National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

Two-Thirds Believe Qualified Students Are Being Shut Out of College


New York -- Americans see higher education as increasingly unaffordable, at the same time that more Americans view college as essential for middle-class success, and more than half say colleges and universities act more like businesses than educational institutions, according to a national survey of 1,009 adults released today by Public Agenda and the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education. These findings, which suggest growing unease with the nation’s higher education system, are reported in “Squeeze Play 2009: The Public’s Views on College Costs Today,” the latest in a series of tracking surveys on attitudes about higher education begun in 1993.

College Viewed as Essential, Out of Reach for Many

The public’s rising anxiety about whether college is affordable for all qualified students comes at a time when more and more Americans see college as essential for economic security. More than half of Americans (55 percent) say that college is necessary to succeed in today’s economy, compared with just 3 in 10 Americans (31 percent) as recently as 2000. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) believe that qualified students do not have the opportunity to go to college, the highest percentage in the 15-year history of the survey.

The Money Chase

Americans are also deeply concerned about the rapid rise in college prices and student debt, and increasingly think that colleges and universities are becoming more like businesses, focusing more on the bottom line than on educating students:
  • Sixty-three percent of Americans say 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;
  • Over 8 in 10 (86 percent) agree that students have to borrow too much, with nearly 7 in 10 (67 percent) strongly agreeing, up 7 points from 2007;
  • Four in 10 Americans (39 percent) say that financial assistance such as loans is not available to everyone, up from 29 percent just 18 months ago;
  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) say that colleges could spend less and still maintain high-quality education; and
  • Fifty-five percent say that higher education today is run like most businesses, with attention to the bottom line trumping the educational mission as a top priority.

Valid Reasons for Concern

Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center, described the results as sobering: “This a red flag for policymakers and college leaders. Most Americans believe in the value of getting to college and getting a degree. Yet the public increasingly feels that college is out of reach for many people who deserve to go. It points to a growing sense of unfairness about the economy and American society today.”

“Public attitudes about the need to go to college and the ability to pay for college are changing, and policymakers and higher education leaders must pay attention to these trends,” said Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda. “The changes we see here suggest that Americans believe in the promise of higher education, but many are not sure that colleges and universities are always on their side when it comes to delivering that promise,” she continued.

Callan pointed out that a recent 50-state review of college affordability, Measuring Up 2008, shows that the public’s concerns are warranted. Since 2000, tuition prices have gone up while family incomes have stagnated or declined, according to the analysis. 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.” The findings hold true even for lower-cost public two-year institutions.

“Squeeze Play 2009” is available at or Full questionnaire results are also available at

Measuring Up 2008 is available at

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975 to help American leaders better understand the public's point of view and to help citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education promotes public policies that enhance Americans’ opportunities to pursue and achieve a quality higher education. Established in 1998 by a consortium of national foundations, the National Center is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. It is not associated with any institution of higher education, with any political party, or with any government agency.

New from Public Agenda


Public Agenda knows what it takes to fuel progress on critical issues.
We need your support to keep things moving!

Join the Community


Take Action