Growing Importance of Higher Education,
Concerns about Access
Our past studies have suggested that public attitudes are sensitive to the relationship between the perceived importance and necessity of higher education and perceptions of access. People are comfortable with the idea that a college education is becoming even more essential, as long as they feel that access to higher education keeps pace. It is likely to be more disturbing, however, when these two elements do not keep pace. The worst nightmare, of course, would be a situation where higher education is perceived as more essential yet less accessible.
Our most recent study suggests that while the overall picture remains positive, the country seems to be edging toward this unpleasant scenario. Different subgroups are making this move in a variety of ways. Among the general public, we have seen a small growth in the number who suggest that higher education is more important than it used to be and in the number who perceive difficulties with access. High school parents have not changed much in their high level of emphasis on the necessity of college, but they are now much more likely to say they are concerned about access than they were a few years ago. A growing number of Hispanics are concerned about the necessity of higher education. Larger numbers of African Americans have become more concerned about both access and necessity. Although the pattern in each group is slightly different, the overall direction is clear.
This dual emphasis may be found in the overall ratings that people give to the colleges in their state. In 2000, we found that the public gave relatively positive marks to their own state's colleges. Fifty-seven percent rated them as either excellent or good, compared to 15% who said fair or poor (28% said they did not know enough to say). Today those numbers have dropped slightly, with 53% giving a mark of excellent or good. While we cannot say definitely what has caused this change, it is once again interesting to turn to the views of African American respondents. As we have already seen, this group is more likely to emphasize the greater importance of college and its declining accessibility. African American evaluations of higher education have also dropped dramatically since our last survey. In 2000, colleges got high marks from African Americans, with 64% saying that colleges in their state were doing an excellent or good job. Today the number has dropped to 35%. This is the single largest change in the data we have seen between 2000 and 2003.
It is impossible to predict how these attitudes will change in the future. If the economy improves dramatically, anxiety may diminish. But there are indications that higher education will be feeling the pinch even after the economy starts to turn around-particularly if college prices continue to increase. In that case, we may see even greater levels of anxiety, especially among African Americans and among high school parents.