Americans value higher education, and they worry about what it costs them. Those findings aren't surprising. But a new survey, out today, quantifies those sentiments and finds that today, more than ever, people view college as necessary to success despite a perception of increasing financial barriers for middle-class students.
Sixty-two percent of respondents to the survey, prepared by the public opinion research firm Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, believe that many well-qualified students don't have the opportunity to pursue higher education, a reflection of increasing anxieties about the financial realities of paying for college. In 1993, the first year the survey was conducted, a comparable 60 percent felt similarly about college opportunity, but in the midst of the dot-com boom, in 1998, only 45 percent had the same fears.
"We find over all that people know higher education is important, they have respect for the quality of higher education, but they have a lot of concern for the money," said Jean Johnson, one of the report's authors and executive vice president of Public Agenda.
The survey, which sampled the views of just over 1,000 randomly selected adults, also found that more and more Americans (50 percent in 2007) view college as essential but that most (60 percent) feel the middle class is hardest hit in the financial aid process. Fifty-two percent said they would give a financial boost to a high-achieving middle-class student over an average poor student. (But who's considered "middle class" is also an issue. The survey found that 61 percent of Americans consider themselves in the middle or upper middle class, a number that closely corresponds with the percentage that felt the middle class was hardest hit.)
Yet despite all the preoccupations about college cost and the periodic drubbings of academe in the popular press, the vast majority of Americans believe higher education is important, and an increasing majority (66 percent) believe students are learning what they need to know in college. And despite rising costs, most (67 percent) still think the price tag is worth it -- even if less than half believe they're getting their full money's worth.
"The cost is going up by a fairly steep percent each year, but people didn’t feel like the quality was going up measurably with the cost," said Joni Finney, the vice president of the higher education center. "'What are we really getting here, and what’s this money being used for?'"
The anxieties that have trickled down into the survey's findings aren't necessarily a result of people paying attention to recent headlines about loan scandals and tuition hikes, Johnson explained. In fact, she said, the interviews were conducted before the student loan controversy took off. But most people's responses are a result of their own impressions from personal experience.
Like the increasing perception that universities are being run like businesses, for instance. The report found that a majority (52 percent) believe colleges care more about their bottom line than about educating students, and that mismanagement is a key factor in rising costs. That skepticism also carries over to state-funded institutions: When it comes to public universities, almost half of Americans think their state's system should undergo a complete overhaul.
"The interpretation that I would put on it is that they’re beginning to be really interested in money, and I think it was the consumer speaking," Johnson said, implying that people were beginning to wonder how exactly their tuition dollars were being spent.
But these trends might mask two other significant aspects of public opinion about higher education. First is that perennial American optimism, which would explain the finding that despite the difficulties of financing a college education, most respondents believed that motivation and a bit of sacrifice were enough for any willing student to find a way around the barriers to postsecondary schooling.
At the same time, however, Hispanic and African-American parents were more likely to believe that there were significant barriers to college for qualified students. This concern persisted for those with incomes over $50,000, and both African Americans (40 percent) and Hispanics (30 percent) believed there was less opportunity for minorities to receive a higher education than others.
The report, titled "Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today," also featured one-on-one interviews with selected leaders from business, government and media. While many of the same concerns were shared, the leaders tended to have a greater sense of urgency as well as look at the issues on a more system-wide basis, Johnson said.
So while there might not be a "political revolt" for radical change in higher education, Finney predicted, "If you have political support for leadership in these issues there’s probably going to be a fair amount of support for" change.
Or, at least, as long as those changes won't require a significant financial burden on April 15: Broad support for increasing state funding for higher education drops when the possibility of more taxes is raised. At the same time, many expressed a belief that improving efficiency and increasing access to distance learning and two-year colleges were desirable ways to cut costs.