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Americans Increasingly View Higher Education as Out of Reach

April 26, 2009

In their recent report, "Squeeze Play 2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today," Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education show that an increasing number of Americans consider a college degree a necessity for succeeding in today’s world. However, at the same time, obtaining these degrees is perceived as being financially out-of-reach for many qualified students.

The original survey, "Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today," was conducted in early 2007, before the economy entered a recession. In light of current events, the two organizations decided to launch an additional survey to measure more recent changes in public opinion. This second survey was conducted in late December 2008 and was designed to examine two trends: The public’s views on the necessity and the availability (their ability to attend) of higher education.

People have consistently held that obtaining a college degree is important for a young person to enter the middle class. However, in this recent study, the shift in the public’s views about the necessity of higher education is dramatic. In 2008, 55 percent of respondents said that getting a college degree is not only important but necessary in order to succeed in today’s world. This reflects an increase of 5 percentage points from 2007 and 24 percentage points from 2000.

However, accompanying this sense of necessity is the belief that higher education is out of reach for many qualified students. More than two thirds (67 percent) of Americans think access is a problem. This is the highest documented level since the two organizations started following these trends and an increase of 5 percent since the question was asked in 2007.

In addition, 63 percent of respondents believe that the price of college is going up at a faster rate than other things. This represents an increase of 5 percentage points compared to the 2007 figure. The current crisis also appears to make people think that students will have to borrow too much money to pay for college. The percentage of Americans who believe students have to borrow too much to pay for college rose from 60 percent in 2007 to 67 percent in 2008. At the same time, fewer people think that almost anyone who needs financial aid to go to college can get it. The share of Americans who believed that qualified students could obtain financial aid for college dropped 8 percentage points --from 38 percent in 2007, to only 30 percent in 2008.

At a moment when higher education is more frequently perceived as absolutely essential, more Americans think that a college education is unobtainable. Recent trends about the price of attending college add to these fears. According to "Measuring Up 2008," a 50-state analysis of higher education performance also produced by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, since 2000 listed tuition and fee charges have gone up while family incomes have stagnated or declined.

For more information and a full copy of the Public Agenda’s survey report, click here.

NACUBO staff resource is Santiago Merea, Research Associate