Leaders Agree On Importance Of Higher Education But Disagree On How It Operates


SAN JOSE, CA -- Despite overwhelming agreement that higher education is important to the well-being of American society, leaders differ on how well colleges and the systems of higher education operate, what students need to be taught, or how it should be paid for, according to a new study, Taking Responsibility: Leaders' Expectations of Higher Education, released today by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The study, conducted by Public Agenda for the National Center, also found that leaders think that too many students are not sufficiently prepared academically to receive a higher education. When presented with a list of 16 possible problems facing higher education, the survey found 88 % of all respondents saying, too many students need remedial education.

To date, the attention has centered on higher education's cost and the financial burden many must assume in acquiring a degree, said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's Executive Director. Leaders, however, are focused on something that's received little public notice: the lack of academic preparedness of students now entering U.S. colleges and universities.

The survey, conducted by mail in the fall of 1998, is the first to compare leaders from outside higher education with those from inside higher education. The report surveyed 601 leaders, including college professors, college deans and administrators, government officials, and business leaders.

All of the groups of leaders agreed that a strong higher education system is vitally important to the well-being of American society. The survey respondents were nearly unanimous in their view that a strong higher education system is a key to the continued economic growth and progress of the United States, with 97 % of all respondents saying that this sentiment is either very or somewhat close to their own view.

In addition, the report found an overwhelming majority of leaders believe it is essential to insure that higher education is accessible to every qualified and motivated student. Approximately 92 % of respondents think that society should not allow the price of a college education to prevent qualified and motivated students from attending college.

The leaders also agreed that the vast majority of qualified and motivated students can get a college education if they want one and that lack of student motivation and responsibility is a more important obstacle than lack of money.

Despite agreement from leaders that higher education is necessary and important to society, the consensus falls apart when leaders begin to focus more heavily on the details, according to the report. The survey found that tensions were greatest between college faculty and business leaders, with college administrators and government officials often falling somewhere in between.

The most extreme disagreement between business and academic leaders was about how well colleges and systems of higher education operate. The report noted that those who are outside the academy, especially business executives, think that higher education should be held accountable to the same standards of cost and efficiency that apply to other institutions. The survey found that 64% of business leaders think that higher education has a lot to learn from the private sector, while 77% of professors take the opposite stand: that business methods have limited application to higher education.

The survey also found that business leaders want professors to teach more, rely more on technology, and focus more on research that is relevant to society. But, by margins of approximately three to one, professors and administrators say that colleges are teaching students what they need to know.

The study also found that business leaders want higher education to cut costs and students to pay more before coming to government for more funding, while other leaders see government as the first line of support. Nearly half of college professors, college administrators, and government leaders surveyed believe that since society benefits from having a large number of college graduates, taxpayers should pay more of the cost of a college education, compared to only 30% of business leaders who share this view.

At a time when business and higher education need to work more closely together, business leaders appear to be issuing a warning: if you want our continued and increased support, some changes in the way you operate are needed, said John Immerwahr, author of the report. Dr. Immerwahr is a senior research fellow at Public Agenda where he has authored studies on a number of subjects including health care reform and free speech. He is also an associate vice president of academic affairs at Villanova University.

Additional copies of the survey are available from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (fax requests to 408-271-2697 or visit our web site:

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research education organization working to help citizens better understand complex issues and to help the nation's leaders better understand the public's point of view. It was founded in 1975 by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education was established in 1998 to promote opportunity, affordability and quality in American higher education. As an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the National Center provides action-oriented analyses of state and federal policies affecting education beyond high school. The National Center receives financial support from a consortium of national philanthropic organizations, and is not affiliated with any institution of higher education or with any government agency.

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