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

home   about us   news   reports   crosstalk   search   links  

Page 9 of 18

Finding Five: High Satisfaction, Low Familiarity -- In Contrast with Leaders

The majority of the public believes that higher education is delivering a valuable service and that a college education is available to anyone who really wants one. At least for the moment, the public is satisfied with the nation's higher education, and people are much more likely to focus their attention on other issues that they perceive as more problematic. For a variety of reasons, most Americans do not know a great deal about the details of higher education administration and financing, and have not yet taken a position on some of the questions and debates about higher education that have engaged the nation's leaders.

High Marks for Higher Education

We asked our survey respondents to evaluate their local colleges. The results show high levels of satisfaction, especially compared to the marks given to local K-12 schools. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say that the colleges in their state are doing a good (42%) or excellent (15%) job. This is considerably higher than the one in three Americans who give their local public high schools good (27%) or excellent (6%) ratings (see Table 17). In the dozens of focus groups Public Agenda has conducted on K-12 education, we invariably hear complaints about students who are disrespectful, undisciplined and lack basic skills, and people refer constantly to media reports about school violence and shootings. Very few such complaints were raised in our discussions of higher education. Another factor that impresses people about higher education is how attractive American colleges and universities are to foreign students.

Part of the proof that they are doing a good job is where the students are coming from. You don't see our students going overseas-everyone is coming here. If you have a good product everyone will come for it.

--Man, Old Bridge, New Jersey

Indeed, public satisfaction with higher education seems to be increasing. Over the years we have been studying higher education, for example, we have seen a drop in the percentage of people who believe that colleges are failing to teach the important things students need to know. The percentage of people who believe this has dropped steadily from 33% in 1993 to 28% in 1998 and to 19% in our most recent survey. (A somewhat different wording of the question makes these results not strictly comparable.5) Here, the fact that the public puts so much emphasis on individual responsibility may work to the advantage of higher education institutions. When there are problems, the public tends to blame the college student, not the institution.

Limited Knowledge

People also acknowledge that they do not know a great deal about the workings of higher education. Indeed, even the favorable evaluation we report in the preceding section reveals a large percentage of people who say that they just don't know enough to evaluate the performance of colleges in their state. The percentage of those who don't know is even higher when we ask specifically about two-year or four-year institutions.

This lack of information may reflect the fact that most people have little firsthand contact with colleges and universities. Here again, the contrast with attitudes toward K-12 is striking. In focus groups about K-12, people often say that they personally know teachers, staff or school board members (in some communities the school district is one of the largest employers). Many parents carefully monitor their own children's progress and have regular contact with teachers and principals. The fact that public schools are financed by dedicated taxes means that homeowners (even those without children in the schools) are often painfully aware of exactly how much they are paying to support their local schools. In our studies of public education, the majority (55%) of the public says that they get their information about the K-12 schools first-hand; only 40% say they get their most useful information from television, radio or newspapers.6

Most Americans are much less aware of what happens in higher education institutions. One reason is that they are much less likely to have personal experience with higher education, since only about 32% of Americans over the age of 25 have a two-year or four-year degree.7 Also, parents in focus groups tell us that they are less likely to have detailed knowledge of what their college-age children are doing on a day-to-day basis. In a callback interview, a father from Santa Monica with a daughter in high school and a son in college drew the contrast this way:

Definitely I know much more about high school. I talk to our daughter every day. We talk about what is good and bad, we participate in events. Our son is away at school and we talk to him a couple of times a week. We ask, "How is it going?" He says, "Fine." I don't know what he is doing and how he is relating to his teachers.

The public also has little awareness of how higher education is financed. In most states, support for public higher education comes from general revenues, rather than from a dedicated tax. As a result, people don't know how much public money is allocated to higher education. When we asked respondents whether state colleges in their area get most of their money from students, from state government, or from both equally, a majority (52%) said that they didn't know enough to answer. This is an extremely high percentage of "don't know" responses; survey researchers find that people are usually reluctant to say that they don't know the answer to a question. Only a minority (16%) gave the correct answer: that most of the financing for state colleges comes from state government. Most people who did venture an opinion thought that the funds came from students themselves or from students and state sources equally. (See Table 18.)

Leaders and the General Public Disagree about the Urgency of Reform

The public's combination of a high level of satisfaction and a low level of knowledge stands in contrast to the views of the nation's leaders, as measured by our 1998 survey of 601 business executives, higher education administrators and deans, college faculty members and government officials. Leaders shared the public's initially favorable overall evaluation of higher education; for example, 73% agreed that "our system of higher education is the best in the world." But when it came to the specifics, leaders had some deep concerns and strident debates that are not yet on the public's radar screen.

1. Higher Levels of Knowledge among Leaders

Generally speaking, leaders tend to have a level of familiarity with local colleges and universities similar to that which members of the general public have with local K-12 schools. Obviously, professors and college administrators were well informed but so were business leaders. The vast majority of the business leaders we interviewed have a four-year or graduate degree, and as employers they have firsthand acquaintance with the skills and abilities of recent college graduates. In interviews, business leaders talked knowledgeably about the details of higher education, had acquaintances who are higher education faculty or administrators, and often spoke from personal experience about their local higher education institutions.

