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 3 of 12

Part I: Areas of Consensus

We found six main areas of consensus among the groups of leaders we surveyed (professors, higher education deans and administrators, government officials, and business leaders). Since the similarities of the leaders' views on these areas of consensus are more interesting than the differences are, we report most of the findings in this section as the combined results for all four groups. Supporting tables presented at the end of the report give the breakouts by each group for selected questions.

Finding One
Leaders responding to the survey believe a strong higher education system is vitally important to the well-being of American society.

The people we surveyed -- faculty, higher education administrators, and leaders of business and government -- invariably stressed the importance of higher education to American society. In effect, our respondents see the nation's colleges and universities as the site where the nation does its thinking, as well as the place where students are taught to think. As one professor said:

Our society has great expectations of higher education. We don't really look to other institutions as a resource for the future. Higher education's job is not just to train students, but to contribute to and answer the questions we face about society, quality of life, and health.

One of the most important contributions that higher education makes to the nation as a whole is to foster economic growth. Our respondents are nearly unanimous in their view that "a strong higher education system is key to the continued economic growth and progress of the U.S.," with 97% of all respondents saying that this sentiment is either very or somewhat close to their own position. Equally high percentages (92%) endorse the view that the nation's colleges are a crucial source of technological and scientific innovation.

Another measure of the importance of higher education to these leaders is their sense that the nation needs a large number of educated workers. A majority (64%) feel the nation can never have too many college graduates. And more than seven in ten (73%) believe their own state currently needs more college-educated workers so that it can attract more high-tech businesses.

Higher education is not only important for the society, but also for individuals. One sign of this is the educational achievement of our respondents themselves. Eighty percent of the business leaders have a B.A. or higher, and educational accomplishment is even higher among the other groups. Not surprisingly, they see an emphasis on a college degree coming from parents. Nearly three in four leaders (73%) say that most parents believe that it is critical for their children to graduate from college. In effect, a college degree now means what a high school degree used to mean. As one professor said:

The purpose of higher education has really changed. We are no longer educating an elite population, but instead building a usable body of skills for the society as a whole.

These leaders believe that higher education is not only important now, but is also becoming more so. More than eight in ten (81%) say that getting a college education is more important than it was ten years ago.

Finding Two
Most leaders think America has the best higher education system in the world.

The leaders responding to this survey are convinced that, compared to other higher education systems, America's colleges and universities are in a league of their own. Nearly three in four (73%) either fully or partially endorse the view that America's system of higher education is the best in the world. Although business leaders have their own criticisms of higher education, they also support this position by a margin of more than two to one (65% to 31%).

The fact that so many foreign students come to this country to study is frequently mentioned as evidence that our colleges and universities produce a world-class product to be proud of. As one business executive said:

I think our higher education system is probably one of America's greatest strengths. Looking at inflows and outflows, the attendance of foreigners in higher education is outstanding. Indeed, we do better in this area than we do in agriculture, computers, tourism, or anything. Clearly the world picks the United States. On a global basis, this is our strongest product.

What comes through loud and clear, in other words, is that despite the criticisms leaders may have of higher education, they view it as a high quality institution that makes a real contribution to American society. As one professor said, speaking of the many criticisms and proposals for change, "Let's remember not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

  • More than three in four (78%) feel that the colleges in their state are doing a good (62%) or even an excellent (16%) job.

  • Sixty-five percent believe that higher education gives college graduates a good return for their money.

Finding Three
An overwhelming majority of leaders believe it is essential to insure that higher education is accessible to every qualified and motivated student.

The growing importance of higher education has focused greater attention on the question of who can and cannot attend America's institutions of higher education. In effect, the leaders we surveyed do not want to see qualified and motivated students shut out of the opportunity of obtaining a higher education. As one professor said, "If we screen people out of a college education, we are committing them not just to a second-class existence, but to a third-class

In most areas of the country, there is a wide variety of higher education institutions of different types, many of which are essentially open to any qualified high school graduate. So the question of access becomes a question about whether a college education is financially possible for the majority of qualified students. Our respondents overwhelmingly believe that money alone should not exclude any qualified person from getting an education beyond secondary schooling. Large majorities of our respondents said that the following views are either very or somewhat close to their own:

  • Society should not allow the price of a college education to prevent qualified and motivated students from attending college (92%).

  • Because a college education is the ticket to a middle-class life, it is crucial that it be affordable to everyone (75%).

Several of the leaders interviewed said that insuring access to higher education is essential to preserving the social stability of American society. As one college administrator said:

Unless the working middle class has access to education, they are going to be very pessimistic about the chance of making it in society. But what holds societies together is optimism, the feeling that our children can make it. Once we lose that, it is all over.

