What Americans Think About Higher Education

Poll finds strong support for colleges, but many questions about their priorities

By Jeffery Selingo

Chronicle of Higher Education, May 2, 2003

At a time when Americans are anxious about the direction in which the country is headed, when they widely mistrust corporations and Congress and express little confidence in their public schools, their faith in American higher education remains at extraordinary levels.

An extensive national poll of public opinion of higher education, conducted by The Chronicle, shows that the public is more than satisfied with the quality of education that American colleges provide. In particular, the public’s confidence in private colleges was exceeded only by its trust in the U.S. military. Four-year and two-year public colleges ranked only slightly lower, just below local police forces.

Even so, Americans dislike many things that colleges do, and they question the priorities of college presidents. The survey’s respondents were highly skeptical about affirmative action, tenure, big-time athletics, and other entrenched practices of the academic establishment. About two-thirds of the respondents said that colleges place too much emphasis on sports, and that experienced professors should not be granted jobs for life. More than 60 percent said colleges should not admit minority students who have lower grade-point averages and test scores than their peers.

Respondents also urged universities to focus less on economic-development and research missions, which their presidents often emphasize, and more on the basics: general education, adult education, leadership and responsibility, and teacher training. According to the poll, the most important role for a college is preparing undergraduates for a career.

The poll results show that “there is a well of support out there for higher education,” says David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges’ interests. But the institutions have a “public responsibility to live up to,” he adds, since that confidence level can fall as fast as the public opinion of Enron did.

The poll, a telephone survey of 1,000 adults, age 25 to 65, from every state except Alaska and Hawaii, was designed by George Dehne, in conjunction with The Chronicle’s staff. The interviews were conducted by TMR Inc., of Broomall, Pa., and the data were collected and synthesized by GDA Integrated Services, a marketing-and-research company run by Mr. Dehne and based in Old Saybrook, Conn. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

How the answers to the poll are interpreted by college officials, policy makers, and others depends largely on where they sit. College presidents, for instance, frequently point out that there is little public understanding of things like tenure, affirmative action, and academic research.

“There is a mystery about our research,” says James F. Barker, president of Clemson University. “Every now and then we’ll have a discovery that causes a wow factor, but making the linkage between a lab producing a discovery, that begins a start-up company, that produces jobs and raises the median income, is pretty tenuous for the public.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers and observers of higher education feel that the poll results confirm their belief that colleges have lost their way when it comes to teacher education, tenure, and the political diversity among faculty members, and need to pay more attention to what the public wants.

U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, chortled when told that the poll results had led some college leaders to conclude that colleges could succeed with less government oversight. “I don’t buy that argument,” says the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. “It’s incumbent on us that when we’re authorizing grant and loan programs to be sure we’re getting the best we can.”

In fact, much of what the public places a high value on in the poll has been largely neglected by college leaders, argues Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a California-based research group. For instance, almost three in five Americans think it is very important for colleges to offer a broad-based general education to undergraduates, and 63 percent believe that colleges should help elementary and secondary schools teach children better.

“If you made a list of what higher education has devalued over the last quarter-century, it certainly would include general education, adult education, and teacher education,” Mr. Callan says. “Most colleges have given up on general education.”

While the public broadly agrees that colleges are valuable, its view is mixed about the value of their primary product — a degree. Only half of Americans see a four-year degree as essential to success in society. Race and age influence the answers to that question. For instance, 82 percent of Asian-Americans said a degree is essential, while only 48 percent of white respondents said so. About an equal number of black and Hispanic respondents (60 and 59 percent, respectively) said a four-year degree is essential. Meanwhile, only 39 percent of those born before 1940 agreed, compared with 62 percent of those born after 1970.

“The question shows that people define success in many different ways,” says Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, who was secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration. “There is still a belief out there that hard work and motivation will get you somewhere.”

A Private Bias

According to the poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the quality of colleges in their state is at least good, with most respondents ranking them of high or very high quality. Although community colleges ranked lowest in that regard, 42 percent of respondents still said the community colleges in their states are of high or very high quality. Among women, 49 percent expressed a great deal of confidence in two-year institutions, compared with 36 percent of men.

