Despite the often-heard complaints about the high cost of higher education,
most people believe that anyone who really wants a college education can get one.
Parents say that they are worried about paying for their own children's education,
but they also say that they are confident that their children will go to college
and that they will work out a way to pay for it. Most people agree that people from
low-income families have a more difficult time than others.
The media have given a great deal of coverage to the high price tag of higher education,
particularly at the elite private schools. Seventy-one percent of the public say
that paying for college is more difficult today than it was ten years ago. People
are also concerned about the amount of debt that students are taking on, with 80%
at least somewhat agreeing that students have to borrow too much money to pay for
a college education.
Despite the concern about the escalating price of higher education, most people believe
that if a student is really motivated to get an education there are ways to make
it happen. Such a student may have to make compromises, such as going to a less expensive
school or working part-time, but if the motivation is sufficient, education is within
reach. Nearly nine out of ten (87%) at least somewhat agree that "if someone
really wants to go to college, they can find a way to pay for it, even if they have
to go to school and work at the same time." Nearly two-thirds (63%) strongly
agree with this statement. As a woman in a New Jersey focus group put it, "Anyone
who wants to go to college can go to college."
Many people also feel that financial assistance is available, especially to a student
who is willing to take on some loans. Sixty-two percent agree that almost anyone
who needs financial help to attend college can obtain loans or financial aid. Community
colleges are often mentioned as a less expensive alternative, and people frequently
point out that students can save a great deal of money by going to a community college
for the first two years and then transferring to a four-year school. Parents in California
were particularly enthusiastic about the availability of inexpensive community college
education for the first two years.
You can go to community college and then transfer to a state university or
even to UC. When you graduate it doesn't say that you did your first two years at
-- Woman, Santa Clara, California
Although people seem to believe that it is possible for virtually
any qualified student to attend college, they also believe that many qualified students
are still not attending college because of the high price. In both the 1993 and 1999
surveys, we asked respondents if they believe that many qualified students are excluded
from a higher education because of the price tag (see Table
14). When we first asked this question in 1993, when the country was just coming
out of a recession, six out of ten Americans were convinced that college was out
of reach for many qualified students. In 1999 that percentage dropped significantly,
but a plurality (47%) still thinks that many qualified students do not have the opportunity
to attend college. African American parents (63%) and Hispanic parents (64%) are
even more likely to hold this opinion.
How does this finding square with the belief that anyone who really wants to attend
a college or university can find a way to do so? We discussed this apparent contradiction
with the respondents in our Philadelphia focus group. They described the considerable
slippage between a person's ability to attend college and his or her actually doing
so, citing many reasons why qualified people are unable to take advantage of the
opportunities that are available. For example, a person may be overwhelmed by the
process of putting together the necessary combination of aid and part-time work,
or may be unaware of the support that is available, or may have other commitments
that prevent them from attending.
It takes a lot of effort. Not superhuman effort, but it takes a lot of effort
and commitment to go to college if you don't have the money for it. I think a lot
of people, when they take a look at it, are overwhelmed by the process and the commitment.
Maybe they lack the confidence that they can do it.
-- Man, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
There are individuals who could fall through the cracks who would want to go
to college and just can't. Maybe it is because of other obligations that occupy their
time. A lot of it has to do with a lack of confidence and their inability to juggle
-- Woman, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Parents: We'll Manage Somehow
There is no question that people think that paying for college
is extremely difficult, and parents are particularly nervous. Usually, discussions
of paying for college begin with a chorus of groans, and parents often complain not
only about the price of tuition, but also about the expenses associated with fees
and books. Many people feel that parents are not doing what they need to do to save
money for their children's college expenses. Only 28% of our respondents, for example,
think that most families are doing a good job of saving for their children's college
education. Parents also give themselves a negative assessment: 61% feel that they
should have done more to financially prepare for their child's college education
(see Table 15). There is also a lot of worry
about college expenses from the parents who will have to pay them. Nearly seven out
of ten (69%) parents who expect their children to go to college say they are either
very worried or somewhat worried about being able to afford college expenses.