Finding Four
But leaders are convinced that today the vast majority of qualified and motivated students can get a college education if they want one.

Our respondents are convinced that obtaining a higher education is not currently out of reach for most students who are qualified academically. As Table 1 shows, three quarters of our leadership sample feel that, in their state, the vast majority of qualified students can find a way to pay for a college education. Fewer than one in five leaders overall think that there are many qualified students who cannot afford a higher education. One of our respondents, a faculty member whom we called for additional commentary, said it this way:

Pretty much anyone who wants to go can go, and I think that is the case across the country. They can work their way through and get it.

Regarding the question of access to higher education, we found, in fact, that leaders are much more optimistic than the public as a whole. In The Price of Admission: The Growing Importance of Higher Education, our most recent study of public attitudes toward higher education, we presented a somewhat similar question to the general public and found a much different reaction.3 Specifically, the public is divided (49% to 45%) on whether or not most of those who are qualified for a higher education have the opportunity to receive one (see Table 2).

Although leaders are convinced that access is not currently a problem, they are also concerned about the rising price of a college education, and the impact that this price may have in the future:

  • Nearly three in four (74%) feel that, compared to ten years ago, paying for a college education has become more difficult.

  • Seven in ten (71%) feel that paying for a college education will be even more difficult ten years from now.

  • Eight-three percent think that the debt students must take on to pay for college is either a very serious or somewhat serious problem.

Finding Five
Most leaders believe that lack of student motivation and responsibility is a more important obstacle to getting a higher education than is lack of money.

For these leaders, access to a college education alone is meaningless if students are not sufficiently motivated to take advantage of it. What really matters, in other words, is the degree to which students are willing to take responsibility for their own education.

We asked respondents to choose among three possible factors -- lack of motivation and direction, lack of money, or lack of skills -- as the main reason why some students drop out of college. The overwhelming choice is "a lack of motivation and direction" (69%). Very few see "a lack of money" as the main reason (13%), and even fewer (7%) explain the dropout rate in terms of "a lack of skills."

The respondents are also convinced, by an overwhelming margin of 88% to 9%, that the benefits of a college education depend on the effort the student makes, rather than on the quality of the college attended. The sense is that a motivated student can do well even in an underfunded and overcrowded college, while an unmotivated student will gain little even from the best institution of higher education.

The emphasis on student responsibility also informs the way leaders think about how students should finance their education. More than seven in ten (73%) stress that students only appreciate the value of their college education when they have some personal responsibility for paying for its costs. In the eyes of these leaders, a European approach to higher education, where higher education is essentially free, would undercut the importance of the student's own motivation and contribution. As a college administrator said:

College should be affordable, but certainly not just given away. I believe people have to make an investment in what is dear to them and what will profit them. They don't have to be loaded with debt to do it, but something we work for and pay for has more meaning.

The leaders we surveyed are concerned that too many students already regard a college education as some kind of entitlement. Nearly six out of ten leaders (59%) at least partially endorse the view that "too many students feel they are entitled to a college education regardless of their academic qualifications." This attitude on the part of students is somewhat more troubling to those who have to deal with students: 66% of the college professors in our sample say this is very or somewhat close to their view. As one professor we interviewed said:

I see students who refuse to take responsibility for their own success. They don't come to class, don't do well on their work, but then they blame the institution. I insist that individuals have to take responsibility for their own learning.

The respondents favor options for paying for college that support the values of responsibility and motivation. We presented four options for college financing to our respondents: work-study, tax breaks, subsidized loans, and direct financial aid. Not surprisingly, given their feelings about motivation and responsibility, our respondents are most supportive of work-study as a way to help students pay for higher education, with 84% saying that the government should rely more on work-study as a means of making college affordable. The advantage to work-study seems to be that it most helps those students who are willing to put in extra effort themselves. There is also strong support for tax breaks, with 75% saying that government should rely more on this method. Support for tax breaks may be driven by the perception that they are a way of supporting families who are willing to work to provide funding for college. The other two methods -- loans and direct aid -- are less popular, with 50% saying these should be used more.

The theme of responsibility may also be important when leaders are asked about community service: 63% support the idea of students being required by colleges to do community service in order to learn civic responsibility.

This insistence on the responsibility of individual students means that these leaders view higher education in rather different terms than what is often said about K-12 education. In this country, K- 12 schooling is provided free of charge, and, indeed, young people are legally obliged to attend school. The idea of charging people for education in a public school violates our whole philosophy of education. But when it comes to college, the focus shifts completely. Our hypothesis is that, when it comes to higher education, the emphasis switches to the responsibility of the individual student. Thus the fact that students have to pay at least some of the costs of their own education is a good thing because it helps screen out those who are less motivated. When a high school student has problems or drops out of school, there may be a greater tendency to blame the high school. But when a college student drops out, the blame, as we have seen, falls on the individual student's lack of motivation.

