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Squeeze Play
When taken together, these two trends—increasing
necessity and declining availability—create a difficult
conflict for many Americans, which we have described as a
“squeeze play,” where people perceive a college education as
simultaneously more essential and less obtainable.
The numbers speak for themselves, describing a
situation where a fundamental element of full participation
in our society is becoming both more important and less
available. As we will see, this painful dilemma has also been
accompanied by a growing frustration with higher education
itself.
Implications for Public Policy
What is the message in these findings for higher education
administrators and state officials concerned with higher
education? On the one hand, the conviction that attending
college is the key to a secure economic future remains
steadfast. Interestingly, the combination of rising college
prices and a financial crisis has not made families reconsider
the option of sending their children to college. Even after two
years of the financial crisis, we found that most parents are still
optimistic about their own children’s ability to go to college.
In 2009 we found that 80 percent of parents felt that it was
somewhat or very likely that their oldest child would go to
college.
Our focus groups suggest that people may be responding
to financial problems not by taking their children out of
college, but by “trading down” to
less expensive alternatives such as
community colleges. Indeed, given the
lack of jobs for young people, many
may be thinking that college is a better
alternative for their children than ever,
despite its rising prices. In other words,
the concerns about accessibility voiced
in our studies are—at least for now—at
a more abstract level about higher
education accessibility in general. The
results here do not suggest that the
public is ready to turn its back on higher
education, dismiss its importance, or stop encouraging their
children to attend.
But the results do suggest that the public may be becoming
less receptive to the argument that is often made by college
presidents—that
their institutions
need more resources
if they are to
continue their
mission. This line
of thinking among
higher education
leaders emerged in
“The Iron Triangle,”
another recent
study from Public
Agenda and the
National Center,
which was based on
interviews with 25 college presidents, published in 2008. In
these interviews, many college presidents say that they were
caught in an unbreakable relationship between the cost of
running their operations, the number of students they can
educate, and maintaining educational quality. Specifically, they
argued that if they were to increase the number of students or
the quality of education they would need more money, and
conversely, cuts in their budgets would inevitably translate to
either a decrease in the number of students they could educate
or diminished educational quality. The solution that many
of the college presidents offered was a major reinvestment in
higher education. Several of our interviewees remarked that
the country needs to make a mental shift away from thinking
of higher education as a private good, toward seeing it as a
public good that deserves more public support.
The findings from our most recent studies of public
opinion suggest that the majority of the public doesn’t buy
this argument. Solid majorities believe colleges could increase
enrollment without having to raise prices or cut quality. Most
also say colleges could spend less and still maintain quality.
Indeed, these views were held by healthy majorities of the
public even before the current financial crisis.
We have also seen a growing skepticism among the
general public about the idealism and motives of higher
education leadership. When we began this research, most
of our respondents had a positive opinion about higher
education in general, seeing higher education as different
both from business and fromK–12 schools. When we were
doing focus groups for our 2007 study, however, we began
to hear voices that suggested that people no longer saw
any significant difference between the motives of higher
education leaders and other institutions such as business.
Aman in Atlanta described higher education as “a growing
business” with “money coming in from everywhere.” When
Two Colliding Trends:
A college education is seen as increasingly essential amid falling
confidence that qualified and motivated students have the opportunity to go
1999
2003
2007 2008 2009
100%
80
60
40
20
0
—The vast majority of qualified, motivated students have the opportunity to attend college
—A college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world
Studies in 1998 and
1999 documented the
high-water mark in
public optimism about
the accessibility of
higher education.
Growing numbers of
Americans believe that
it is nearly impossible
to climb up to a higher
economic status
without the benefit of
higher education.
Which comes closer
to your own view?
If colleges cut budgets, the quality of
education will suffer
Colleges could spend less and still
maintain a high quality of education
Don’t know
2007
2008
2009
40% 42% 40%
56% 53% 54%
4%
5%
6%
Percentage who agree that:
45%
31%
37%
37%
50%
36%
55% 55%
29% 28%