Public Agenda, a non-partisan group devoted to exploring public policy issues, has produced a report (“Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost, Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run“) that pulls together some trends in public opinion related to higher education issues. I’m not sure why they just released this report since the most recent poll data is from December 2009. Still, it’s a good look at some recent trends that higher education needs to think about.
Reasons to be skeptical about these results
Before looking at these results closely we need to consider the problems with public opinion on issues like this. These surveys ask average citizens to make judgments about something that they have little specific knowledge about. Clearly, most Americans know little about how universities operate. In fact, most faculty do not know much about the specifics of how their universities operate. Pollsters often ask people about issues on which they are poorly informed all the time and we need to understand that as we look at their answers.
So, when Americans talk about what impact budget cuts would have on the quality of education, they’re talking more about what they prefer.
Reasons for concern
The report summarizes the tone of public opinion pretty well:
This does not mean that the public is actively hostile to higher education, but it does suggest that the public may not be especially sympathetic to the internal problems of the higher education system, either. Our findings suggest, in other words, that the public may be poised in a period of ambivalence and perhaps unpredictability toward the financial difficulties of higher education.
Skepticism is growing. Most Americans (55%) still believe that a college education is necessary for success but almost two-thirds believe that the cost is rising faster than for other things and that students have to borrow too much. Three-fifths believe that colleges could take more students without lowering the quality of education. Most alarming, Americans agree by almost two-to-one that colleges today are more concerned with the bottom line than with educating students. That may not be accurate, but that is their perception
You can see why we’re an easy target for politicians. In addition, there is always the resentment of the kind of elites we are portrayed as and other issues surrounding the “culture wars.”
Universities need to be concerned about public perceptions and simply claiming that we are misunderstood is not the answer.