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Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today


  Afterword

Over the past decade and a half, Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education have recorded and reported the public’s views of America’s colleges and universities (see page 54 for a list of reports in this series). In collecting and analyzing these public perceptions, we have relied upon national and state public opinion surveys, focus groups, and leadership studies conducted by Public Agenda. This report, as with its predecessors, describes continuities and changes in public perceptions over time and identifies current public concerns. This afterword focuses on four of the report’s key findings and their interrelationships.

First, this survey finds that the broad American consensus about the great importance of higher education has not changed. The general public continues to consider education and training beyond high school as crucial in enabling individual success. However, as the public perception that college is more important than ever has become more pervasive, so has the concern that college opportunity is declining. Leadership groups are more likely to consider higher education as important in meeting broad societal goals, such as improving the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Second, there is also a broad consensus about the importance of college opportunity for those who are prepared and willing to learn. But the public is not optimistic that this goal is being reached, and affordability is a major and growing concern. Compared with previous surveys, a higher percentage of respondents now believe that college is essential but that many qualified individuals lack opportunity to attend. Most parents are very worried or somewhat worried about paying for college, even while they expect to find a way to manage it. African-American and Latino parents, even affluent ones, are particularly concerned about paying for college.

Third, the public perceives higher education as a high-quality enterprise and is resistant to policies that might jeopardize or reduce quality. However, most Americans reject many of academia’s conventional ideas about quality and the relationship of cost and quality. For example, the public believes:

  • In overwhelming numbers, that the benefits that students receive from college depend more on the efforts of the students than on the quality of the college;

  • That students in comparable programs can learn as much at a community college as at a more expensive four-year college; and

  • That colleges could spend less money or enroll more students without necessarily reducing quality or increasing prices.

Fourth, although Americans consider higher education to be very important, confidence that colleges, universities, and their leaders share and give priority to public concerns is middling at best. A little over half of respondents believe that colleges are more focused on their bottom line than on the student educational experience, and nearly 4 in 10 believe that waste and mismanagement are driving up cost. Nearly half agree that higher education in their state should be “completely overhauled.”

These findings send an important, albeit subtle message to higher education leaders: Public concerns are growing that many colleges and universities are not addressing America’s most important values for higher education, that is, a commitment to opportunity and quality, particularly if quality is defined as student learning. The reasons for this erosion of confidence are most likely complex, but may spring in part from the cumulative effects of escalating college costs and prices, particularly the challenges that tuition increases have placed on students from middle- and lower-income families. As tuition increases routinely exceed the growth of family income and inflation, colleges are perceived by the public as exploitation of a “seller’s market”. In addition, the public may be becoming more aware of current policies regarding higher education, such as: the costs of mission creep and the expense of the relentless pursuit of status and prestige, as reflected in rankings such as U.S. News and World Report; the diversion of student financial aid and tuition discounts from the public purpose of educational opportunity to the narrow institutional purpose of selective student recruitment; and the excessive compensation of some athletic directors, coaches, and university presidents. All of these may be contributing to an erosion of confidence—to a perception that our colleges and universities are drifting away from traditional values of opportunity and educational quality.

For America’s public policy leaders, this report signals a public anxiety that has yet to reach a state of acute public urgency. No elected official is likely to be defeated in the next election for failing to champion the public concerns reflected here. On the other hand, there are clear indications that the public is ready to support leadership that addresses the important issues of higher education access, affordability, cost, productivity, and quality.

Patrick M. Callan

President

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

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