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Public Agenda survey finds deep skepticism

An annual survey on public attitudes toward higher education finds rising skepticism about the motives of college leaders.

The survey, titled "Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges Are Run," finds that 60 percent of the public thinks colleges are like businesses and care mostly about the bottom line. A slightly lower share, 52 percent, agreed with that statement two years ago.
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Two-thirds of respondents believe college costs are rising faster than other things. That's true, in a literal sense, as we saw in a recent economic report. But it's misleading, because the net price of college -- what students actually pay, after discounts and grant aid -- is not rising at all.

The report comes from the nonprofits Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. It's the latest in a series of surveys going back to the early 1990s.

It shows that a growing share of the public think colleges aren't doing all they can to hold down costs. Three-fifths of respondents believe colleges could accept more students without raising prices or reducing quality. A majority believe colleges could spend less without sacrificing quality.

College leaders, of course, might disagree sharply with these characterizations. Surely college is about learning, not the bottom line, they would say; many college presidents have told me they are deeply concerned that spending less would indeed affect quality.

Here are some reactions from industry leaders.

From Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni: "This shows how truly concerned families are about costs. And they're right. Over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen nearly twice as fast as health care costs--and borrowing by students increased by 25 percent just last year."

David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, points to the difference between perception and reality in college pricing:

"Because of generous student aid policies, most students and families pay much less than published tuition at private colleges. On average, net tuition at private colleges is 45 percent of published tuition. Nearly nine out of 10 students at our institutions receive financial aid. Families will be surprised to learn that net tuition at private colleges has actually dropped by 8.6 percent in the past five years, when adjusted for inflation. Institutional student aid budgets grew by 9 percent this year, easily outpacing the average 4.3 percent increase in tuition, which was the lowest in 37 years."

And here are comments from Burck Smith of Straighterline, a company that offers first-year college courses online at greatly reduced price:

"I think it's evidence of the escalating instability of the current higher education system. People know they need skills and training. They also feel that college tuition growth at every level puts the benefit (the ROI if you will) of the skills and training out of reach. Also, I think the growth of for-profit higher education which looks strikingly similar to regular higher ed makes people realize that all of higher ed is effectively a business. Also, I think people intuitively realize that education delivered at a distance, lecture classes, commuter programs and other higher education elements are much cheaper to deliver than what they are being charged for. This makes people cynical."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  February 19, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Access , Administration , Admissions , Finance , Research  | Tags: Public Agenda, academic research, admissions, aid  
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