by Mark Sklarow, Executive Director, IECA
The Pew Research Center late Sunday released the results of two new surveys, both related to colleges. One, a national survey of opinion looked at the perceived value of college while a second survey sought opinions of college presidents. This second survey produced some interesting results while the first, not so much.
In their national survey, examining the attitudes of Americans toward the cost and value of college, the survey produced little in the way of a surprise. Most Americans (75%) said the cost of college is too high for most people to afford (it is), and that most think that students leave college with too great a burden in college loans (they do). Among those who reported such debt, half indicated a harder time paying bills with a quarter saying student loan repayment has made it harder to save to buy a house (of course). The survey indicated that while the vast majority of parents would like their child to attend college, the greatest barrier is a financial one (did anyone doubt this?).
The least instructive part of the survey was the perception that college degrees afford an average of $20,000 more in salary. I say least valuable since U.S. Census data has proven this factually within a few dollars. I do find it interesting that among those who did not go to college, the value of a college degree was perceived as less important than those who did attend. I equate this with an expensive restaurant: those who frequent the restaurant think it is worth every penny. Those who do not go, or cannot afford to, are likely to say that “it can’t be worth what people pay to eat there.”
I was a little more interested in the survey of more than 1,000 college presidents, representing public, private, for-profit, two- and four-year institutions. While most said the U.S. college system is one of the best, only one in five said it was the best in the world. Only 7% felt that we would have the best higher education system in the world in a decade.
The college presidents surveyed also stated some things that we heard from the panel of college presidents IECA assembled last November in Cincinnati: public schools are not preparing students for the rigor of a college education, and this preparation is declining. Over half of those surveyed said students spend less time studying than a decade ago. Regarding that same question posed above: most presidents of four-year colleges agreed that the role of college is to help students mature and grow intellectually. Those running two-year and for-profit schools said colleges were there to prepare students for a career. I guess they are buying into their own commercials.
When college presidents themselves say that the higher education system in the United States is not the best—and falling further behind—we have a problem. For years we have said America’s future is not in production, it was in innovation. We didn’t mind losing factory jobs because our university system was the greatest in the world and we’d create the inventors, thinkers, and creative force for the future. Increasingly college presidents assert this is not true and in fact, getting worse (not to mention the current immigration laws that force us to send the best students from abroad home, rather than have them stay, innovate, and build new businesses). No wonder the public has begun to question the value of college—the school presidents themselves seemed resigned to a loss of value and prestige.