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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.