The public, in contrast to how it views K-12 education, tends to emphasize
the responsibility of college students, but this does not mean that they exempt higher
education institutions from any responsibility. This attitude is manifested in areas
such as remediation and financial aid. The public expects schools to help students
who are having trouble, but the initiative should come from individuals.
High Expectations for Students, Too
In addition to high expectations for institutions, the public also has high expectations
for students themselves. When people talk about students, the values that most frequently
come to mind are responsibility and motivation. As we have seen in Finding Two, one
of the most important things that students are expected to learn is a sense of individual
responsibility. Responsibility is also the key value that people bring to their thinking
about what should be expected of students.
When people talk about K-12 education, they tend to stress the contributions that
schools can make to the success of students. Most people believe that if schools
put enough time and energy into a youngster, they can usually help that child improve.
For example, 75% of Americans say that just about all kids can learn and succeed
in school, given enough help and attention. Only 20% say that some kids won't learn
or succeed no matter how much help and attention they get.2
As students move into the college years, however, the public is much more ready to
hold students responsible for their own success or failure.
Looking first at success, most people believe that success in
higher education has more to do with the effort the student brings to the college
experience and much less to do with the quality of the college. To test this, we
asked our respondents whether the benefit a student gets from attending college mostly
depends more on the quality of the college or on how much effort the student puts
in. There is overwhelming agreement (88%) with the idea that it is the student's
effort that is the key factor. As one of our callback interviewees from Hernando,
Florida, said, "If you don't want to be there, you won't learn anything, no
matter how good the school is." Indeed, the percentage of people who feel this
way has jumped since we first asked this question in 1993 (see Table
In effect, as the public has come to place more importance on a college education,
people have also placed more responsibility on students. This does not mean that
good teachers and good facilities are unimportant (as we have seen, the public thinks
good teachers are absolutely essential), but people feel that no amount of good teaching
can compensate for a lack of motivation in a student. In the public's view, a motivated
student can learn in almost any college.
Responsibility and the Struggling Student
Understanding the public's emphasis on responsibility also helps us see how people
feel about helping students who do poorly in college. Everyone knows that some students
do not adjust well to college. Not surprisingly, the attitude of most people seems
to be that this is part of the learning experience of higher education. As a result,
they also tend to place the responsibility for failure with the individual, not with
the institution. Seventy-one percent say that it is the student's own responsibility
to get back on track, while only 24% think that the college should take primary responsibility.
But there is also support for assisting struggling students who are willing to help
themselves. The majority (56%) believes that it is absolutely essential that colleges
provide tutors for students who fall behind. Even in the case of "a student
who constantly slacks off and does not apply him/herself," 68% say that the
student should receive counseling and be assigned an advisor; only 31% say the student
should either merely receive a warning or be left alone.
Just as people are much more likely to credit individual college
students -- rather than the institutions they attend -- for their success, they are
also much more likely to put the responsibility for failure on the student rather
than the institution. This is most clear when we ask who is responsible for college
dropouts, the public is prepared to blame almost anyone other than the colleges (see
Table 10). Nearly half (47%) blame the students
themselves, and a healthy minority (38%) blame the high schools, but only 10% put
the blame on the colleges. These proportions hold steady across the board, even when
comparing across white, African American and Hispanic parents. As one man in Charlotte,
North Carolina, put it:
It is not the responsibility of the school [college] to get the student focused.
If the student fails, it's not the school's fault.
In short, while the public would like to see colleges make an effort to assist students
who are at risk of dropping out, they expect students themselves to take primary
responsibility. Only 29% say that lowering the dropout rate is an absolutely essential
task for colleges, a score that is much lower than other priorities (see Table 8).
A majority (76%) agrees that the country can never reach a point where there are
too many college graduates. However, many also agree that there are too many students
in college today who do not belong there.
Responsibility-Based Financial Aid
Given the importance of college, it is hardly surprising that
most Americans think that providing financial aid for students is vital. While people
expect colleges and universities to do their best to hold down the costs, they also
expect government to help provide financial support for qualified and motivated students.
Surveys by other organizations have found that large majorities support government
programs such as tax breaks (87%)3 and student loans
(84%).4 We asked our respondents what they thought
should happen if colleges were to face a serious shortage of funds. There was virtually
no support for measures that would decrease the opportunity of students to attend
college, with only 9% wanting to solve the problem by admitting fewer students and
7% calling for higher fees. Instead, most people thought that government should make
up the shortfall or that colleges themselves should pick up the slack (see Table
Although the public thinks that financial aid is important, and that government should
play a role in providing it, many Americans also bring the principles of responsibility
and motivation to bear on their thinking about how financial aid should be distributed.
1. No Free Rides
The first principle is that students should contribute toward their own higher education.
