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In recent years, education has been at or near the top of the public's concerns and it has been a major priority for the president and many of the nation's governors. When leaders and the public speak of education, however, their main concern has typically been the nation's K-12 schools. Today, the focus is turning to higher education (including both two-year and four-year colleges and universities). As America moves into the knowledge-intensive world of the future, a college education will continue to take on much of the importance that a high school education had a generation ago; the growing importance of a higher education has spawned greater public attention and concern.

To examine these issues, Public Agenda surveyed 700 Americans nationwide in February 1998. The respondents were specifically told that the questions about higher education referred to both two-year and four-year higher education, and to both public and private colleges and universities. These closed-ended interviews were also supplemented with in-depth follow-up interviews with a number of the respondents. Because many of the same survey questions were also asked in 1993, the research shows not only what Americans think today but how their attitudes have changed and evolved in the last five years.1 This study is the first in a series of studies that Public Agenda will conduct in collaboration with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Five major findings emerged from the research:

Americans believe that higher education is more important than it ever has been, both as a key to a middle-class lifestyle and as a resource for the local economy.
Because higher education has become so important, Americans are convinced that no qualified and motivated student should be denied an opportunity to go to a college or university merely because of the price.
While many Americans are still worried about access to higher education, concerns about students being shut out of a college education have decreased significantly in the last five years.
The public believes that what a student gets out of a higher education is a function of what he or she puts into it.
The public is opposed to policy proposals that limit access to higher education or raise the amount families will have to pay, but has not come to a consensus on how society should pay for access to higher education.


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