Public Opinion of Higher Education Continues Downward Slide

February 17, 2010

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.