||Probing Behind the Findings
For the most part the findings tell a clear story, but in at least two areas there are some apparent contradictions:
- Affordability versus accessibility. We found high levels of concern about the rising price of a higher education. At the same time, most people agree with the idea that anyone who really wants a college education can get one. If people are really worried about college prices, one would expect to see less optimism about access.
- How important a priority for government? The public feels that qualified and motivated students ought to be able to attain a college education, and a significant majority agrees that government has an important role to play in making higher education accessible, especially by providing tax breaks and work-study opportunities for young people. But strong support for a government role in this area seems to evaporate when people compare it to other important priorities. If government support is so important, why is it assigned such a low priority?
EXPLORING THE CONTRADICTIONS
In order to explore these areas of tension, we conducted two focus groups in the Philadelphia area. Pennsylvania is a state with high tuition prices, and previous studies have shown that affordability issues are particularly salient to Pennsylvania residents. Obviously it is impossible to generalize from the results of two focus groups in a single state, but the comments of these Philadelphia residents are suggestive of hypotheses for further research and investigation.
In their initial discussion of higher education issues, the Philadelphia respondents spontaneously expressed both sides of the dilemma we wanted to explore. On the one hand, they were deeply concerned about rising college prices. As one woman said, "College expenses keep going up past the cost of inflation. The salaries keep going up for the teachers, but it seems that the aid is getting cut from the state."
At the same time, the respondents were convinced that college was still accessible for most people. As one woman said, "College is still affordable for most people, if you want to go to college you can do it." Another participant commented, "With student loans, a hardworking kid can go to college if he wants to."
When we asked our respondents to reconcile these comments, they came back with an immediate answer. As they told the story, higher education is one area where the consumer (in this case the student) has a wide range of possibilities. On the one hand, a student can go to an elite private school and pay upwards of $35,000 per year. On the other hand, a student can live at home, work a regular job, go to a local community college, and then finish the last two years at a state university. In either case, the student is getting a higher education, and everyone is aware of success stories of individuals who have excellent careers from just such a background. As one woman said, "If you really want to go to college, there is a way, but it might be bare bones."
The fact that access to college remains intact, however, does not prevent the middle class from feeling they have paid a price. Our focus group respondents felt that the middle class has only been able to absorb the price increases by "trading down" to lower levels of quality. An older man captured the sentiment of the group when he compared higher education to buying a car:
It is like getting a new car. Almost everyone can get a new car, but now many people might only be able to afford a Kia. But suppose I want a Buick. That used to be a middle-class car, but it isn't any more. So now people in the middle class can't afford to buy what used to be the middle-class car, let alone something above like the Lexus. In the old days a middle-class family could afford a better college, but now you are going to have to trade down. The same person who would have been going full-time before is now going part-time, or going to a community college for the first two years.
In effect, these respondents explained that college is getting more expensive and that many are being priced out of choices that would have been available in the past. However, for those who are willing to go "bare bones," college is still within reach.
A ROLE FOR GOVERNMENT
The public's conviction that college is accessible (one way or another) also sheds light on our second question about the public's seemingly ambivalent position on the government's role. We began our Philadelphia groups by asking the participants to prioritize the items listed in the Pew Research Center survey (see Table 3, page 9), modifying the question somewhat by asking them to think about the combined federal and state role in addressing the priorities. For the most part, the participants replicated the response of the survey, assigning higher education a relatively low priority.
The respondents had no difficulty explaining this. While they were quick to acknowledge the importance of a college education, they said college is still accessible for most people--at least at the moment--and therefore not an urgent priority. As one man said, "I gave it a low priority because college is still affordable for most people today. If you want to go to college, you can afford it."
The participants made a distinction between higher education and other areas where government is expected to help, such as health care. People who do not have health insurance typically have a difficult time getting affordable health care. If government does not help them, they really cannot easily solve the problem. On the other hand, the public views higher education more like food or clothing. While these things are important and often expensive, only the poorest people go naked and starve, and there is probably little support for government help to make these items more affordable for the middle class. A man in our Philadelphia focus group made the comparison this way: "College is important, but not like not having medical care. . . . High school is more important than college; if you don't do well in high school, forget college. Cream eventually rises to the top so even if you don't go to college, if you work hard you will benefit."
The focus groups suggest that Americans may be much more likely to throw support to issues where they don't feel that individuals have another alternative. If the government doesn't help the elderly or people who have no health care, no one else is going to jump in to fill the gap. When it comes to higher education, Americans believe that people can help themselves if they are willing to make some sacrifices.