While Americans are deeply committed to the idea that every qualified student should
have an opportunity to attend college, they reject the idea that a free college education
should be an entitlement. Most agree that paying for at least part of one's education
is a part of taking responsibility for one's own life, and is, once again, an important
lesson to be learned in college. Almost three out of four either strongly agree (47%)
or somewhat agree (27%) that students appreciate the value of a college education
only when they have some personal responsibility for paying the costs. The European
style of totally state-subsidized higher education does not resonate well with the
American notion of responsibility-based aid.
I think that anyone, no matter how destitute they are, should work or do something
to help defray their expenses, because they will appreciate it more than if it was
just a gift handed to them on a silver platter.
-- Man (callback interview), Anderson, Alabama
2. Aid Should Go First to the Motivated
When it comes to deciding which students should get financial
aid, people are drawn to the needs of students who work hard and take individual
responsibility. Other qualities, such as family background or native intelligence,
are much less important to people than the inner drive of the student. To test this,
we posed some difficult dilemmas to our survey respondents. We asked whether financial
aid should go to a student with average academic skills who works hard or a student
with excellent skills who doesn't work hard (see Table
12). There was no question in most people's mind, with 85% awarding the aid to
the hardworking student. But it was more difficult for people to choose between a
middle-class student with outstanding academic abilities and a student from a very
poor family who has average academic abilities. Here the public was more closely
divided, but people gave the nod (52% to 39%) to the student with outstanding abilities.
But 61% of African American parents and 51% of Hispanic parents preferred that the
aid be given to the economically disadvantaged student. In focus groups, both African
American and Hispanic parents stressed the difficulties that some minority students
have in gaining access to higher education.
In focus groups, we asked our respondents to discuss how they felt about basing
financial aid solely on motivation. Most people said that, at least in theory, this
would be the ideal way to do it. But they also brought up the difficulty of measuring
motivation, and pointed out that many of the usual measures (such as grades and test
scores) cannot really make these types of distinctions. As one woman in Philadelphia
You can't just go by IQ. I mean, you might have a bright person who is a very
hard worker and just keeps growing and keeps working and shouldn't be penalized.
But I've seen that the person who is very bright sometimes doesn't have the motivation,
and wastes 90 percent of what he has.
3. Tax Breaks Are the Best Way to Reward Motivation
We also asked our respondents to compare various forms of financial
aid -- grants, loans, work-study, and tax breaks. Not surprisingly, people supported
all these measures (and parents of high school students were especially positive).
But the public makes a clear differentiation between different forms of aid. As Table 13 shows, the most popular approach is
tax breaks. Some experts worry that tax breaks assist middle-class and affluent Americans
but do not benefit low-income earners; however, it's unlikely that most of the public
has considered this. Here the idea seems to be to reward responsibility on the part
of parents. The thinking seems to be that when people are given tax breaks, they
have more of their own money to spend. And the general feeling is that people are
most likely to be responsible with their own dollars. As one woman from Charlotte,
North Carolina said:
Tax breaks are good because they create an incentive to save for college. It
feels more like getting more money.
Work-study comes in as a close second behind tax breaks. People like work-study because
it rewards students who are willing to work for their own education. While people
think that giving a person a free state-subsidized education is a bad idea, they
think that asking someone to work for an education is more likely to reward those
who really want it.
4. Help Individuals, Not Institutions
The importance of individual responsibility also influences the public's attitudes
about whether government financial assistance should go directly to institutions
or to individuals. Americans clearly prefer giving money to individuals (where responsibility
can be rewarded) rather than giving more money to colleges and universities directly.
By a margin of more than two-to-one (66% to 27%), people think that if their state
had more money for higher education, it should go to qualified students, rather than
directly to colleges. In focus groups, people explained this preference in two ways,
both of which appeal to the value of responsibility. If money is given to individuals,
they said, it will reward and support individual motivation and effort. Conversely,
the focus group respondents feared that money given directly to institutions would
be swallowed up in administrative expenses and never really reach students.
Please, give the money to the individuals so someone who needs it can go to
college, rather than giving it to some college so they can build a new athletics
building that they don't need anyway.
-- Woman (callback interview), Boise, Idaho
I would give it to individuals. Because college expenses are always gonna be
up. They're not gonna reduce tuition. The individuals are applying to college --
they're the ones who are motivated to go. The individual is initiating the interest
-- Woman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Twenty years ago, I would have said give it to the colleges. When I was in
college, I had to wait till my senior year before I was able to take computer science.
Today LaSalle isn't a college, it's a university. They are pulling in the money,
and you can take more diverse courses today. Colleges have the money they need and
the teachers too. They don't need any more money. I say, give it to the individual.
-- Man, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania