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04.14 Rising Debt, Rising Skepticism on College?

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Student loan debt is expected to top $1 trillion this year, a new record, and it comes at a time when the public is increasingly concerned that higher education is increasingly necessary – and increasingly out of reach.

The New York Times reported that student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year, and two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt in 2008, compared with fewer than half in 1993.

Public Agenda’s research has found the public is increasingly concerned about student debt, with nearly two-thirds saying “students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education.” That increased 9 percentage points between 2000 and 2009.

But the debate about student debt occurs in a broader context for the public, a context of colliding trends. The number of Americans who say college is “absolutely necessary” for success has increased more than 20 points, from 31 percent as recently as 2000 to 55 percent. At the same time, there’s been a corresponding drop in those who say the vast majority of qualified students have the opportunity to attend college, from 45 percent to 29 percent.

It’s important to note that the public is still very optimistic about a couple of points. Six in 10 parents say it’s “very likely” their child will go to college. Also, 62 percent of the general public believes “almost anyone can get financial help” to go to college.

But another part of the public’s reaction to these trends has been a growing skepticism about how colleges are run. Some 54 percent say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education. Six in 10 say colleges are “mostly concerned about the bottom line.”

Those trends – and those doubts – are going to put increasing pressure on colleges to make the most out of what they’ve got.

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04.13 Engaging College Faculty, in 10 Slides

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Getting college faculty engaged in reform -- both full time instructors and adjuncts -- is critical for student success, but also a big challenge. But we've managed to boil it down to 10 slides in this presentation prepared for the American Association of Community Colleges conference.

Of course, there's also the full version, which you can find here in the first of our Cutting Edge series of working papers. This is all part of Public Agenda's work with Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, where we've developed core principles and promising practices for engaging faculty in changing institutions and closing student achievement gaps.

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04.07 Better Than Chicken: Getting the Public Engaged

Thursday, April 7th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

Is free chicken better than rhetoric when it comes to getting people to vote?

The blogosphere was buzzing this week over an experiment reported at a political science conference. A Utah researcher traveled door-to-door in the last election, offering two different pitches to go out and vote: a well-reasoned argument about democracy, or coupons for things like fried chicken. The coupons, perhaps not surprisingly, won.

At Public Agenda, we actually have evidence that the voting experience is better than fast food. But we also think the problems in our democracy go deeper than what happens on Election Day.

Certainly America’s low voter turnout is a longstanding problem, and troubling on a number of levels. When Public Agenda examined this in our Voting Experience Survey after the 2008 elections, we found that, despite concerns about long lines and problematic voting machines, actually going to the polls was a positive experience for most voters.

The vast majority of the voters we surveyed, 9 in 10, said they had a positive experience and that poll workers did a good job. Very few reported problems with long lines, technical problems or improper practices.

In fact, polling places got good marks compared to other places where people transact business in person. We didn’t ask about chicken specifically, but when it comes to being “very well-organized,” polling places beat out fast-food franchises by a wide margin (79 percent to 35 percent). Polling places were essentially tied with banks, and ahead of other government agencies where people tend to wait in line, like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Voting is often used as a yardstick for civic participation, and it’s important. But it’s also important to remember that the public needs to be engaged in ways beyond just voting. In between elections, we’re still making decisions as a society, and the public should be involved in those decisions, too. We’re facing a series of difficult public problems that are made much more difficult because leaders and the public frame them in different ways, and can’t reach across the divides in how they see them.

We go into elections with a public that isn’t getting much help understanding the choices they face – not the choices between candidates, necessarily, but the choices for actually solving the nation’s problems. We hear a lot more about personalities and character than options and tradeoffs. Character matters, clearly. But so does understanding the problems we face, and the options for dealing with them.

It’s that challenge – laying out the options in a way that people can understand, and helping people climb the “learning curve” they face – that trips the nation up between elections, when the real governing happens. And that’s not a problem that can be solved by voting people out of office. Or free chicken.

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03.31 Connecting With the Public on Energy – But Which Public?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 | Scott Bittle

This week President Obama called for the nation to cut its oil imports by one-third by 2025 – no mean feat, given that the United States hasn’t been energy independent since cars had tail fins (1957, to be precise).

Energy security is important to the public, and $100 per barrel oil and unrest in the Middle East shows they’re right to be concerned. But over the years we’ve had enormous difficulty moving from debate to decision on this topic. With another energy plan on the table, it’s worth revisiting how the public thinks about this problem.

When Public Agenda conducted its Energy Learning Curve survey, we included a “cluster analysis,” examining the data in terms of how people are grouped naturally based on knowledge and beliefs. On energy, we found the public divided into four groups: the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent), and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).

Each of the four groups has a distinctive set of values, beliefs or concerns that shape how they approach the energy problem. The key point here is that if leaders are trying to build public support for an energy policy, understanding the public’s motivations is critical. What motivates one group might leave another cold or even repel them. The environmental arguments that resonate with the Greens, for example, would turn off the Doubters.

But there are also opportunities. One of the most intriguing findings is that so many people reach similar conclusions from completely different starting points. For example, both the Anxious and the Greens support alternative energy, but for entirely different reasons. The Anxious are worried about the price and supply of energy, and believe bringing new energy sources on line will help. The Greens, naturally, back them because they’re concerned about global warming and pollution.

Change, particularly when you’re dealing with a subject as complex as energy, requires knitting people with different concerns together. To help the public move up its “learning curve” on this issue, it’s fundamental to understand how people can see a problem through different lenses but still end up at the same place.

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03.28 Video: Students and College Completion in Their Own Words

Monday, March 28th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

There's nothing more powerful than hearing people talk about their challenges in their own words -- and this video of students discussing the juggling act they face in trying to balance work, family and school is a great example.

The plenary session at the Achieving the Dream Strategy Institute in February featured a panel of students from Ivy Tech Community College and Santa Fe College, moderated by Public Agenda President Will Friedman. If you want to see how students meet this challenge -- one of the biggest when it comes to turning around the nation's college completion rate -- have a look at the video below:


Also, for statistics that back up the stories here, see the survey report, With Their Whole Lives Head of Them (below).


Download the PDF

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03.24 Scaling the Summit on College Completion

Thursday, March 24th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

This week the Obama administration laid out a new “college completion tool kit” and called on every state to hold a summit on how to turn around the dismal statistics on how many students actually get a degree. As higher education leaders consider how to pick up that challenge, we’d suggest two voices that policymakers should make sure to have at the table.

One is faculty. Engaging faculty -- both full-time and adjuncts—in this effort is essential, in fact its difficult to see how we can solve this problem without them. Yet lots of institutions still find this kind of engagement difficult to pull off. Faculty members often enter the debate with very different concerns than, say college presidents or financial officers. In partnership with Achieving the Dream, we’ve developed core principles and promising practices for engaging faculty in changing institutions and closing student achievement gaps. You can find our first Cutting Edge Series paper on this here.

The other is young people themselves. In surveys of young people we’ve conducted for the Gates Foundation, we’ve found that people who don’t complete college tell an unexpected story, one that’s very different from a lot of the common perceptions. Most of them are paying their own way through school, and get relatively little help from the guidance system as they do it.

More than anything else, these young people are students under pressure: school pressure, work pressure, and family pressure. And when that pressure gets to be too much, it’s school that usually gets sacrificed. That’s why when we asked these young people what would help, they point to ideas that would give them more flexibility and ease the juggling act they find so difficult.

If we’re going to make a real difference in this problem, we need to make sure the challenges students face are front-and-center – and that the faculty members on the front line are full partners in meeting them.

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03.21 A Different Take on How the Public Thinks about the Economy, Budget

Monday, March 21st, 2011 | Scott Bittle

How does the public really grapple with the issues surrounding the economy and the federal budget? Two recent presentations from Public Agenda suggest the public is looking at these problems very differently than policymakers or the media.

At the Consumer Federation of America’s annual assembly last week, research director Jon Rochkind talked about “The Great Divide,” focusing on one of the major concerns of those who are struggling economically: higher education. (You can see it in Powerpoint or PDF format).

In our “Slip-Sliding Away” report, we found four in 10 Americans say they’re struggling “a lot” financially in the wake of the Great Recession. Most of the debate among policymakers and the media is about the short-term issues: how do we create jobs, how do we spur business. Yet while the economically struggling say they’re having trouble with short-term issues like paying their rent or mortgage, when asked what would help the most, their top choice was something quite different: “making higher education more affordable.”

Previous Public Agenda research shows that the public’s belief that a college education is necessary to get ahead is rising, even as they’re more and more worried that it’s financially out of reach. And we’ve also found the biggest factor keeping students from finishing college isn’t so much paying tuition, but the need to juggle work, school and family obligations.

The other presentation, “You Can’t Get There From Here,” (also in Powerpoint and PDF) is on another challenge: the federal deficit and national debt. Policymakers often throw up their hands at surveys that show the public with conflicting and even contradictory views on our fiscal problems.

But in our presentation at the Human Face of the Fiscal Crisis session sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, we argue those gaps can be bridged with a better understanding of how the public thinks about complicated issues.

The public has a “Learning Curve” on problems, from initial “consciousness raising” to “working through” the alternatives and finally to resolution. When public opinion surveys show conflicting results, it’s usually because the public is still learning about a problem, and still figuring out what they want to do about it. And too often, the debate among policymakers and experts is “too wonky to work,” leaving the public behind.

The public can grapple with complicated issues, but they need a little help: a few key facts, viable options, and a focus on priorities. (You can find out more about ways to actually give people that help in Toward Wiser Public Judgment, the new book by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich and our president, Will Friedman).

Much of the budget debate is focused on brokering a deal in Washington – but the real challenge for policymakers on the deficit is whether they can make a deal that holds up both inside and outside the Beltway. Unless they do that, whatever deal that gets set won’t survive.

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03.18 Energy: When the Answer is Always No

Friday, March 18th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

It’s still touch-and-go today whether Japanese engineers will be able to control the crisis threatening four nuclear reactors, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The courage of the plant technicians and helicopter crews trying to contain the accident in the face of life-threatening radiation levels makes much of the debate seem small by comparison.

