Executive Summary
Finding One
Finding Two
Finding Three
Finding Four
Finding Five
Supporting Tables
About the Author
Public Agenda
The National Center for Public Policy
Consortium for Policy Research
The National Center for Postsecondary Improvement

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Page 10 of 18


Public Satisfaction, But for How Long?

When people think about a public service such as health care or education, their satisfaction tends to be affected by at least two factors: access and quality. If the system delivers quality service and if the people who need the service are able to get it, Americans tend to be satisfied and to turn their attention elsewhere. But when either quality or access is threatened, the public's attention can be quickly aroused and satisfaction can drop. Health care provides a useful example; this issue is intrinsically important to most people, but what catapulted it to the top of the public's list of concerns was a combination of threats to access and quality. During the recession years of the Bush administration, more and more people worried that they and Americans just like them might lose their access to health insurance coverage. At the same time, health care providers started to make changes in health care delivery -- such as the implementation of managed care -- that seemed to many people to lower the quality of their health care. Now there are just as many uninsured as ever, and those who have insurance are more likely to be frustrated in their interactions with health care providers. These changes in both quality and access have kept health care on the front burner in the public's attention.

At the moment, the state of higher education is not troubling to the public. Our results show that, although people acknowledge that they don't know a great deal about higher education, from what they can see they judge the quality to be good. Students seem to be taking away valuable experiences and skills from their college years, and higher education also seems to be working well as a conduit to good jobs in today's booming economy. While prices may be high, the public believes that anyone who wants a college education can ultimately get one.

The Calm before the Storm?

For now, for most Americans, higher education is a public policy success story. It is not too difficult, however, to envision events that might cloud the public's current rosy outlook.

1. Problems with Affordability

If large numbers of American families begin to feel that they can no longer afford to send their youngsters to college, higher education might easily become a "hot button" for the public. Tougher economic times that force colleges and universities to raise prices or reduce admissions could affect the public's view that anyone who really wants a college education can get one. What's more, tougher economic times might well increase families' anxiety about their ability to cover their share of college expenses, as well as the availability of jobs for themselves and their children just coming out of college. Graduates' willingness and ability to shoulder substantial loans could drop dramatically in a less hospitable job market. An economic downswing could upset the apple cart; cash-strapped Americans would likely greet any sign of diminishing access or rising costs with dismay. As we have seen, most Americans see higher education as the gateway to a good job and a middle-class lifestyle. If that gateway is threatened, we might expect to see considerable public distress.

2. Potential for Increased Frustration among Minorities

Problems with access and affordability could be especially divisive if they fell hardest on minority groups who are struggling to gain entry to higher education. As we have already seen, African American and Hispanic parents value higher education in even greater proportions than do white parents. There is, however, a large gap between the importance minority families place on higher education and the likelihood that their children actually attend and complete a college program. As a result, 63% of African American parents and 64% of Hispanic parents -- compared with only 37% of white parents -- believe there are many qualified people who do not have the opportunity to go to college.

The rising aspirations of these minority groups are closely intertwined with their hopes of educating the next generation. The Hispanic population in particular is one of the fastest growing segments of the population, especially in the number of young people.10 If an economic downturn makes access to higher education more difficult for minority groups, then the dashed hopes that follow could be especially disheartening.

3. Beware of Scalebacks in Quality

Threats to the quality of higher education could also undermine public levels of satisfaction. As seen in Finding Two, the public holds higher education institutions to high expectations and standards. Higher education is one of the few issues of national importance where the public's high expectations and their overall appraisal match so closely. However, those who struggle with the challenges of keeping costs down and enhancing efficiency in higher education will find themselves in a difficult position. They must take care to cut the fat and not the meat, keeping in mind that very little of what institutions now provide are viewed by the public as "frills."

The debate over distance learning offers a cautionary tale. Many college leaders and business executives see technologies such as distance learning as a way to increase the productivity of higher education. Although people are not well informed about new instructional technologies, our survey did find some initial acceptance of distance learning -- a plurality (41%) of the public thinks that taking college classes over the Internet is a good idea for all types of students.11 In focus groups, however, some people began to voice concerns that something essential would be lost if students spent a great deal of their time sitting in front of a monitor, instead of interacting with others in the real world. Upon consideration, participants in our focus groups became more resistant to this idea. They saw distance learning as helpful for busy adult learners, but they worried that students would lose out on face-to-face interactions, which they see as a necessary part of college learning. As they talk in focus groups, people hold close to an ideal higher education experience: the young person lives away from home, matures and has the kind of firsthand experiences that are traditionally associated with college. Fundamentally changing the mode of delivering higher education -- in a way that impinges on this traditional model -- could also trigger resentment in the public.

4. To Know Them Is Not Necessarily to Love Them

For now, people are generally satisfied with higher education while acknowledging they are not well informed about how it is run or financed. This is not unusual -- the public knows very little about other complex policies, such as health care or Social Security. At this point, if the public were to know more about higher education, it's unclear whether this would increase, decrease or not affect their relatively high level of satisfaction. Greater familiarity might make the public more critical, like it has for leaders. On the other hand, greater familiarity may make people more accepting of change; an informed public could help the job of reformers proceed more smoothly. The key point for leaders to remember is that most people do not have the same grasp of the issues and the complexity of the system that they do. The public is currently not aware of the multiple challenges -- financial and academic -- facing various parts of the higher education system.

5. Disagreements among Leaders

Finally, our study reveals an uncomfortable, sometimes fractious, still emerging debate about higher education among leaders. If elected officials, college administrators and business leaders, working together, can find ways to preserve what people value in higher education -- while keeping the costs to families and taxpayers at current levels -- their disagreements may never enter the public's broad consciousness.

But if leaders contemplate dramatic changes that violate the public's values -- regarding either access or quality -- they could trigger public frustration, unless they find ways to consider the public's concerns and priorities. Most families now see some form of higher education for their own children as a necessity, and they strongly believe that any qualified, motivated student should have the chance to attend. The public holds high expectations for college and believes that particular qualities should be protected. If leaders ask citizens to join with them in discussing ways to make this possible, Americans may respond with surprising realism and practicality. But Americans may not respond as well if leaders plan on delivering a fundamentally different higher education system to the public as a fait accompli -- without the public's advice or consent and with precious little understanding of why change is needed at all. If that happens, they may awaken to find that this public policy success story has reached its end.

Deborah Wadsworth
Public Agenda



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