WASHINGTON – May 30, 2007 –
Americans believe that higher education is key to a successful future,
and the vast majority also say that costs should not prevent qualified students from attending college,
according to a national survey on college quality, affordability, and access.
But the survey — conducted by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher
Education — also reveals widespread concern that the opportunity to go to college may not be available to
all qualified students. In addition, nearly two-thirds of parents of high school students — 64 percent — do
not believe that rapidly escalating costs are leading to more learning on campus (33 percent strongly; 31
percent somewhat). Moreover, more than four in 10 (44 percent) believe that waste and mismanagement
are a major factor in growing college costs, and over half say that colleges and universities could spend
less money yet still maintain quality.
Public Agenda and the National Center have tracked public attitudes toward higher education since
1993. Their new report — ”Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today”
— reveals that a record level of Americans, 50 percent, now say that a college education is necessary for
success in the workplace, compared with 31 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, more than half of Americans
(58 percent) say that college prices are rising faster than other expenses, and 62 percent agree that many
qualified and motivated students do not have the opportunity for a college education, compared with 45
percent in 1998.
Reflecting an undercurrent of discontent, the public blames colleges and universities, in part, for
spiraling costs, and a plurality seem open to dramatic change, with almost half (48 percent) saying that
their state higher education system needs to be fundamentally overhauled. In addition, despite their
generally positive attitude toward higher education, more than half (52 percent) say that colleges are like
a business and mainly care about the bottom line.
“The public may voice satisfaction with the education that colleges and universities deliver, but there is
evidence that this satisfaction with the system as a whole is beginning to erode.” says Patrick M. Callan,
president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “Our higher education system
must take steps to address cost, access, and quality or face greater losses of public confidence.”
The survey was based on telephone interviews with a national random sample of 1,001 adults, 18 years and
older, between Feb. 13-25, 2007. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Researchers also
conducted seven focus groups and interviews with dozens of business, academic, philanthropic, and
legislative leaders. The survey was supported with a grant from Lumina Foundation for Education as part of
its Making Opportunity Affordable initiative.
COLLEGE OPPORTUNITY THREATENED?
The report finds Americans generally positive toward higher education, with 66 percent saying that
colleges and universities teach students what they need to know. But this optimism is clouded by concerns
over cost and access. The report finds that 78 percent of Americans agree that students borrow too much,
and adds that African American and Hispanic parents — even those from middle- and upper-class families —
are most likely to believe that qualified students will not have access to college.
There is a sense, however, that pressure valves in the system alleviate the concerns. For example, a large
majority of Americans feel that anyone who really wants to get a college education can if they are willing
to make sacrifices (67 percent agree strongly; 19 percent agree somewhat). Nearly three-quarters of
Americans (71 percent) also believe a student can learn just as much in the first two years at a community
college as at the first two years at a four-year institution. And more than two-thirds (67 percent) say that
almost anyone who needs financial help for college can get loans or financial aid.
“Most Americans believe the college cost burden falls mainly on the middle class — which is not really
surprising since most Americans consider themselves middle class,” says Jean Johnson, executive vice
president of Public Agenda. “However, minority parents are significantly more likely than white parents to
believe that many qualified students don’t have the chance to go to college.”
PUBLIC WANTS COLLEGES TO DO MORE WITH CURRENT RESOURCES
When considering changes, most Americans see room for colleges and universities to do more with current
funding levels and facilities. For example, most say that colleges could take in many more students without
affecting quality or prices (30 percent agree strongly; 28 percent agree somewhat).
Overall, the public is drawn to reforms that seem to them to make college more affordable or accessible.
For example, a majority (56 percent) say that qualified students could take college classes in high school.
Additionally, more than two-thirds support the idea of holding down costs by making greater use of
community colleges (38 percent favor the idea strongly; 29 percent favor it somewhat) and making more
efficient use of college facilities by having classes on nights and weekends, and utilizing the Internet (32
percent favor the idea strongly; 35 percent favor it somewhat).
“This report sends an important message to higher education leaders,” says Callan. “There is a growing
concern that some colleges and universities may no longer reflect what the American public has valued most
about higher education: a commitment to opportunity and quality for young people.”