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we began to track this attitude in 2007, we found that a
majority of Americans (52 percent) did, in fact, feel that
colleges are like most businesses, and care mainly about the
bottom line, as opposed to being primarily concerned about
educating students. The percentage of people who felt this way
continued to rise through the financial crisis to 60 percent in
our most recent study.
A growing number of people seem to be saying something
like this to America’s colleges and universities: “Now that
times are tough, we are getting a better idea of what you really
care about, and it isn’t the educational experience of your
students.” In part, this attitude might be a reaction to service
cuts and tuition price hikes in colleges and universities around
the country as they cope with reduced revenue from the state
(for public systems) and/or declining endowments (for private
institutions). As we have seen, most Americans are convinced
that the institutions could do more with less.
This does not mean that the public is actively hostile to
higher education,
but it does suggest
that the public might
not be especially
sympathetic to the
internal problems of
the higher education
system, either. Our
findings suggest, in
other words, that
the public may be
poised in a period
of ambivalence
and perhaps
unpredictability toward the financial
difficulties of higher education. On the
one hand, people believe that higher
education is important and necessary.
But at the same time, we find no
evidence of sympathy for the argument
that colleges and universities are
starved for financial resources. If higher
education leaders want to make the
argument for a significant reinvestment
in higher education, they may find that
their words fall on deaf ears, given the
public’s current state of mind, and that
they will need to make a more specific
and compelling argument to bring more
Americans to their side.
To put this in another way, higher
education leaders are now hearing calls
from a variety of sources demanding greater productivity and,
indeed, a fundamental change in higher education’s “business
model.” While not denying that they can do things more
efficiently, higher education leaders often say that they cannot
meet the challenges that face the country merely by changing
or streamlining their operations. Our research suggests that
in this debate, the public is not currently sympathetic to the
position of higher education. Education leaders thus will need
to make a better case to the public, significantly change their
operations, or look elsewhere for political support.
John Immerwahr is a senior research fellow at Public Agenda,
and a professor of philosophy at Villanova University.
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.
Rising Public Skepticism:
Americans increasingly believe colleges care
more about their bottom line than the
educational needs of their students
Which comes closer to your view—colleges today care
mainly about education and making sure students have a
good educational experience, or colleges today are like most
businesses and care mainly about the bottom line?
Percent who say, “Colleges today are like most businesses
and care mainly about the bottom line”
52% 55% 60%
Higher education
leaders are now
hearing calls from
a variety of sources
demanding greater
productivity and a
fundamental change
in higher education’s
“business model.”