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October 20, 1999

DOING COMPARATIVELY WELL: WHY THE PUBLIC LOVES HIGHER EDUCATION AND CRITICIZES K-12

Higher education still enjoys strong support from the general public, even as K-12 suffers continuing criticism. The public feels it is getting a world-class product from its institutions of higher education, while the K-12 system continues to earn low marks in terms of quality education. A new report, Doing Comparatively Well: Why The Public Loves Higher Education and Criticizes K-12, authored by John Immerwahr, a Senior Research Fellow at Public Agenda and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Villanova University, analyzes why higher education has managed to escape most of the criticism leveled against K-12 education. Immerwahr, who has conducted extensive studies of public attitudes toward education, contends that these sharp differences in attitudes towards the two education levels have important implications for public policy.

The report is based on a wide range of public opinion surveys and focus groups conducted by Public Agenda during the past five years exploring the publicâs attitudes about K-12 and higher education.

Immerwahr reports that higher education is presently "Teflon-coated," and remarkably immune to criticisms. "By contrast," he says, "K-12 is seemingly wrapped in Velcro, so that when criticisms are thrown, they often stick."

Some of the issues and data findings flagged in the report include:

  1. Eighteen percent (18%) of the public give schools nationwide a grade of A or B.
  2. Fifty-nine percent (59%) feel a college education is usually worth the price.
  3. While people take access to K-12 education for granted, a growing number (45%) feel that qualified people will not be able to afford to attend a college or university.

Immerwahr identifies the reasons underlying these major differences in public attitudes, comparing K-12 and higher education in terms of:

  • what people know about the systems;
  • what is the perceived quality of the systems;
  • who is responsible for student success;
  • who pays for the systems;
  • how schools are doing in the areas of safety, discipline and teaching the basics;
  • how access to education has changed;
  • what alternatives there are to the current systems.

In the final sections of the study, Immerwahr reports that although the public remains much more sympathetic to colleges and universities than to K-12 schools, leadership groups, such as business executives, legislators, editors, and community leaders, are inclined to be critical of both systems. Business leaders, the author suggests, are especially critical of higher education. The author asks: "If business leaders, who are more knowledgeable, are also more critical of higher education, is this a harbinger of the future? Will other groups also become more critical as they learn more about higher education?"

If the trend persists, will the general publicâs high opinion of higher education erode as more is learned about it and more criticism is leveled by other groups? Patrick Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says, "John Immerwahr does exactly what more and more people are challenging our public policymakers and education leaders to do: to focus on student learning and to see past the institutional divide that separates our K-12 schools and our systems of higher education.

What Immerwahr finds is that there are remarkable similarities and differences in public attitudes about K-12 schools and our colleges and universities." Michael Usdan, President of the Institute for Educational Leadership, adds "some of the issues currently faced by K-12, such as accountability, will soon surface in postsecondary institutions as well. Immerwahrâs analysis of public attitudes about the K-12 and postsecondary education worlds breaks important new ground on increasingly significant interlevel issues."

This report is the latest in a series, entitled "PERSPECTIVES IN PUBLIC POLICY: CONNECTING HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS," sponsored by the Institute for Educational Leadership and The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. (The first report is All One System: A Second Look, written by Harold L. Hodgkinson and released June 1999.

The next report is entitled Higher Education and the Schools: State Strategies that Support Successful Student Transitions from Secondary to Postsecondary Education, by P. Michael Timpane, due November 1999.) Doing Comparatively Well: Why the Public Loves Higher Education and Criticizes K-12 is co-published with Public Agenda. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research and education organization working to help citizens better understand complex policy issues and to help the nationâs leaders better understand the publicâs point of view. It was founded in 1975 by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich.


The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education was established in 1998 to promote opportunity, affordability and quality in American higher education. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the National Center provides action-oriented analyses of state and federal policies affecting education beyond high school. The Institute for Educational Leadership, established in 1964, is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC. IEL's mission is to help institutions and individuals work together across boundaries to make better decisions and to take actions that improve the educational, social, and personal development of children and youth.

Copies of Doing Comparatively Well: Why the Public Loves Higher Education and Criticizes K-12 are available for $15 prepaid, or $17 if billing is requested. Orders may be sent by fax or e-mail, or mail to: Publications Department, IEL, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 310, Washington, DC 20036, 202-822-8405, fax: 202-872-4050, iel@iel.org. www.iel.org.


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