“Community colleges are moving into the mainstream of what Americans think of when they think higher education,” Mr. Callan says. “They are no longer the third cousins.”

As for four-year institutions, private colleges fare better than public universities on several questions, despite that fact that nearly 8 of every 10 college students today attend public institutions. Not only is overall confidence higher in private colleges, but when asked if the quality of education is better at a public or a private college, 41 percent of respondents chose private. And 45 percent said that if money were not an issue, they would rather have their children attend a private college.

Officials in the public sector chalk up the preference for private colleges to a widespread assumption that the more something costs, the greater its quality. “Public universities by their nature must be available to a broad range of society,” says Kentucky’s governor, Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, who has made higher education a top priority of his administration. “Many privates are discriminatory in that they only admit people who have demonstrated the most ability and commitment.”

A few public-college leaders have another take on the results. Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland’s Baltimore County campus, points out that 38 percent of the poll’s respondents perceive no difference between the quality of education at private and public institutions. If you add that group to the 13 percent who believe that public colleges offer a better education, he says, “you have the notion that more than half, a majority, believe that publics are better or it doesn’t matter. That says to me that the public thinks there are both first-rate public and private institutions.”

Geography also plays a key role in how respondents perceive quality. For example, in the Northeast — where the concentration of private colleges is highest — 52 percent of respondents said they would rather send their children to a private college, money aside. That proportion fell to 42 percent in the South and 43 percent in the West.

As college officials and others have examined the answers to questions like that one, some of them ask about the influence that the news media have had in shaping public opinion. “When newspapers and television talk about private colleges, they talk about the Ivies and the major privates,” says Frank Newman, a former president of the Education Commission of the States, who is now director of a national project at Brown University to examine the future of higher education.

“What is often overlooked is that the privates span this enormous range. So the answer to these questions is often not a reaction to the ‘Little Sisters of the Woods’ — it’s a reaction to places like Duke and Stanford.”

News-media coverage may also contribute to the fact that 53 percent of Americans believe that it is more difficult to be admitted to a four-year college today than it was a decade ago. Many college presidents attribute those beliefs to news reports about students’ taking classes to raise their SAT scores or families’ hiring private counselors to gain an edge in the admissions process. Many of those news reports, Mr. Newman points out, focus on students seeking admission to elite private colleges.

Better Educated

While blaming journalists, in part, for what they say are misconceptions about higher education, several college leaders give the news media some credit for the survey’s surprising results on college costs. In the late 1990s, when Congress established a commission to study the rapidly rising price of a college education, a series of polls conducted by several higher-education associations found that Americans, on average, overestimated the cost of college and underestimated the availability of financial aid.

But in The Chronicle poll, more Americans accurately pinpointed tuition costs at public and private institutions than did even a few years ago. For instance, when asked how much it costs to attend a public college, including tuition, fees, and room and board, the largest group of respondents, 28 percent, said $10,000 to $15,000 annually. This year, the average cost to attend a public institution is $12,841, according to the College Board. As for private institutions, the largest segment of respondents, 29 percent, put the cost at $20,000 to 30,000. This year, the average price tag of a private college is $27,677.

“Parents are much more savvy these days about college costs,” says Ralph Donnell, chairman of the guidance-and-counseling department at Clarkstown High School South, in West Nyack, N.Y. “Because of the high cost, parents are forced to start planning and setting up college funds a lot earlier than their counterparts of 10, 20 years ago.”

Opinion about who should bear the biggest burden in paying for college has also shifted over the past few decades, according to some experts. In the 1960s, when Congress established the first federal grant and loan programs, and states began spending bundles of taxpayer dollars on public colleges, most Americans believed that the government should pay the largest share of a college education.

Today, according to the poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans say students and their families should pay the largest share of a college education. And while many of the same respondents want the state and federal governments to spend more on higher education, only 11 percent said the states should pay the largest share of college costs. Slightly more, 17 percent, said the federal government should pay the bulk of the bill.

Once again, where the respondents lived affected their answers to the question. In the Northeast, the largest group of respondents, 24 percent, said the federal government should shoulder the biggest load; in the South and West, the largest groups — 28 and 31 percent, respectively — said the family of the student should pay most of the bill.

Hot-Button Issues

The biggest criticism of colleges in the poll involves the perception that they are playing politics or unfairly favoring some groups of students over others.

More than half of the Americans polled said college professors are liberal in their political views. When asked how faculty members’ beliefs compare with their own, half said professors are more liberal. (About 37 percent of respondents described themselves as conservative.)

“Some colleges are so one-sided politically that students really don’t have an opportunity to hear the other side, and that weakens their education,” says Jerry Martin, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that has opposed what it sees as political correctness on campuses.

In general, those polled seem to support the goals of tenure and affirmative action, but disagree with colleges’ methods of achieving them. Slightly more than half of respondents agree that tenure protects academic freedom, but far fewer agree that experienced college professors should be granted a job for life as long as they commit no serious misconduct. Those with the highest incomes expressed the least support for tenure. Only 25 percent of respondents with annual incomes over $100,000 support tenure, compared with 50 percent of those with incomes under $25,000 a year.

Robert M. O’Neil, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and past chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on academic freedom and tenure, took issue with how one of the questions on tenure was phrased. “Saying that tenure is a job for life is pejorative and just the worst way to characterize academic tenure,” he argues. “It’s not job security.” Every year, he notes, tenured faculty members are let go because of department closures, financial problems at colleges, and for serious misconduct, like sexual harassment or plagiarism. Last year, he says, some 50 tenured professors were fired for cause.

On affirmative action, nearly four in five Americans said it was important or very important for colleges to prepare minority students to become successful. But 64 percent of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that colleges should admit minority students with lower grade-point averages and standardized-test scores than those of other applicants. Only 3 percent of white respondents strongly support the use of racial preferences in college admissions, compared with 24 percent of black respondents and 8 percent of Hispanic respondents.

So soon after the publicity surrounding the two University of Michigan cases now before the U.S. Supreme Court, the sparseness of support for affirmative-action programs in the poll surprises many college presidents. But Kermit L. Hall, the president of Utah State University who has criticized higher education’s support of Michigan’s pro-affirmative-action position, argues that the court’s decision, whatever it is, will have little effect on most colleges, most of which have minimal or no admissions standards.

“Looking at this poll,” Mr. Hall says, “the public understands that access to higher education should be appropriately staircased.”

In other words, some students are meant for community colleges, others for public universities, and others for elite private colleges.

“Colleges should admit there is much less support than they think for affirmative action,” he adds.

But Mr. Ward, president of the American Council on Education, attributes the meager support for affirmative action to a lack of public understanding, particularly about the highly publicized Michigan cases. Much has been said about the statistical advantage that Michigan gives to undergraduate minority applicants. But Mr. Ward notes that the bump is granted only after the students meet the university’s minimum admissions standards, a fact that has been lost on the public. “We just haven’t done a good job at explaining ourselves in these areas,” he says.

Although the poll shows widespread support for colleges, few college presidents or experts believe that this is a golden age for higher education in the United States. Many still see higher education’s best days as the 1960s, when Congress passed the first Higher Education Act, which offered a range of federally backed grants and loans, and when states spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build public campuses and charged residents little, if anything, to attend them.

Nowadays, as the Chronicle survey shows, a majority of Americans believe that the cost of a college education should be paid by students and their families. Higher education has been transformed from a public good, supported by taxpayers, to a private good, mainly supported by individuals.

Mr. Ward says he hopes that the positive poll results will persuade Congress and President Bush to take a hands-off approach in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is up for renewal this year. College officials fear that lawmakers will embrace the strict accountability measures that were included in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which governs elementary and secondary schools.

But Kentucky’s Governor Patton says the poll results should be taken just as any survey’s should — as opinions and not a blueprint for policy.

“The public will never understand the issues as thoughtful policy makers do,” he says. “It is part of our job not to reflect a poll, but to make decisions on what is best for society based on more-detailed knowledge.”