Taking the Public Pulse: Cautions for Higher Education Policy

Article excerpt

As the economic and social capital of higher education continue to rise, so too does interest in how the public views colleges and universities and the policies affecting them. A number of organizations have recently put a finger on the public pulse, asking about access, prices, priorities, and a host of other issues. One series of polls in particular, conducted by Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, is particularly insightful, because it tracks opinion on a wide range of questions over a ten-year period (1993-2003). The responses to the surveys, which sampled opinion from higher education stakeholders and the general public, yielded observations that policymakers and university leaders would be well-advised to heed, including:

* Higher education is increasingly viewed as necessary for success in the current working world, especially among racial/ethnic minorities. This should come as no surprise to most in the education world, but especially notable is the degree to which this perception has risen, particularly among historically underrepresented and disadvantaged in the area of educational opportunity. In just a three-year span, the survey found that the share of minority respondents labeling a college education as necessary for workplace success (as opposed to other routes to success) jumped substantially, from 35 percent to 53 percent for African American respondents, and from 41 percent to 53 percent for Hispanic respondents. The role of the recent economic downturn is important to consider when assessing this timeframe, but increasing awareness of college opportunity and outreach efforts to minority communities likely have played a role.

* A growing number of Americans believe that access to higher education is at risk. Again, growth in this perception can be traced in large measure to the recent economic slump, as the portion of respondents indicating that many qualified students do not have the opportunity to attend college rose from 45 percent in 1998 to 57 percent in 2003, after falling from 60 percent in 1993 to 45 percent in 1998. Perhaps not surprisingly, parents of high school students and racial/ethnic minorities are more likely to perceive threats to access. …