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    Introduction

    Chapter 1: Five National Trends

    Chapter 2: State Policies for Affordable Higher Education

    Chapter 3: Questions and Answers about Losing Ground

    Chapter 4: 2002 Update for the States: "A Dire Situation"

    Chapter 5: Public Concerns about the Price of College

    Chapter 6: Taking Care of the Middle Class

    Chapter 7: Profiles of American College Students

    Appendix: State Trends

    Acknowledgments

    BACK

  • CHAPTER 5: PUBLIC CONCERNS ABOUT THE PRICE OF COLLEGE

    By John Immerwahr

    How important is a college education, in the eyes of the American public?

    When Americans reflect on their hopes and desires for themselves and their families, they consistently talk about the familiar ideals of "the American dream": a decent-paying job, a home, a secure retirement, and the promise of a better life for their children. To most Americans today, a college education for their children is an essential part of this vision. More than eight out of ten Americans say that having a college degree is important to getting ahead1 and that a college education has become as important as a high school diploma used to be (see table 1). A college education, in other words, is now seen as essential to achieving a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. This vision is shared across all segments of the American public; for instance, Hispanic and African-American parents are even more likely than others to stress the importance of higher education for their children, even though current college participation rates among these groups is lower than for the population as a whole.

    Table 1
    How Important is Higher Education?
    A college education has become as important as a high school education used to be. Do you agree or disagree? Is that strongly or somewhat?
    Strongly agree68%
    Somewhat agree19%
    Somewhat disagree8%
    Strongly disagree4%
    Don't know2%
    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to December 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 1,015.

    How concerned are people about the affordability of a college education?

    Growing concerns about the importance of a college education coincide with increasing anxiety about the price of college. People read news stories about high tuition at elite private colleges and they start to worry that they won't be able to afford a college education for their children-and that this, in turn, will mean that their children will be shut out of the middle class. Indeed, Americans are more concerned about escalating college prices than they are about the price tags of some other elements of the American dream. One study found that 70% think that higher education is being priced beyond the income of the average family, as compared to only 44% who feel that the cost of a house is being priced out of reach, 36% who feel this way about the cost of a secure retirement, and 24% who feel this way about the cost of a car (see table 2). Some of our state-specific studies have shown that concerns about the cost of college may intensify during an economic downturn, when the states try to make up for declining tax revenues by raising the tuition and fees for public higher education.

    Table 2
    Public Concerns About Price
    Which of the following items do you worry is being priced beyond the income of the average family: cost of children's college education, cost of a house, cost of a secure retirement, cost of a car?
    Cost of children's college education 70%
    Cost of a house 44%
    Cost of a secure retirement 36%
    Cost of a car 24%
    None (volunteered)2%
    Not sure 2%
    Notes: Asked of Form B half sample. Adds to more than 100% due to multiple responses. Survey Organization: Hart and Teeter Research Companies. Sponsor: NBC News, Wall Street Journal. Field Dates: Dec. 3, 1998, to Dec. 6, 1998. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 2,106.

    Despite these concerns, other studies have suggested that people don't really know very much about the price of a college education. Public estimates of college tuition are especially inaccurate; one study found that the public's estimate of in-state tuition at a public college can be as much as three times the actual price tag.

    Are the high prices preventing people from getting an education?

    Although they are anxious about the rising cost of a college education, most Americans agree that, by one means or another, anyone who really wants a college education can obtain one. Eighty-seven percent agree that if someone really wants to go to college, he or she can find a way to pay for it, though that may require working while going to school (see table 3). Parents of high school children are more concerned than other adults about escalating tuition bills, but most of these parents believe that they can make college happen for their children. Three-quarters of the parents of high school students say that it is highly likely that their oldest child will attend college and, of these parents, nearly all (93%) say they will "find a way to work out the costs."2

    Table 3
    Finding a Way to Pay
    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. Do you agree or disagree? Is that strongly or somewhat?
    Strongly agree 63%
    Somewhat agree 24%
    Somewhat disagree 8%
    Strongly disagree 5%
    Don't know 1%
    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to Dec. 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National parents of children in high school. Sample Size: 200.

    On the surface, there seems to be a contradiction: People think that college costs are rising beyond the reach of the average family, and yet they believe that anyone who really wants a college education can get one. In focus groups, people quickly explain themselves: College is still affordable but only if students are willing to "scramble," perhaps by going to a community college rather than a four-year school, taking out more loans, living at home, working part-time, or, if all else fails, working full-time and going to school part-time. When people say that any motivated person can go to college, they don't mean that it is easy to do so. In fact, the obstacles can overwhelm people. In our surveys the public is divided on whether most qualified and motivated people have an opportunity to attend college: 45% say that the vast majority have the opportunity, and 47% say that there are many who do not have the opportunity.3 When the question is asked this way, people seem to be thinking about the obstacles, as well as the possibilities.

    What can be done to help?

    Many Americans seem to fear that they will be caught in a "squeeze play." In their view, a college education is becoming both more important and more expensive. Although they are coping now, they are worried that higher education will be priced out of reach for people like themselves.

    One outcome is clearly unacceptable to the public: People do not want to see fewer students going to college. In the early 1990s, when we first started studying public opinion on this topic, people were worried that the nation could have too many college graduates and not enough people to work in the trades. Today, however, a large majority (75%) feel that society can never have too many college graduates.4 And less than 10% think that colleges should solve potential financial shortages by admitting fewer students or by charging higher fees.5

    Although cutting enrollments and raising fees are highly unpopular, the public does feel that colleges and universities can do more to control costs. Eighty-three percent agree that colleges should be doing a much better job in keeping their costs down (see table 4).

    Table 4
    Keeping Costs Down
    Today's colleges should be doing a much better job of keeping their costs down. Do you agree or disagree? Is that strongly or somewhat?
    Strongly agree 60%
    Somewhat agree 23%
    Somewhat disagree 7%
    Strongly disagree 4%
    Don't know 6%
    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to Dec. 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 1,015.

    In addition, a large majority believe that government can and should help make college affordable. Eighty-seven percent say that the federal government should play a role by creating tax breaks to help parents pay for the cost of college and post-high school training.6 The public also supports other forms of financial assistance, especially those that reward student initiative and motivation (such as work-study).

    But the public's enthusiasm for government support for higher education drops when tradeoffs are discussed. National security, health care, retirement, and the environment-all are viewed as deserving a higher priority on the federal agenda than higher education. In these other areas, there is no effective actor other than the federal government and, not surprisingly, the public gives federal action in these areas a higher priority. Regarding higher education, in contrast, people think that for the time being, motivated students and their families are still able to fend for themselves.

    This summary of public opinion research on the affordability of higher education draws from surveys conducted between January 1997 and August 2001. For more information, see The Affordability of Higher Education: A Review of Recent Survey Research (San Jose: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2002). Available at www.highereducation.org.

    John Immerwahr is senior research fellow at Public Agenda and associate vice president for academic affairs at Villanova University.


    1In your opinion, how important is it for people to have a college degree in order to get ahead? Is it: extremely important, very important, neither important nor unimportant, not very important, or not at all important?

    Extremely important 37%
    Very important 47%
    Neither important nor unimportant 8%
    Not very important 6%
    Not at all important 1%
    Not sure 2%

    Survey Organization: Yankelovich Partners. Sponsor: Time, Cable News Network. Field Dates: Sept. 10, 1997, to Sept. 12, 1997. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 827.

    2How likely is it that your child will attend college after graduating high school?

    Certain 44%
    Very likely 31%
    Somewhat likely 16%
    Not too likely 8%
    Don't know 1%

    Do you think you will find a way to work out costs, or do you seriously doubt that college will be affordable for your child?

    Will find a way 93%
    Seriously doubt that college will be affordable 5%
    Don't know 2%

    Note: Parents of children in high school who say it is certain/very likely/somewhat likely that their child will attend college after graduating.

    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to Dec. 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National parents of children in high school. Sample Size: 176.

    3Do you believe that currently in your state, the vast majority of people who are qualified to go to college have the opportunity to do so, or do you think there are many people who are qualified to go but don't have the opportunity to do so?

    Vast majority have the opportunity 45%
    There are many people who don't have the opportunity 47%
    Don't know 8%

    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to Dec. 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 1,015.

    4In your view, is it possible for the U.S. to reach a point where too many people have a college degree, or is this one area where there can never be too much of a good thing?

    It is possible to reach a point 18%
    Can never be too much 76%
    Don't know 6%

    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to Dec. 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 1,015.

    5Suppose the colleges in your state faced a serious shortage of money. What would be the best way to solve the problem? Should the colleges:

    Get more funding from the state government 55%
    Cut costs and expect professors to teach more classes 22%
    Admit fewer students 9%
    Charge higher fees and tuition 7%
    Don't know 7%

    Survey Organization: Public Agenda. Sponsor: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Field Dates: Dec. 2, 1999, to Dec. 14, 1999. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National adult. Sample Size: 1,015.

    6(Let me read you some areas people have given for federal government involvement and for each one please tell me, regardless of whether you favor or oppose the idea, if you think the federal government should play a very strong role in that area, somewhat a strong role, not too strong of a role, or no role at all.) . . . Creating tax breaks to help parents pay for the cost of college education and post-high school training and related expenses in public education.

    Strong role 61%
    Somewhat strong role 26%
    Not strong role 7%
    No role at all 6%

    Survey Organization: Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates. Sponsor: American Association of University Women. Field Dates: June 1998. Interview Method: Telephone. Sample: National registered voters. Sample Size: 600.