More Americans skeptical of higher education

Americans believe higher education can trim budgetary 'fat,' according to a survey
Americans believe higher education can trim budgetary 'fat,' according to a survey.

An increasing percentage of Americans believe colleges and universities prioritize profit margin over educational quality—a claim educators refute as misguided and unfair, especially during the current economic downturn.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, along with Public Agenda, released a report Feb. 17 that highlights respondents’ discontent with the rising costs of college education. The survey, titled, “Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges are Run,” shows that six out of 10 Americans now say “colleges today operate more like a business,” taking focus away from academics.

In 2008, 55 percent of respondents said universities were more concerned about the bottom line, an increase from 52 percent in 2007.

The survey details widespread belief that higher education is full of budgetary “fat” that can be trimmed without diminishing the quality of college courses. Sixty-four percent of respondents said federal stimulus money allocated for higher education should be used to hold down tuition costs, not maintain campus services and staffing.

“In the public’s mind, this money should go primarily to holding down the tuition and fees that colleges charge the students, rather than to helping colleges maintain programs and staff,” the report says.

The “Squeeze Play” study had some positive news for college educators: Fifty-five percent of Americans now believe a college degree is “absolutely necessary for success,” a marked jump from 31 percent of Americans who agreed with that statement 10 years ago.

The term “squeeze play” refers to the collision of rising education costs and the belief that a college degree has never been as important as it is now.

The coinciding trends “parallel other signs that the public is becoming more frustrated with higher education and more dubious that colleges and universities are cost effective and doing all they can to keep tuition affordable,” according to the report.

Tuition hikes have continued in the early months of 2010.

The University of Houston announced Feb. 16 that its tuition would rise by 3.5 percent, costing $138 more per semester for full-time undergraduate students. The University of North Texas in Denton unveiled this week a 4-percent tuition hike over the next two years, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is set to raise tuition at state colleges this year for the first time since 2005, when the state legislature froze tuition increases.

College officials said campuses are not multinational corporations, but private and public schools have to maintain a viable budget during a recession that has slashed money from every department.

John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, an online school based in Albany, N.Y., said public universities have to get their money somewhere, and if legislators don’t raise taxes, tuition is bound to increase.

“It’s a function of people who don’t want to pay taxes for higher education,” said Ebersole, adding that public colleges in some states receive a fraction of public funding that they got decades ago. “There’s always going to be a question: Where are the resources going to come from?”

Four out of 10 “Squeeze Play” respondents said “quality of education” would suffer if college budgets were slashed, a percentage that has stayed consistent since 2007. More than half of Americans believe colleges and universities maintain quality courses with less spending.

Dallas Stout, a faculty member at University of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, said a commonly-held belief that colleges can maintain courses and services in any kind of economy has been challenged in recent years.

“The general public often has an interesting view of colleges and universities—that they somehow operate above normal business economic realities,” he said. “The truth is that while they may not be business in the real business sense, at the end of the day, there needs to be enough funds available to pay the bills.”

While campuses shouldn’t compromise the quality of education during tough economic times, Stout said, campus administrators should be willing to cut costs where schools can afford to.

“This can be a very difficult process as everyone advocates for their piece of the pie,” Stout said. “But it is necessary.”

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama detailed White House efforts to make college more affordable, stressing that college officials should be wary of excessive budgets while the country struggles through the slumping economy.

“It’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem,” Obama said to a round of applause.


Squeeze Play study

National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

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