Squeeze Play 2009

A Report Prepared by Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education


For increasing numbers of Americans, a crucial facet of the American Dream appears to be at risk. A solid majority consider a college degree an indispensable ticket to the middle class. At the same time, even more people believe college is financially out-of-reach for many qualified students.

This is the message from new public opinion research by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education Policy. The two organizations have been tracking public attitudes toward higher education since 1993. Our last survey, "Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today," was conducted in early 2007 when the economy was strong. It seemed essential to tap into public opinion again, now that the country is struggling with what many believe will be a prolonged recession. To probe the changes in attitudes, we repeated a series of questions from our 2007 study, in a survey conducted in late December 2008.

Americans Increasingly View Higher Education As Out-Of-Reach

The series of studies from Public Agenda and the National Center have monitored two different trends:

More on Public Opinion and Higher Education

Public Agenda's researchers have been tracking this subject for over fifteen years. Here are some of our previous studies:

  • 2007: Squeeze Play: How Parents and the Public Look at Higher Education Today
  • 2004: Public Attitudes on Higher Education: A Trend Analysis, 1993 to 2003
  • 2000: Great Expectations: How the Public and Parents — White, African-American and Hispanic — View Higher Education
  • 1998: The Price Of Admission: The Growing Importance Of Higher Education
  • 1993: The Closing Gateway

  • The necessity of higher education. In repeated surveys since 1993, people have consistently held that obtaining a college degree is important for a young person trying to enter the middle class. But respondents seem to distinguish between the importance of a college education and its necessity. In earlier surveys, a significant number of respondents also felt that while college was important, there were also other paths to success in America; college dropout Bill Gates was a frequently mentioned in focus groups as an example of how one can succeed without a college degree.
  • In our recent studies, however, we have seen a dramatic shift in the public’s views about the necessity of a higher education. Increasing numbers say that obtaining a college degree is the only way to succeed in America, that is, a college degree is not only important, it is a necessity. The percentage of people who believe this has now reached 55 percent, up five points since 2007, to the highest percentage we've seen in any of our previous surveys. As recently as 2000, just 3 in 10 Americans held this view. This is a remarkable change in a fairly short period, with a 24 point increase in eight years, nearly doubling from 2000 to 2008.
  • The availability of higher education. We have also tracked attitudes on how people feel about the availability of a college education for qualified students. Initially, attitudes on this topic seemed to track with the state of the economy. In the recession years of the early 1990s, nearly 6 out of 10 were worried that many qualified people could not get access to a college education. As the economy improved toward the late 1990s, the percentage of people who were concerned about access fell significantly.

But the pattern changed after 2000. Despite the fact that by many measures the economy was still vibrant, concern about access to college started to increase again. By 2007, it had reached and exceeded the level of the early 1990s, with 62 percent of the public saying that many qualified people did not have the opportunity to attend college. The most recent numbers are even more striking, with more than two thirds of Americans (67 percent) now saying that access is a problem, the highest documented level since we started following these trends.

Today, American public attitudes seem to be on a virtual collision course. At a moment when college is more frequently perceived as absolutely essential, more Americans think that a college education is out of reach for many. Our previous surveys also show that this frustration is felt even more keenly by minority members of the public.

The College Access Agony Index

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Another marker of public distress is that more people seem to feel that college costs are spinning out of control at the same time that more Americans see college as a make-or-break factor in a person’s life. Sixty-three percent believe that college prices are rising faster than the cost of other items (up from 58 percent in 2007). Nearly 8 in 10 (77 percent) of those who think college prices are rising believe that they are going up as fast or faster than health care.

The squeeze may be tightening in yet another respect. Most Americans (57 percent) continue to believe almost anyone who needs financial help can find the loans and financial aid they need. Yet anxiety about the availability of financial help has jumped 10 points in the last 18 months. In 2007, about 3 in 10 Americans (29 percent) worried that financial help was not easily available for students; that number is now closer to 4 in 10 (39 percent).

Our research also confirms that significant numbers of Americans have questions about whether these cost increases are justified and whether colleges are operating in the most cost-effective manner. More than half of Americans (53 percent) say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education. And 55 percent say that higher education today is run like most businesses, with more attention to the bottom line and the educational mission of secondary importance.

A Message From The American Public

So what are the implications of the evolving public views? The findings suggest strong messages for two groups:

  • The first is a red flag for policymakers. What the public is saying is that higher education is becoming more of a stretch, given the economic difficulties that American families are facing. In other words, more of the public has come to believe that access is threatened. Public perceptions are not always accurate, but in this case, they are right on the mark.

    "Measuring Up 2008," a 50-state analysis of higher education performance, shows that since 2000, tuition prices have gone up while family incomes have stagnated or declined. The report concluded that “the financial burden of paying for college costs has increased substantially, particularly for low and middle-income families, even when scholarships and grants are taken into account.” These findings hold true for both four-year institutions and lower-cost community colleges.1

    College is becoming less affordable at precisely the time when attending college is more important for both individuals and the economy. This is clearly a problem that policymakers should understand and seek to address.

  • The results also contain warning signs for higher education institutions. Our previous reports have documented that higher education still enjoys a great deal of public good will. Americans have voiced concerns about college costs for many years, but to date, voters have not rallied to demand that government curb college costs. Paying for college has been generally accepted as being well worth the money. Easily available college loans have eased public anxiety. The availability of low-cost community colleges also takes some of the edge off public concerns.

    But our current studies show rising anxiety and skepticism. The findings reveal a chipping away of public support for higher education and a growing suspicion about how well colleges and universities use the money they have. This coincides with another development: more state and national policymakers are demanding "greater accountability" and some have called for increased regulation.

    The first question higher education leadership might well ask is whether public anxiety and skepticism will trigger greater support for more aggressive regulation. A second question might be whether higher education would be well-advised to address public concerns before government becomes even more involved in shaping its future.

1 "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education." San Jose, CA: The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2008.


Survey: College Vital But Less Accessible (USA TODAY, February 4, 2009)

Americans Increasingly See College As Essential And Worry More About Access, Poll Finds (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 4, 2009)

Survey: College Seen As Essential But Costs Prohibitive (Newsday, February 4, 2009)


2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
01. Do you think that a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world, or do you think that there are many ways to succeed in today’s work world without a college education?

College education is necessary 55 50 37 31
There are many ways to succeed in today’s world without a college degree 43 49 61 67
Don’t know 2 1 2 3

02. Compared to other things, are college prices going up at a faster rate, are college prices going up at a slower rate, or are they going up at about the same rate?

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Faster rate 63 58 64
Slower rate 2 3 17
Same rate 25 20 5
Going down * -
Don’t know 10 19 -

03. Compared to HEALTH CARE, do you think college prices are going up at a faster rate, are college prices going up at a slower rate, or are they going up at about the same rate?

Base: Asked of total who think college prices are going up at a faster rate compared to other things.

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Faster rate 35 20
Same rate 42 39
Slower rate 17 22
Going down * *
Don’t know 6 19

04. I am going to read you some statements about colleges meaning both two-year institutions such as community colleges, and fouryear institutions, such as state universities and private four-year colleges. For each statement, please tell me if you agree or disagree.

We should not allow the price of college education to keep students who are qualified and motivated to go to college from doing so.

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Strongly agree 74 72 73 78 66 70
Somewhat agree 15 16 18 15 23 19
Somewhat Disagree 3 5 3 3 5 3
Strongly Disagree 5 4 3 2 3 2
Don’t know 3 3 3 2 2 1

Students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education.

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Strongly agree 67 60 55 56
Somewhat agree 19 18 22 24
Somewhat Disagree 7 12 13 11
Strongly Disagree 5 8 6 4
Don’t know 2 3 4 5

Almost anyone who needs financial help to go to college can get loans or financial aid.

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Strongly agree 30 38 35 33
Somewhat agree 27 29 27 29
Somewhat Disagree 17 14 16 17
Strongly Disagree 22 15 16 15
Don’t know 4 3 6 6

05. Do you think that currently, the vast majority of people who are qualified to go to college have the opportunity to do so, or do you think there are many people who are qualified to go but don’t have the opportunity to do so?

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Have the opportunity 29 36 37 45 49 37
Don’t have the opportunity 67 62 57 47 45 60
Don’t know 4 2 7 8 5 4

06. Which comes closer to your own view?

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Colleges today mainly care about education and making sure students have a good educational experience 35 43
Colleges today are like most businesses and mainly care about the bottom line 55 52
Don’t know 9 5

07. Which comes closer to your own view?

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
Your state’s public college and university system needs to be fundamentally overhauled 48 48
Your state’s public college system should be basically left alone 39 39
Don’t know 13 12

08. Which comes closer to your own view?

2008 (%) 2007 (%) 2003 (%) 2000 (%) 1998 (%) 1993 (%)
If colleges cut budgets, the quality of education will suffer 42 40
Colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education 53 56
Don’t know 5 4

2008 (%)

Marital Status
Single 25
Single, living with a partner 6
Married 50
Separated 1
Widowed 8
Divorced 9

Summary of ages of children in household
No children 63
Households with Children 36
    5 yrs. or younger 18
    6 - 11 yrs. 16
    12 - 17 yrs. 15

Employment status
Employed 56
    Full-time 45
    Part-time 11
Not employed 44
    Retired 18
    Housewife 7
    Student 5
    Temporarily Unemployed 8
    Disabled/Handicapped 4
Other not employed

Race of Respondent
White, Non-Hispanic 66
Hispanic 11
Black 12
Unspecified 4
Other Race 6

Political Party Affiliation
Republican 24
Democrat 35
Independent 33
Other 2
2008 (%)

Age of respondent
18 - 29 yrs 23
30 - 39 yrs 16
40 - 49 yrs 18
50 - 59 yrs 18
60 - 70 yrs 12
71 - 98 yrs 10

Level of Education
Less than high school graduate 15
High school graduate 28
Some college 27
Graduated college 17
Postgraduate school or more 9
Technical school/other (unspecified) 3

Total Annual Household Income
Under $14,999 12
$15,000 - $24,999 12
$25,000 - $29,999 7
$30,000 - $39,999 8
$40,000 - $49,999 6
$50,000 - $74,999 13
$75,000 or more 27

Sex of Respondent
Male 49
Female 51

Northeast Region 18
North Central Region 22
South Region 37
West Region 23

Metro Status
Metro 84
Non-metro 16

About The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education promotes public policies that enhance Americans’ opportunities to pursue and achieve high quality education and training beyond high school. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the National Center prepares actionoriented analyses of pressing policy issues facing the states and the nation regarding opportunity and achievement in higher education — including two- and four-year, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit institutions. The National Center communicates performance results and key findings to the public, to civic, business, and higher education leaders, and to state and federal leaders who are in positions to improve higher education policy.

Established in 1998, the National Center is not affiliated with any institution of higher education, with any political party, or with any government agency.

Web site:
Office: 152 North Third Street, Suite 705 | San Jose, CA 95112 | T: 408.271.2699 | F: 408.271.2697

Download the PDF of the Report

Squeeze Play (2009)

The Public's Views on College Costs Today

Media Type: PDF

Public Agenda's latest Squeeze Play survey finds many people feeling uneasy about a key element of the American dream: a college education.


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