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Public Perceives Colleges as Businesses

June 8, 2007

The majority (67 percent) of Americans recently surveyed by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda is of the opinion that a college education is worth the money. And 87 percent say that college is essential to improving job prospects. At the same time, more than half (52 percent) of the participants agree that colleges today are "more like businesses and mainly care about the bottom line."  Further, more than 40 percent of respondents believe that "waste and mismanagement" are major factors driving up the cost of higher education. 

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda project, funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education, surveyed more than 1,000 Americans, convened focus groups, and conducted in-depth interviews. The center's findings give evidence that the public has an overall favorable view of the value of college and the educational experience that higher education offers. But, people are skeptical about rising costs, access, operations, and state support. For example, two thirds of Americans report that "even though it’s so expensive, college today is worth it," while 78 percent agree that students have to borrow too much to pay for college. In addition, almost half (48 percent) say that their state’s public higher education system needs to be "fundamentally overhauled," although nearly half report that they do not know the main funding source for state colleges.

Other findings showed that Americans are concerned about the following:

  • Access to higher education. Half of respondents indicated that college is essential, but 62 percent noted that many qualified, motivated students do not have the opportunity to go to college.

  • Questions of quality versus cost. Almost half of respondents reported that quality should be higher education institutions' highest educational priority; only 17 percent indicated that costs should be the highest educational priority.

  • Differences over which students most deserve financial help. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of respondents felt that a student with outstanding academic abilities from a middle class family most deserved financial help. In comparison, 40 percent of those surveyed thought that a student with average academic abilities from a very poor family was more deserving of assistance. 

The report, Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today can be downloaded at no charge on The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s Web site.