belief in the necessity
of higher education.
As long as we have
been tracking
public opinion
on this topic,
Americans have
always believed that
higher education is
for success in society. When
we began these studies, however, most people thought that
higher education was not strictly
for success. In
focus groups, respondents consistently stressed that there
were other paths to success. Bill Gates, a college dropout
who became the richest man in the country, was frequently
mentioned as an obvious example. But in our recent studies,
we see a significant change, with growing numbers of
Americans believing that a higher education is not only
important but necessary for success. They increasingly believe
that it is nearly impossible to climb up to a higher economic
status without the benefit of higher education. A woman in
a 2006 Detroit focus group said it this way: “At this point in
time, a lot of places, in order to even chicken pluck, you need
to have an undergrad degree.” (
Squeeze Play 2007
As the chart below indicates, this shift increased even
further after the financial crisis, so that by 2009 the percentage
Most Americans seem
to reject the European
conception that higher
education should be
a free entitlement,
believing instead
that students should
contribute at least
something to the cost.
Do you think that:
A college education is necessary
for a person to be successful in
today’s work world, or
There are many ways to succeed
in today’s work world without a
college education
Don’t know
1999 2003 2007 2008 2009
31% 37% 50% 55% 55%
67% 61% 49% 43% 43%
3% 2% 1% 2% 2%
Do you think that currently:
The vast majority of people who are
qualified to go to college have the
opportunity to do so, or
There are many people who are qualified
to go but don’t have the opportunity to
do so
Don’t know
1993 1998 1999 2003 2007 2008 2009
37% 49% 45% 37% 36% 29% 28%
60% 45% 47% 57% 62% 67% 69%
4% 5% 8% 7% 2% 4% 3%