Yet the debate over nuclear safety and our energy options has been reopened – very understandably, even if the lessons of Fukushima Daiichi aren’t clear yet.

One key thing about our energy policy is clear, however: as a nation, we’re much better at saying “no” than saying “yes.” In many respects, the United States seems to be waiting for an easy answer, when the truth is that all forms of energy have risks and trade-offs.

Thanks to the BP spill, the answer may be no to more offshore drilling. The Japanese nuclear crisis may mean we say no to more nuclear power. Residents often object to all kinds of energy projects, whether they’re power plants, wind farms or transmission lines. A cap-and-trade system, which would encourage renewable energy like wind and solar, is off the table in Congress.

But we cannot solve our energy problems without saying “yes” to something. Global demand for energy is expected to increase 40 percent over the next two decades, even as the world tries to avoid permanent climate change. We need both more energy and cleaner energy, and we need to start making choices about how we’re going to get them. Perhaps the most damning projection of all is the Energy Department’s estimate that we get 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels – and in 25 years we’ll still be getting 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels, unless things change.

We need to engage the public with what our energy options actually are. Every form of energy has drawbacks, and every option has tradeoffs – some of which the public may want to make, and some they won’t. This is an issue that calls for public choicework —the process of having citizens weigh the pros and cons of different approaches with the acknowledgement that there is no perfect, cost-free solution. Without that, we’ll just keep saying no, until it’s too late to say yes to anything.

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03.04 Open Government, Healthier Communities?

Friday, March 4th, 2011 | Scott Bittle

A new study suggests a more transparent government may lead to a more engaged community. In Public Agenda's experience, there's no question that an open government is crucial to civic engagement – but more information alone won't do the job.

In an intriguing study of three cities (San Jose, Philadelphia and Macon, Ga.,) the Pew Internet and American Life project found that people who believe their local government is open with them are more likely to feel good about the state of their community overall. In fact, they're more likely to feel empowered, and those who feel more empowered are more likely to be civically active, Pew concluded.

The conclusions make sense on many levels. Certainly, you can't have an engaged public without an open government. People don't engage with a cipher, or rush out to offer their services to a brick wall.

But it's important not to fall into one of the most common misconceptions about public opinion – that more information, all by itself, will help the public make better decisions.

In their book Toward Wiser Public Judgment, Public Agenda's Dan Yankelovich and Will Friedman argue this is one of the most common mistakes in the policy world. "The media often treat people as if they were attentive experts who can take in reams of data, rather than inattentive citizens with busy lives who are more interested in the values underlying policy choices and the practical consequences of action," they write.

The public has a "Learning Curve" on complicated problems, and while a lack of information can derail it, so can lots of other things: a lack of practical choices, mistrust, denial, or just a lack of urgency about the problem. All those things can get in the way even when there's plenty of information available.

Understanding the public’s learning curve is critical because a sense of empowerment is not really the critical problem in today’s public square. As the authors point out, one of the challenges about our political discourse is that too often “intensity of conviction [acts] as a substitute for sound judgment.” The recent calls for a less violent and more civil and constructive public debate in the wake of the Arizona shootings are a direct reflection on this.

Yes, people need information. In the 21st century, there's no reason – and frankly, no excuse – for governments to drag their feet when it comes to being more open about their operations with citizens. But the public also need a way to sort that information out and make sense out of it. The "put it out there and let people figure it out" strategy is a good start—as the Pew research shows. But it’s only a part of what citizens need in order to solve problems and isn't going to do the job by itself. Stronger, more engaged communities come about through more and better information, yes, but they also require richer opportunities for real dialogue, deliberation and participation.

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03.03 How Teachers See Their Unions

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 | Scott Bittle

The ferocity of the fight over public employee unions, and teachers unions in particular, has reached a fever pitch as governors and labor groups square off over tight budgets, layoffs and bargaining rights in multiple states. The fight has serious implications for education reform, and some argue for the status of teachers.

Several national surveys have shown public opposition to cutting collective bargaining rights, but also support for reducing public employee benefits. But what about teachers themselves? How do they see unions?

When we last examined this in our
Supporting Teacher Talent survey
with Learning Point Associates, we found that eight in 10 teachers said "without collective bargaining, the working conditions and salaries of teachers would be much worse." And 51 percent of teachers "strongly" agreed with this.

But a lot of teachers' views about unions weren't purely economic – they also see the union as protection against other problems they face. Eight in 10 said teachers facing unfair charges from parents or students would have nowhere to turn without the union, and just as many said that teachers would be vulnerable to "school politics or administrators who abuse their power." In both cases, about half of teachers "strongly agreed," a significant indication of how intensely they feel about this.

But there was criticism of unions as well, with two-thirds of teachers saying the union "sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom." About 22 percent said they "strongly agreed."

Across the board, there was a split between younger and older teachers, with "Generation Y" teachers less likely to "strongly agree" on the benefits of unions – but also somewhat less likely to agree that the union protects problem teachers.

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