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 7 of 18

Finding Three: The Responsibility Rests with the Student,
But Institutions Should Help Those Who Help Themselves

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 9).

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 11).

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 said:

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 there.

-- 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



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