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Finding Three: Good Times, Fewer Concerns

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.

Since we first asked these questions in 1993, the situation in higher education has improved for many students and their families. Today the economy is strong and unemployment is low. Although college tuitions and fees rose rapidly during the late 1980s and early 1990s (especially at state institutions), the increases have slowed since that time.3 As a result, worries about the ability of students to get a college education have lessened.

In our previous studies of attitudes toward higher education in the State of California, we found a close relationship between how people feel about access to higher education and their willingness to call for a fundamental overhaul of the higher education system.4 Our national findings show the same pattern. As concerns about access to higher education have lessened, there has been a nearly identical drop in the percentage who call for a fundamental overhaul. Although almost four in ten Americans are still calling for fundamental changes, the percentage has dropped substantially since 1993.

Our hypothesis is that public concerns about access to higher education are a key to public thinking about higher education generally. When people are feeling better about access, their overall attitudes toward higher education are more positive. Conversely, if the public were to become even more worried about the opportunity to attend college, the calls for radical reform would jump back up.

Worries About Access Have Lessened Since 1993


1998 1993
Getting a college education will be more difficult ten years from now. 53% 66%
Do 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? 49 37
  There are many people who are qualified to go but don't have the opportunity to do so? 45 60
Getting a college education has become more difficult than it was ten years ago. 43 55
Which view comes closer to your own?
  This state's public college and university system needs to be fundamentally overhauled. 39 54
  This state's public college system should be basically left alone. 48 33

The greatest concern regarding access is about students from low-income families. Some critics complain that college is becoming available only to the rich who can pay for it and to the poor who can get financial aid. Middle-class families, according to this way of thinking, are too poor to pay for college but earn too much to qualify for financial aid. Our results show that this is not a major concern for the public. Our respondents were more likely to say that it is the poor who have less opportunity to get a college education, rather than the middle class.

Middle-class Americans themselves share this perception that it is the poor who have the most problems gaining access to a college education. The findings also suggest that low income is more likely to be perceived as a problem for access to higher education than is race or ethnicity. Most Americans feel that minority students have the same opportunity to attend higher education as everyone else.

More Concern About Access for Low-Income Families
  Less Opportunity More Opportunity About the Same
Opportunity of certain groups, compared to others, to get a college education:
  Students from low-income families. 49% 13% 36%
Students who are ethnic or racial minorities such as blacks or Latinos. 28 21 49
  Students from middle-class families. 24 13 62
  People who are older and going back to school for retraining. 23 22 51


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