Summary of Findings
Part I: Areas of Consensus
Part II: Areas of Disagreement
Supporting Tables
About the Author
About the National Center
About Public Agenda

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Taking Responsibility
Page 1 of 12


A casual reader of news about higher education could easily be confused about the status of America's colleges and universities. On the one hand, the picture is overwhelmingly positive. Millions of Americans are attending college, and students from around the world are flocking to the United States to study in our institutions.1 American universities are world leaders in science, medicine, technology, and a host of other research areas. While students may be drinking too much, the unrest that tore campuses apart in the 60s and 70s has long since subsided.

At the same time, there are disturbing signs. The public is worried about the rising price tag of higher education, and many fear that college will soon be out of reach for many families.2 Administrators say they are trapped between escalating costs and limited revenue sources. Conservative critics say that tenured radicals have trivialized real knowledge and teaching in favor of endless squabbles about race, class, and gender, while technology-based critics think that our traditional colleges are dinosaurs that will be replaced by commercial vendors of distance-learning.

What are the concerns of those who are most involved with decision-making about higher education, and what do they see for the future? To answer these questions, we conducted a mail survey of leaders across the country. We received responses from 601 individuals, including professors, higher education deans and administrators, government officials, and business leaders. The survey was conducted in the fall of 1998; the methodology section describes the sample and procedures in detail. We intend to follow up this study with a survey of the general public in the coming year.

Our questions were formulated on the basis of a series of confidential telephone interviews with a panel of leaders representing a variety of different perspectives on higher education, and group meetings held at two conferences, one for faculty and administrators and another for legislators and their staffs. We also called a number of the individuals who had completed our mail survey for further amplification of their responses. Quotes from these confidential interviews are included in our report to help flesh out the numerical findings. Staff members of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education were also consulted for their expertise and advice.

What emerges is a complex picture with broad agreement about some questions, and deep disagreement about others. Most striking are the areas of agreement, with leaders from all four groups taking a similar perspective both on the strengths of our higher education system and some of the problems it faces. Specifically, we found widespread consensus on the value of higher education both to society and to individuals, the overall quality of higher education in this country, and the importance of insuring that qualified students will not be priced out of a higher education.

The Most Serious Problem of All
We also found agreement on what these leaders take to be the most serious problem facing higher education. For these leaders, the real obstacle in producing an educated society is not the price tag, but the fact that many students are not sufficiently prepared to take advantage of a college education. From the perspective of our respondents, the most critical factor in higher education is the responsibility taken by students themselves. No amount of financial investment in higher education can, in the eyes of these leaders, replace the importance of having students who are motivated to advance their own learning.

Beyond these areas of consensus, we also found serious areas of difference and disagreement, especially between educators and members of the business community. The major dispute concerns how well colleges and universities are administered, whether they are teaching the right things, and what steps should be taken to meet the rising cost of producing higher education in this country. These disagreements send a clear message about the need for dialogue and clarification between leaders inside and outside the halls of academia. Higher education leaders are convinced that they will need increasing financial support from the society at large. But they may have trouble getting that support if they cannot convince other leaders -- especially from the business community -- that higher education is doing its own work effectively. We also found other areas of disagreement, concerning issues such as teaching load, research, tenure, and racial balance.

The findings are presented in two separate sections: Areas of Consensus and Areas of Disagreement.


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