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2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today

For increasing numbers of Americans, a crucial facet of the American Dream appears to be at risk. A solid majority consider a college degree an indispensable ticket to the middle class. At the same time, even more people believe college is financially out-ofreach for many qualified students.

This is the message from new public opinion research by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education Policy. The two organizations have been tracking public attitudes toward higher education since 1993. Our last survey, “Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today,” was conducted in early 2007 when the economy was strong. It seemed essential to tap into public opinion again, now that the country is struggling with what many believe will be a prolonged recession. To probe the changes in attitudes, we repeated a series of questions from our 2007 study in a survey conducted in late December 2008.

Americans increasingly view higher education as out-of-reach

The series of studies from Public Agenda and the National Center have monitored two different trends:

  • The necessity of higher education. In repeated surveys since 1993, people have consistently held that obtaining a college degree is important for a young person trying to enter the middle class. But respondents seem to distinguish between the importance of a college education and its necessity. In earlier surveys, a significant number of respondents also felt that while college was important, there were also other paths to success in America; college dropout Bill Gates was frequently mentioned in focus groups as an example of how one can succeed without a college degree.

    In our recent studies, however, we have seen a dramatic shift in the public’s views about the necessity of a higher education. Increasing numbers say that obtaining a college degree is the only way to succeed in America, that is, a college degree is not only important, it is a necessity. The percentage of people who believe this has now reached 55 percent, up five points since 2007, and the highest percentage we’ve seen in any of our previous surveys. As recently at 2000, just 3 in 10 Americans held this view. This is a remarkable change in a fairly short period, with a 24 point increase in eight years, nearly doubling from 2000 to 2008.

  • The availability of higher education. We have also tracked attitudes on how people feel about the availability of a college education for qualified students. Initially, attitudes on this topic seemed to track with the state of the economy. In the recession years of the early 1990s, 6 out of 10 were worried that many qualified people could not get access to a college education. As the economy improved toward the late 1990s, the percentage of people who were concerned about access fell significantly.

    But the pattern changed after 2000. Despite the fact that by many measures the economy was still vibrant, concern about access to college started to increase again. By 2007, it had reached and exceeded the level of the early 1990s, with 62 percent of the public saying that many qualified people did not have the opportunity to attend college. The most recent numbers are even more striking, with more than two thirds of Americans (67 percent) now saying that access is a problem, the highest documented level since we started following these trends.

Today, American public attitudes seem to be on a virtual collision course. At a moment when college is more frequently perceived as absolutely essential, more Americans think that a college education is out of reach for many. Our previous surveys also show that this frustration is felt even more keenly by minority members of the public.

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The college access agony index

Another marker of public distress is that more people seem to feel that college costs are spinning out of control at the same time that more Americans see college as a make-orbreak factor in a person’s life. Sixty-three percent believe that college prices are rising faster than the cost of other items (up from 58 percent in 2007). Nearly 8 in 10 (77 percent) of those who think college prices are rising believe that they are going up as fast or faster than health care.

The squeeze may be tightening in yet another respect. Most Americans (57 percent) continue to believe almost anyone who needs financial help can find the loans and financial aid they need. Yet anxiety about the availability of financial help has jumped 10 points in the last 18 months. In 2007, about 3 in 10 Americans (29 percent) worried that financial help was not easily available for students; that number is now closer to 4 in 10 (39 percent).

Our research also confirms that significant numbers of Americans have questions about whether these cost increases are justified and whether colleges are operating in the most cost effective manner. More than half of Americans (53 percent) say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education. Fifty-five percent say that higher education today is run like most businesses, with more attention to the bottom line and the educational mission of secondary importance.

A message from the American public

So what are the implications of the evolving public views? The findings suggest strong messages for two groups:

  • The first is a red flag for policymakers. What the public is saying is that higher education is becoming more of a stretch given the economic difficulties American families are facing. In other words, more of the public has come to believe that access is threatened. Public perceptions are not always accurate, but in this case, they are right on the mark. “Measuring Up 2008,” a 50-state analysis of higher education performance, shows that since 2000, tuition prices have gone up while family incomes have stagnated or declined. The report concluded that “the financial burden of paying for college costs has increased substantially, particularly for lowand middle-income families, even when scholarships and grants are taken into account.” These findings hold true for both four-year institutions and lower-cost community colleges. 1College is becoming less affordable precisely at the time when attending college is more important for both individuals and the economy. This is clearly a problem that policymakers should understand and seek to address.

  • The results also contain warning signs for higher education institutions. Our previous reports have documented that higher education still enjoys a great deal of public good will. Americans have voiced concerns about college costs for many years, but to date, voters have not rallied to demand that government curb college costs. Paying for college has been generally accepted as being well worth the money. Easily available college loans have eased public anxiety. The availability of low-cost community colleges also takes some of the edge off public concerns.
But our current studies show rising anxiety and skepticism. The findings reveal a chipping away of public support for higher education and a growing suspicion about how well colleges and universities use the money they have. This coincides with another development: more state and national policymakers are demanding “greater accountability” and some have called for increased regulation. The first question higher education leadership might well ask is whether public anxiety and skepticism will trigger greater support for more aggressive regulation. A second question might be whether higher education would be well-advised to address public concerns before government becomes even more involved in shaping its future.


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