At the end of the day, however, most parents think that they will somehow be able
to cope. Three-quarters (75%) of all parents of high school students think that it
is either certain or very likely that their oldest child will attend college, and
of this group, the overwhelming majority (93%) say that they will find a way to work
out the cost. Two parents in a Philadelphia focus group put it this way:
It is stressful, but if you want your child to go to college, then you're gonna
do what you have to do.
If the desire is there, you make a way for your children. A lot of times you
prepare from the day they're born. Other times if they're ready to graduate from
high school and you don't have all the money, you make choices. You might not be
able to send them to the best.
The views of minority parents are not so different from the views of white parents
on this topic. Hispanic parents who think their child will attend college are more
worried about finding a way to pay for college -- 43% say they are very worried,
compared to only 26% of white parents. But 84% of Hispanic parents agree with African
American parents (92%) and white parents (94%) in saying that they will find a way
to work out the costs.
Who Is Hardest Hit?
In popular discussions of higher education and opportunity, there is a debate about
which groups of students have more or less opportunity to attend college. Are minority
students denied opportunities because of prejudice? Are poor students constrained
by lack of funding? Some would argue that members of the middle class have the hardest
time, because they are too well-off to get scholarships, but too poor to pay higher
education bills. Others worry more about older workers who are coming back to the
workplace seeking retraining.
We asked respondents to think about these groups and tell us
which have more or less opportunity than others (see Table
16). Students from low-income families attracted the most concern. Forty-six
percent say that these students have less opportunity when compared to others. Far
fewer respondents were concerned about either middle-class students or students from
racial minorities. Eighty-two percent think that students from middle-class families
have either the same opportunity (60%) or more opportunity (22%) than others. Only
29% say that racial minorities such as blacks or Latinos have less opportunity than
The "Embattled Middle Class"?
It is sometimes suggested that the middle class has a harder time affording college,
because they have too much money to qualify for scholarships yet are still too strapped
to pay the bills. This tension is not of great concern when people are asked in a
straightforward way about which groups have more or less opportunity to attend college.
Indeed, we see little difference on this topic between the attitudes of middle-class
Americans and the attitudes of those who are less well-off. For example, six in ten
respondents with a household income of $35,000 to 50,000 say that middle-class families
have the same opportunity as others, and six in ten of those making less than $25,000
in household income agree.
But we also invited our survey respondents to consider two students attending the
same four-year college, one from a low-income family and one from a middle-class
family. When asked which student would find it easier to pay for college, 48% named
the middle-class student, because of family resources. Yet, almost as many (43%)
named the low-income student, because of financial aid. Two women in a Charlotte,
North Carolina, focus group came out on opposite sides of the issue:
Who has the hardest time? The middle-income bracket -- rich folks can afford
college, low-income people get special loans, but middle-income mom and dad and kid
really have to work to get their kid through college.
I say give the money to those with lower income. The middle-class will fight to make
college happen, but a lower income may give up instead, and then their kids don't
go to college.
Our interpretation is that this may be a sore spot for some people. Many Americans
believe that a middle-class family will ultimately find a way to send their kids
to college, while a low-income family probably cannot do this without financial assistance.
But questions that remind people about the difficulties middle-class families face
in paying for college may evoke some resentment. The message from the middle-class
seems to be: "We may be able to afford this, but don't think that the poor are
the only ones who are scrambling to send their kids to college. We need help too."
Concerns about Older Workers
Interestingly, concern about the opportunities available to older workers seeking
retraining seems to be growing. When we first asked about these opportunities nearly
two years ago, older workers were at the bottom of the respondents' list of concerns.
Today, however, concern about this group is second only to concern about low-income
students. But unlike the case of low-income students, it is not clear if the problem
of "opportunity" is associated with older workers' ability to pay, their
lack of time or the pressures of supporting a family. We asked our focus group respondents
what the difficulties are for older workers; several asserted that the pace of life
has increased so much that it is harder for people to take the time to further their
What we've seen in the last ten years is for older people, jobs have been downsized.
What's once done in a department of six is now done in one of two. Which means they
have more responsibilities, they're working more hours, tougher hours. It also means
that it's tougher for them to get enough time to take classes.
-- Man, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania