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
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
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:
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.
- 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.