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Slipping (Further) Off the Pedestal

February 17, 2010

Headlines today (here and elsewhere) will blare the results of a new public opinion survey about higher education, which finds that Americans are increasingly convinced that higher education is essential to a successful career and life, but are growing more doubtful that college is affordable and ever more suspicious of colleges' motives, viewing them as "just another business."

By any measure, "Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost, Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run," a survey by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, is not good news for colleges and their leaders. "It's not malevolent or hostile, necessarily, but people think colleges are just like everybody else," said Patrick Callan, president of the public policy center and author of the report on the survey.

But while the survey shows some slippage in recent years of the public's perceptions of higher education (the groups have done a series of such reports), the basic outlines of the findings -- strong belief in the importance of higher education, yet major concerns about its affordability -- have been in place for more than a decade. In fact, a 2000 survey by the American Council on Education that asked similar questions found that even greater proportions of Americans viewed higher education as being unaffordable, and revealed significant suspicion about colleges' behavior, with a full 60 percent saying institutions did not "try to keep the amount they charge at an affordable level."

The new survey is "depressingly consistent with the results of our own surveys," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at ACE.

So if, as a decade's worth of opinion surveys show, the public believes both that higher education is essential and that colleges raise tuition with relative impunity, what are the implications for colleges? Will tuition elasticity finally snap, making individual families less willing to pay ever-rising tuition costs? Will state legislators and governors perceive that voters are getting fed up and become less inclined to back tax increases or raise tuition in ways that soften the blow of budget cuts for public colleges? Or will state leaders read the public's views on the "essential" nature of a college education as a deterrent to deeper cuts in higher education?

How observers answer those questions (and to some extent how they interpreted the survey data) are influenced to a large extent by their views on the nature and extent of the problems in higher education.

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, read the Public Agenda report as a warning from parents and families. "The American public has sent a message, loud and clear: enough with never-ending tuition increases!" Neal said in a news release. "This shows how truly concerned families are about costs. And they’re right. Over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen nearly twice as fast as health care costs."

Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist whose 2004 book Going Broke by Degrees: Why College Costs Too Much earned him a place on the Bush administration's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, said he was struck by the fact that "nearly twice as many Americans think colleges 'are like most businesses' than believe 'colleges today mainly care about education,' " and that the proportion saying that colleges "care mainly about the bottom line" had increased to 60 percent from 52 percent in just two years.

"Once colleges were revered as selfless institutions trying to educate our youth and serve the public good. Now, apparently, universities are viewed as being somewhat akin to used car dealers, trying to shake down their customers for as much money as possible. In the long run, that is going to hurt a sector dependent on third parties for support."

Vedder acknowledged, though, that he has been surprised by the extent to which many Americans have continued to be willing to pay ever-rising tuitions. When he published his book in 2004, Vedder said, "I always thought there would be a threshold, where people get so angry that they start making different decisions, or that it gets in the consciousness of politicians. Neither of those has really quite happened," he said. Yet students have continued to flock into higher education, and -- defying logic, almost -- families have continued to appear willing to pay tuition at even the most expensive institutions.

"The bubble’s got to burst on this thing.... The staying power of colleges is amazing," he added.

The explanation for that, Vedder and others agreed, probably lies in the public opinion survey's other key finding -- that 55 percent of Americans believe that "a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world," up from 50 percent in 2007 and 37 percent in 2003. “Public comprehension that higher education is a necessity for a young person to be successful in today's world is acknowledgment of what the labor market tells us," David Shulenberger, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said of the survey results released today. "Incomes are substantially higher for those who receive college degrees and unemployment is substantially lower.”

Three of five of survey participants with children in high school said it was "very likely" that their offspring would go on to college after high school, and another 31 percent said it was somewhat likely. So the perceived "necessity" of a college education appears to outweigh whatever unhappiness the public has with the price and integrity of higher education, said Callan, of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "We don't see anybody say, 'I hate the university, my kid and my grandkid aren't going there.' "

But that doesn't mean higher education leaders should be sanguine about what Callan calls the "vote of no confidence" in higher education's management and leadership that he interprets from the survey results. In addition to the 60 percent of respondents who view colleges as bottom-line oriented, Callan noted, 54 percent said that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education," and 60 percent agreed (either strongly or somewhat) that institutions could add "a lot more students" without lowering quality or raising prices.

Callan said attitudes like that could make it difficult for college leaders to sell the message, which many of them have embraced in recent months, that it is time for federal and state governments to increase their investment in public higher education, for the "public good." "The results suggest that the public may be becoming less receptive to the argument that is often made by college presidents -- that their institutions need more resources if they are to continue their mission," the groups say in the report about the survey.

The public skepticism about colleges' priorities could directly affect public colleges during state budget deliberations in the coming (election) year, Callan and others suggested, when legislators and governors do their usual calculations about how much to protect public colleges when faced with the inevitable shortfall of taxpayer funds because of mandated spending on Medicaid, K-12 education, prisons and other priorities.

"Most of us who have watched the budget cutting [of the last few years] have hoped to see higher education fairly high on the priority list for public support when the economy turns around," Callan said. "That's going to be hard to do if people don't have a lot of confidence in the way we do business."

He added: "Results like these could limit the option of going to the tuition well. That may not be as deep this year, with people having to justify [tuition increases] to an increasingly skeptical public."

Hartle, of the American Council on Education, concurs that "if the public is going to rise up and say 'Enough, no more,' " it is likelier to happen at the state budgeting level than in individual families or students deciding to opt out of college (though more individuals, certainly, may be choosing the less expensive among their postsecondary options).

But while "public attitudes and opinion are always important" in shaping the decisions of state officials, their budgeting decisions are "more likely to be driven by the inexorable realities" of competing spending priorities -- "where higher ed is what’s left" after other money has been allocated -- than by public unhappiness with tuition prices.

As they contemplated the impact that the public's view of higher education might have on their institutions, Hartle and other college representatives weren't entirely ready to concede that the public had an entirely accurate view of the world.

The survey numbers prove that college leaders are clearly not "doing enough to explain what we cost and what we’re doing to maintain affordability," Hartle said. But that's different, he said, from the question of whether colleges actually are doing enough to cut their costs and therefore what they charge to students. And the public is wrong, he said, to believe that colleges can offer the same education to more students -- or at a lower price -- without damaging the quality of the education they get. This is a longstanding view, Hartle noted; the 2000 survey by ACE found that 71 percent of Americans believed that colleges could "cut the cost of tuition without lowering the quality of education students receive.'

Though he was on the phone, one could almost hear Vedder shaking his head at the fact that the public has held views like that -- among other concerns about tuition prices -- for a decade and that no revolution has occurred. While he sees increasing signs and expressions of concern, "Americans," he said, "are still in the grin and bear it mode."

 

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