2. Remediation: A Big Problem for Leaders, But Low Awareness and Concern for the Public

One of the most pressing problems facing higher education, according to the leadership groups we surveyed, is that many students who go to college are not adequately prepared to do college work. We presented these leaders with a list of 16 possible problems facing higher education. The item that topped the list is that too many new students require remedial education: 88% of leaders said that this is a very or somewhat serious problem.

Other Public Agenda research underscores this point; for example, 60% of local business leaders say "a high school diploma is no guarantee that the typical student has learned the basics." Forty-three percent of college professors say that graduates from the public high schools "really lack the skills needed to succeed in college."8

The general public does not share this sense of unease. Parents are confident in the preparedness of their own children, but most Americans do not know much about the general issue. Fifty-four percent of parents say that their high school child will have the good work habits and academic skills needed for college; another 41% think that their child will be at least partially ready. But 52% of the public say that they don't know if academically unprepared students pose a problem for the colleges in their state.

In some states, leaders are intensely debating whether students should receive remediation in four-year colleges, but the public takes a much more pragmatic attitude toward preparedness: 67% of the public thinks that if a student is not up to college work, he or she should either be admitted to a two-year college and be required to take classes to catch up (53%) or not be admitted at all (14%). Only a minority (29%) thinks that such students should attend a four-year college and be required to take remedial classes (see Table 19). On the other hand, once students are admitted to college, the majority expects the institution to provide extra support to those who are struggling. A majority (68%) says that even in the case of a student who "constantly slacks off," the college should provide counseling and try to work with the student, rather than try more severe approaches.

3. Higher Education Efficiency and Accountability: Deep Divisions among Leaders, Lower Levels of Concern among the Public

The leadership community is also locked in serious debates about topics such as higher education financing, efficiency and accountability. Here business executives and college professors have very different views.

Business executives tend to see higher education as inefficient and unproductive, and they feel that higher education needs to adopt some of the strategies that business has learned in the last few decades. They express high hopes for technology and are put off by policies such as tenure. Higher education insiders, especially faculty members, take the opposite points of view. They feel that that the measures usually mentioned as strategies to make higher education more productive and accountable will cause more harm than good. As Table 20 shows, there are deep divisions between business executives and professors on topics such as efficiency, teaching loads, technology and tenure.

Business leaders also want to see some belt-tightening from the colleges, and they are open to the possibility of greater contributions from students and their parents. Eighty-eight percent of business leaders think that colleges should absorb increases in operating costs by cutting costs, and 65% think students and their parents should pay more.

Although the general public agrees that colleges should control costs and spend money efficiently, the public has little information about how well or how poorly higher education institutions are doing in this area. We asked several questions about these topics and, again, what is most remarkable is the high percentage of people who say they just do not know enough to answer. For example, we asked the general public whether colleges are careful and efficient with their money. Half say they don't know enough to have an opinion, and those who do take a position are closely divided. When asked whether colleges are working hard to control the price of college education, the plurality (45%) say they do not know enough to give an opinion, 39% say that colleges raise their prices whenever they can, and only 15% say that colleges are working hard to control prices. In contrast, 72% of business leaders think that colleges use the easy availability of loans to keep raising tuition.

Generally speaking, the public has been interested in higher education financing mostly from the perspective of the individual consumer. When we asked people to choose one source of additional revenues for public higher education, the majority (55%) said that they preferred to see revenues come from state government, rather than from cost cutting (22%), admitting fewer students (9%) or raising fees and tuition (7%). This preference for state funding, however, must be viewed in the proper context: The majority of the public has given little thought to higher education financing, so most have not weighed these options carefully. Moreover, respondents were not pressed on this question; for instance, none was asked if he or she would approve of increased state funding if it meant higher taxes.

No News Is Good News

As we have seen, people think that higher education is doing a good job, and that a college education is generally accessible to anyone who really wants to get one. At the same time, people don't know very much about the details of how higher education institutions operate. Putting these two factors together suggests that public satisfaction with higher education is sincere but not fully informed. Compared to other more immediate public policy issues -- health care, crime, K-12 schooling or social security -- the higher education system is not something that most people feel is in urgent need of major reform. Higher education is important to the public, and the survey findings document the general emphasis on access and quality. But the public currently does not feel compelled to worry about the fine points that concern leaders, such as how efficiently college administrators are running institutions. The fact that higher education is very important in the personal lives of many families does not in itself catapult the issue to the top of the national agenda.

The public's attitude toward the importance of the federal government in helping with college financing is a good example of the low priority people currently assign to higher education issues, as documented by several recent surveys. A University of Connecticut survey found that 75% say that providing financial assistance for people who want to go to college is either extremely or very important.9 But when people were asked by Princeton Survey Research Associates to rank the issues they consider priorities for the federal government, "ensuring that every American can afford to send their children to college" was near the bottom (see Table 21). Conserving resources, ensuring access to health care, taking care of the elderly, and ensuring high standards for K-12 schools were all of much greater concern to the public. Again, higher education is important to Americans. Its lower priority, we believe, is generated by the fact that people believe that other issues are more problematic and consequently require more urgent attention.



National Center logo
© 2000 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications