• September 1, 2015

Public Opinion of Higher Education Continues Downward Slide

The proportion of people who think colleges are more concerned with their financial well-being than with giving students a quality education continues to grow, according to an annual survey of the public's view of higher education.

A nationwide poll conducted in December found that 60 percent of respondents believed colleges are "like most businesses and mainly care about the bottom line," compared with 32 percent who said colleges are mostly interested in "making sure students have a good educational experience." In 2007, 52 percent of people polled said colleges were more concerned about being in the black, with 43 percent saying education was the biggest concern of institutions.

A report containing the poll's findings, "Squeeze Play 2010: Public Attitudes About College Access and Affordability," is being released on Wednesday by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy-research organization. The results of the poll, a national telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults, are the latest indicator that public confidence in higher education is experiencing a long-term decline, said Patrick M. Callan, the national center's president.

Image Problems

Higher education has been knocked off the pedestal of public opinion in recent years because of the perception that colleges are not doing enough to innovate and keep costs low for students, Mr. Callan said.

In the survey, 54 percent of people polled said colleges could spend less and still maintain a high level of quality. And only 28 percent of respondents agreed that the "vast majority of qualified, motivated students have the opportunity to attend college." That figure has dropped; 45 percent agreed with that statement when the same question was asked in 2000.

At the same time, 55 percent of people polled for this year's survey agreed that "a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world." That number has increased from 31 percent in 2000.

Sixty-four percent of respondents also said that colleges should use federal stimulus money to hold down tuition even if that means there is less money for programs and operations.

Mr. Callan said the results could bode ill for colleges trying to protect their state appropriations at a time when tax support is already difficult to protect, and could even make it harder for institutions to lobby for state aid when the economy does improve.


1. malcolmx - February 17, 2010 at 06:48 am

College is a joke! Nothing but overpaid academic administrators searching for a buck. Semi professional sports teams with thugs majoring in basket weaving. Most of these corrupt institutions have lawyers ready and willing to jack it to facultu and staff. How can anyone justify coaches making over a million a year along with the corrupt chancellors, presidents, and deans. Close em all down!

2. eacowan - February 17, 2010 at 07:12 am

Colleges and universities have faculty and staff in addition to academic administrators -- the latter have in recent years become more administrative than academic -- and it's unfair to "close em all down" just because of the administrative situation at academic institutions.

I have as jaundiced an eye for administrators as any other academic faculty member would toward these increasingly un-academic forces in university administration. Way back in 1973 this trend was foreseen in a pamphlet by Robert M. Nielsen ("Corporate Management Invades Academe," American Federation of Teachers AFL-CIO), a document that can be seen today as a genuine warning of things to come. And such things have indeed come! And the faculty, now "employees" who were once regarded as the embodiment of the university itself, are the victims of this trend.

It is the administrators who have pushed the idea of the university as a "business" and the faculty as "employees" whom the administration "manages." Teaching at the real university level has suffered greatly from non-academic stuff such as teacher evaluations and the focus on "workloads," to cite just two examples. How this trend can be undone remains a mystery, at least to me. --E.A.C.

3. 11132507 - February 17, 2010 at 08:31 am

Of course, this is all the fault of the big bad administrators. Where I come from, faculty treat tenure as a Constitutional right while millions of Americans are un or underemployed, and their contract stipulates that they get paid more money every time they're asked to lift a finger. Are there grotesquely overpaid presidents and coaches who contribute to this problem more than they do to education? There sure are, and something has to be done about that. But there are also grotesquely overpaid faculty members whose research and consulting come before improving any student's experience on campus.

This poll indicates the obvious - that for a number of reasons, America is losing faith in its higher education system. We can fix it, or we can point fingers and say "it's his fault." Can't do both.

4. 11180037 - February 17, 2010 at 08:31 am

The "mystery" E.A.C., is that your head is so filled with the reflections of your over-taxed genius that you have no room for considering the possibility of your own role as a part of the problem. Are your classes filled with students hungering for the brilliant insights woven together by the scintillating teaching skills you hone each day for their benefit? I hope so, but perhaps not likely given your distain for "non-academic stuff such as teacher evaluations and the focus on 'workloads'". Just as the medical profession was co-opted by insurance companies that now control the health business your profession has largely allowed administrators to co-opt it by accepting passive safety in place of an activist accountability role as it has slowly drifted toward the mediocrity that has become the bane of our modern society. Faculty should be awarded the highest level of respect within the institution but you have to earn it with more than a whine about how much better you deserve for how little you produce.

5. trainman56 - February 17, 2010 at 09:22 am

I find it amazing that faulty are surprised and complain that academic staff numbers have drastically increased while faculty has not. They do not seem to understand that when they refused to advise, recruit, and handle other non classroom duties it meant that someone had to be hired to cover these duties. They also speak out loudly about those big bad administrators when most of that group is former faculty.

6. hijole - February 17, 2010 at 09:41 am

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7. jnn4n - February 17, 2010 at 09:44 am

The irony is that for decades policymakers have sought to defund higher education and told it to act more like a business. They want the university to serve the market rather than students-- hence Bayh-Dole. Now that the universities have turned into businesses, the people finally realize that they were wrong to get what they asked for.

8. malvais - February 17, 2010 at 09:45 am

There are many problems in academia, but that doesn't mean that the public understands the challenges academia faces. For instance, the poll indicates the public wants universities to "innovate" and yet use federal spending to hold down tuition even if that means cutting programs.

"Innovation" isn't defined here, but if it means, for instance, acquiring and using new technology in the classroom, then that takes money to acquire the hardware and the energy to run it, and time to train the professors as well as someone to instruct them (brilliant as we are, we also need job training).

Or does "innovate" mean introduce the latest research and ideas to the classroom? If so, that means that the faculty need to have time and financial support to conduct their research so that they remain up to date. Contrary to popular belief, many of us (especially those weighed down by student loan debt) just don't have extra money to run off to archives or to invest in new lab technology--this money has to come from the institution or else we just will be classroom teachers whose knowledge base quickly erodes.

Another issue not addressed here is student preparedness. Unfortunately, many of us at public institutions are not dealing with adequately prepared or motivated students, but with students whose reading and writing skills are, frankly, at the middle school level at best, and whose math skills can be as bad or worse. Anyone who had a "college prep" high school experience can tell you that what actual college students are doing in their freshman year is not even close to what the "college prep" student was asked to do for four.

Once we do get these underperforming students in the classroom, then getting them to actually attend class and do the homework is itself a problem, not helped by the fact that colleges are concerned with retention (part of their bottom line, which they can't be fully blamed for). Many of these underprepared students expect to be as passive in college as they were in high school, and once they are asked to step up, they can't rise to the occasion, or do so with much difficulty. In many institutions, faculty are asked to lower their Drop/Fail/Withdraw rate, essentially to pass the students, and yet this often means that they have to pass students who miss 10-20% of the classes and either don't turn in the work, or else do it poorly. Even faculty who work hard at student retention, such as requiring students to attend office hours to meet with them one on one, sending them to tutoring (another service provided for free by the university but whose costs have to be paid somehow) or write countless emails admonishing individual students to come to class, can't have a 100% success rate. Yet if their contract renewal is based on their pass rate, then faculty may decide that they need the job more than their integrity, particularly in this job market.

Higher education is suffering in large part because primary and secondary public education is failing. Students don't do homework in high school or if they do, they get an "A" just for turning it in regardless of quality (I've heard this many times from students). Parents don't help them with homework (or can't, for various reasons), and the culture as a whole encourages them to focus on getting rich quick (football, rap star, reality TV star), rather than on finding meaningful work, understanding the global world we live in, watching and reading a variety of news sources, and personal responsibility.

So while it's true colleges have a lot to answer for, as I would be the first to say, the whole blame cannot be laid at their feet.

Higher education should address its image problem by producing more evidence of what we are facing. For instance, if we were able to publish anonymously the kinds of work we get from our incoming freshmen the first week, might that raise awareness about the problems that originate earlier in the education chain? Of course, this probably can't happen for legal reasons, but it's the kind of evidence that might have some serious impact. Higher ed always thinks of marketing in terms of bright shiny images of sports and labs, but it should also think about sending the message about how it is serving the basic education needs of what is, frankly, a semi-literate population.

9. 12039333 - February 17, 2010 at 09:48 am

Chickens coming home to roost, IMO. For years I've been told that my university is a "business" and my students are "customers." I've even had students argue that, since they pay for their classes, they shouldn't have to attend them--the customer, after all, is always right. But the real fallout from the business model is a definition of faculty productivity measured in student-contact hours. In this model, the faculty member who lectures to 200 students and gives machine-graded tests is more "productive" than the one who gives individualized attention to 25 students and reads and comments on their papers. And research isn't an issue where I work--we're supposed to be a teaching institution. It's the corporate model that's ruined higher education.

10. oiegroup - February 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

12039333, you make good points--when an institution measures faculty productivity in terms of student contact-hours. There are of course other ways to measure faculty productivity. My preference is to measure it in terms of measuring gains in student learning (the value-added model).

I'm mindful of Jim Collins' book Good to Great. He said one of the key requirements for a successful business is to identify the key metric one will use to measure success in the business. This is besides profits in for-profit businesses or gaining reputation regarding the core service mission, for not-for-profits. Universities vary in the key metrics that they hold sacred. Higher education needs better metrics for faculty productivity, whether in a teaching or a research institution.

11. j_martens - February 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

After looking at "customer feedback," i.e., student online evaluations of their professors, I wonder if we shouldn't pay more attention right now to student performance than cost containment. See:


12. ccliatt - February 17, 2010 at 11:31 am

Negative public opinion about colleges' supposed single-minded interest in their finances seems to coincide with the almost excessive interest that the national news media began to take in the selfsame finances of colleges and Universities. The "sexiest" stories for higher education reporters at publications other than the Chronicle were those focusing on how much schools were losing from their endowments, layoffs, and what programs, services or amenities were being cut as a result. One critical element influencing public opinion in all matters is the picture painted by the news media. And the media's sole interest for months was the depletion of budgets -- never mind all the efforts that administrators made to advance the message that the ultimate priority was to preserve as much as possible the core academic and research functions at their institutions. This post does not seek to address the perennial broader debate about quality in higher education, but to point out simply the media's role in shaping public opinion about the particular issue of the importance of finances to institutions of higher education.

13. jesor - February 17, 2010 at 02:10 pm

From what I've gathered over the years of reading these articles about the downfall of American Higher education, the problem is alternately gluttonous administrators bent on building bureaucratic empires at the expense of academics and faculty who view their institutions as exclusive social clubs which bring students in solely as a source of ego boosting as a divine reward for obtaining a PhD and tenure.

While purely anecdotal, in my experience, both of these characterizations miss the mark entirely. The reason the public is becoming disillusioned with higher education is not because of the vagaries of college governance and the tenure system, but because higher education has turned itself inward. In research institutions, faculty barricade themselves into their labs while administrators create layers of process to protect the academic environment from the chaos that is the "real world". College presidents extoll the virtues of their "public mission" while provosts speak about "public scholarship" while the public waits to see what will actually come of it all.
From the public's perspective, the only thing that comes out of colleges right now are undergraduates who succeed despite the inattention of faculty and incompetence of TAs, and are now struggling to meet the debts imposed by the excesses of the pet programs of administrators.
If my experience is in fact representative, then our whole industry needs to examine several questions. Are these perceptions are in fact reality, and if so, how do we change to correct that particular problem? If it is truly a perception problem, then how do we communicate the truth of the situtation?
Ultimately, the choice to maintain status quo is not an option. When society views an institution as not meeting its needs, that institution looses support and eventually faces away. I'd like to think that the benefits of higher education still make it a wortwhile investment of energy by society, but if we all act like children when confronted with uncomfortable truths, then we will be doomed to go the way of the other medieval institutions that we arose with.

14. superdude - February 17, 2010 at 03:49 pm

I find it ironic that universities are pressured to act more like businesses, while businesses are trying mightily to be more like universities (with "campuses", "creative time" for employees to work on projects that interest them, bottom-up input, 360 degree reviews, etc.).

15. francesca18 - February 18, 2010 at 12:59 am

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16. ksleeman - February 18, 2010 at 09:06 am

As a student it saddens me to see these comments. I mostly experience faculty complaining about their load, the type of students they have to teach, and on and on. Meanwhile, they have total job security, I have a hard time finding one that works a full day or treats others with respect, and lately they have scoffed at those that are unemployed or unable to find jobs because there must be something wrong with them. Very sad.... We need Higher Ed but Higher Ed seems to think it is better than the general public.

17. rickinchina09 - February 18, 2010 at 11:57 pm

ksleeman: Of course far too many in higher education think they are better than the general public. People who gravitate toward academia tend to be elitist in their thinking, or at least believe they have special insight into the puzzles of the universe. There are indeed brilliant professors who deserve the accolades and the time to research. Then there are those professors, a majority among the faculties, who engage in esoteric and often self-promoting research, especially in the humanities and social sciences. And I say this as a member of academia myself. Fortunately for me, I come from a long line of farmers and shop owners--the other proletariat. I was disabused of any notion of entitlement long before I earned my doctorate. I work at a state university and take seriously the obligation to contribute to the public good, not my pet project, or tenure track file. So, too, do tens of thousands of other faculty. But there are and have always been a sizeable and usually very influential number of professors on any campus who view themselves as misunderstood, ignored, and otherwise abused--by both students and colleagues. This, too, should be noted: the New Left movement in higher education hasn't brought us any closer to an egalitarian, truly progressive mindset. If anything, the ideological domination of the New Left has exacerabted the persistent problem of elitism. If I were a student today I would ask myself: how much of what my professors say and do is for my benefit and how much is window dressing, that is, going through the motions of teaching while weighed down with thoughts of research and promotion? Gaining a satisfactory answer to that pivotal question can go a long way toward weeding out the bad apples (i.e. who are not yet tenured) in institutions where students have a choice as to who teaches a required subject. I really feel for students today who are forced to pay ridiculous tuition and fee rates and who might very well not receive anything close to a "return on their investment." And by this I am not referring to better job prospects but to having acquired a solid liberal arts education.

Unfortunately, most academics won't take your concerns to heart, if they bother to read it at all. They will dismiss you as a whiner, or as uninformed, or as just another one of the masses. Or they will deflect responsibility and pin all the blame on administrators, who in their minds are the ultimate bogeymen.

Be of good cheer, though. You at least have taken the time to read an article on a website which few students access much less peruse and you are probably acutely aware of the fallout such name-pointing has for students like yourself. Be your own agent of change and if you find yourself someday in a position of authority, remember how you felt when you were on the other side of the desk.


18. crichter - February 19, 2010 at 11:52 am

In the abstract, with a few exceptions, the comments posted illustrate the old adage, variously attributed, that “academic politics are particularly vicious because the stakes are so low.” While the causes for the rising cost of higher education are complex, the media often simply publicize the most egregious examples of huge institutional endowments, or excessive salaries for presidents, coaches or professors. Most endowments, and the salaries of most administrators, coaches and faculty are actually considerably lower.

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