Finding Six

The most serious problem facing higher education, according to leaders responding to our survey, is that too many students are not sufficiently prepared academically to receive a higher education.

We presented our respondents with a list of 16 possible problems facing higher education. The responses give a good picture of the issues that most concern leaders. The item that topped the list was that "too many new students need remedial education." Eighty-eight percent of our respondents regard this as a problem, with a full 53% saying that it is a very serious problem. Indeed, poor preparation ranks higher than the next highest items of concern, which are student debt and the low percentage of minority graduates (see Table 3).

In theory, our respondents feel that our society needs more college-trained workers and citizens. But they do not want to do this by lowering the standards for admission and graduation. Instead, they would like to raise the admission standards (which would presumably lower the number of people who attend colleges), and also see unqualified students get technical training rather than crowd into colleges and universities.

  • Nearly nine in ten (89%) want to make trade and technical school a more appealing option for high school graduates who are not qualified for college.

  • Three in four (76%) feel that raising admission standards would be either very effective or somewhat effective in improving higher education.

  • Sixty percent feel that it is a somewhat or very serious problem that too many colleges have academic standards that are too low.

Our respondents are especially opposed to sending unprepared students to four-year institutions. Only 19% think that applicants who lack the necessary skills to succeed in school should be admitted to a four-year school and given remediation. The large majority (76%) want these students either not to be admitted at all (22%) or only to be admitted to a two-year college (54%). As one of our leaders from a business background said:

When a student comes into a college situation, that person should be able to read a textbook and write reports. How can you do that if the basic skills are not there?

There is some controversy about whether the current dropout rate is too high. A few of the leaders we talked to were outraged by the percentages of dropouts. One leader from outside the education community put it this way:

Colleges and universities think they are doing so well, but their retention rates are awful. They don't know how to attract diverse kids or hang on to them. I don't want to be around when someone actually figures out the costs of those dropouts. There is a huge cost to all of those dropouts.

Other leaders are comfortable with the idea that many students who start college do not get a degree. As a government official said:

There is a difference between everyone finishing high school and everyone finishing college or university. At some point along the line people find that they have a sufficient amount of education to handle what they need. There are some who come with no particular intention of graduating.

Our survey respondents reflect this same ambiguity. Business and faculty are less concerned about dropout rates, with fewer than a third saying that dropout rates are too high. By contrast, majorities of administrators and government officials think current dropout rates are too high (see Table 4).

Consistent with this view, majorities of faculty and business people say that there are many people who are currently in college who shouldn't be there. Half of faculty members (50%) and 60% of business leaders agree that "many young people are wasting time and money in college because they don't know what else to do." Fewer administrators (46%) and government officials (44%) share this view.

There is wide agreement that much of the problem of under-preparation is due to the K÷12 public schools: two in three (66%) say that most of the problems colleges have with student quality stem from failures in the K-12 system. Only 18% feel that colleges complain about the public schools to avoid taking responsibility for their own low academic and admission standards.

There is also agreement that part of the cure is to work more closely with K-12 schools. Leaders almost unanimously (91%) believe that directly collaborating with K-12 schools to help prepare students for college is a very or somewhat effective way to address the problem.

Is the preparation and motivation of students improving, staying the same, or getting worse? Our respondents do not agree on the answer to this question. Those who work most closely with students -- professors and administrators -- are convinced that the situation is getting worse. Sixty-eight percent of professors and 54% of administrators feel that compared to ten years ago, today's college students are less prepared and motivated. Government and business people are more optimistic and more likely to think that the situation is either the same or better than in the past (see Table 5).

While college professors put much of the blame on K-12 schools, they also seem to be willing to acknowledge that they themselves are part of the problem. College professors are much more likely than the other groups to identify grade inflation in college as a problem. Seventy-three percent of professors see this as a very or somewhat serious problem (compared to 58% of government officials, 56% of administrators, and 55% of business leaders). Professors are also somewhat more likely to acknowledge that colleges have let their own standards slip. More than two in three professors (68%) think it is problematic that too many colleges have academic standards that are too low (compared to 61% of business people, 56% of administrators, and 55% of government leaders who feel this way). One professor described the situation in his own university this way:

We have an evaluation mechanism which determines 60% of our salary; many professors feel they have to be entertainers, and give the students good grades so they will get good evaluations and a pay raise.



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