Commentators have increasingly been wondering if the end might finally be in sight for the many years' worth of steady and often not-so-slow increases in college tuitions. How much longer, the thinking goes, will American students and parents be able to afford -- and/or put up with -- rapidly rising prices and expenditures on higher education?
Of course, predictions of the end of the line for big tuition increases have come and gone before, and threats of aggressive federal efforts to try to control college prices typically recede, as they did during the passage of last year's Higher Education Act renewal. But a new poll released today offers compelling evidence that, much as people view higher education as increasingly essential, public concern about the price of college and access to higher education for lower-income Americans is accelerating rapidly. The survey, conducted in December by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, follows fairly closely on the heels of the group's last such poll, in early 2007, yet shows significant changes in that short time in the responses of Americans on key subjects.
Fifty-five percent of the 1,000-plus respondents, for instance, said they believed a college education is necessary to "be successful in today's world," up from 50 percent in 2007 and just 31 percent in 2000. That's the good news -- higher education is seen as increasingly essential.
But the upbeat results more or less stop there for higher education. On a series of questions related to the price and affordability of college, the answers suggest that Americans not only see higher education getting too expensive, but unreasonably so compared to other things they value.
Sixty-three percent, for instance, said they believed college prices are rising at a faster rate than other things, up from 58 percent who gave that answer in 2007. Respondents who gave that answer were then asked whether they believed college prices were rising faster or slower than those health care; 35 percent said faster (up from 20 percent in 2007), 42 percent said the rate was the same, and 17 percent said slower.
A series of other questions reflected respondents' growing sense that the rising prices were hurting access to higher education for the non-wealthy. While 74 percent said they strongly agreed that prices should not deter qualified students from going to college, a full two-thirds (67 percent) said they strongly agreed that students are forced to borrow too much to pay for college (up from 60 percent in 2007), and only 30 percent strongly agreed that "almost anyone who needs financial help to go to college can get loans or financial aid." That's down from 38 percent less than two years ago -- and 22 percent strongly disagreed with that statement, up from 15 percent in 2007.
"This is a red flag for policy makers and college leaders," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "Most American believe in the value of getting to college and getting a degree. Yet the public increasingly feels that college is out of reach for many people who deserve to go. It points to a growing sense of unfairness about the economy and American society today."
One other aspect of the Public Agenda/National Center survey is also likely to trouble college leaders, as it suggests a connection in the minds of respondents (placed there, perhaps, by the survey's sponsors) between rising prices and the conduct of colleges. In 2007, 43 percent of respondents said they believed colleges and universities "mainly care about education and making sure students have a good educational experience," while 52 percent said "colleges today are like most businesses and mainly care about the bottom line" (5 percent said they did not know which was more accurate).
When asked again in December 2008, as part of the current survey, the proportion saying colleges mainly cared about education had dropped to 35 percent; 55 percent said the institutions mainly cared about the bottom line, and 9 percent were uncertain.