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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Education has traditionally been seen as an essential component of both individual and social well-being. A high school diploma was the admission ticket to a good job and a middle-class lifestyle for an individual, and America's strong education system was usually credited as a major driver of economic vitality.

In our conversations and surveys with Americans from all parts of the country, it has become clear that in today's booming high-tech economy, higher education has replaced the high school diploma as the gateway to the middle class. Higher education is increasingly seen as essential for economic mobility, and the focus is not just on the credential but on the personal growth, skills and perspective that students take away from a college education. At the same time, people see a highly educated population as necessary for both economic prosperity and social well-being.

The greater importance of higher education has also raised debates among leaders about how to pay for higher education; new modes of delivering higher education; remediation; how to serve nontraditional students; and affirmative action. Whereas past surveys of the general public have concentrated on more basic questions, such as how families will pay for the higher education of their children, this study explores the public's viewpoint in more detail, examining such issues as: What does the public expect higher education institutions to deliver? What responsibilities does the public assign to students, and to higher education institutions? Is the public concerned about access to higher education? How does the public's viewpoint differ from the concerns of leaders?

To examine these issues, Public Agenda, in collaboration with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Institute for Research on Higher Education, conducted an extensive survey of public attitudes toward higher education. The survey includes 1,015 telephone interviews with members of the general public, plus a special focus on parents: an oversample of 202 Hispanic, 202 African American and 201 white parents of children in high school. Public Agenda designed this survey after consulting with experts in higher education policy and conducting a series of eight focus groups around the country. Follow-up telephone interviews were conducted with a number of those who had been contacted in the original survey. (See Methodology for details.)

In addition, we conducted parallel surveys in seven states (500 respondents per state): California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. We also had the advantage of being able to refer to two smaller-scale national surveys (one in 1993 and one in early 1998), as well as to a comprehensive study of leadership attitudes about higher education, which was published in 1999. Taken together, these studies represent one of the most comprehensive examinations of public opinion on higher education ever conducted.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that regularly reports on public attitudes on major policy issues. The research was sponsored by: the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes public policies enhancing Americans' opportunities for education and training beyond high school; the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which conducts research and publishes reports on a wide variety of education issues; and the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement, which conducts research that identifies and analyzes the challenges facing postsecondary education.

For the purposes of this research, we define higher education broadly. Unless otherwise specified in the text, higher education includes all education and training beyond high school, including two- and four-year, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit institutions.

Findings from this research are presented in this report, which is divided into five main sections. Great Expectations will be distributed nationwide to public policymakers, business leaders, educators, and others interested in higher education policy. An online version, providing a summary of the findings, is available on the web sites of Public Agenda ( and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (


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