From the issue dated January 11, 2008  

What Colleges Must Do to Keep the Public's Good Will
Colleges have lived a charmed life. According to the public-opinion studies that we have conducted over the past 15 years, many fields athletics, accounting, politics have lost the public's trust, but higher education continues to receive praise for its accomplishments, while criticisms usually fail to stick. But the honeymoon may be slowly coming to an end.

For the most part, people have held favorable attitudes toward higher education. When focus-group respondents talk about high schools, they mention metal detectors and kids who can't count change. But when discussing colleges, they cite medical research, the accessibility of community colleges, and the prestige of big state universities and elite private institutions.

In addition, a college degree is now perceived as the ticket to a decent job and a middle-class lifestyle. Although nearly everyone complains about high tuition, nearly nine out of 10 people think that high-school graduates will have better job prospects if they go to college. As one woman in Detroit told us, "Today even to chicken-pluck, you need to have an undergrad degree."

What's more, 66 percent of the public says that colleges are teaching students the important things they need to know. Even concerns about campus radicalism have been muted. In our most recent round of focus groups, the only such complaint was from a man in Denver who mentioned the outrageous comments of Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado at Boulder professor, about the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Why is higher education doing so well in the public's mind? Several factors what we call "pressure valves" defuse public anxiety and hostility. One is a tendency to blame problems on the student rather than the institution. Generally people think that college is a place where a student goes to learn critical thinking, time management, and goal setting, in addition to specific skills. Like basic training in the military, college isn't supposed to be too easy or user-friendly. When we ask people who is responsible for college dropouts, most say the student or the high school; only one in four says the college. An overwhelming majority 86 percent believes that success is primarily based on student effort rather than on institutional quality.

The second pressure valve is the perception among most Americans that, although prices are going up, a student who is willing to make enough sacrifices attending part time, living at home can get a college education. In fact 73 percent feel that students who must make sacrifices actually learn more because they are more disciplined. One California woman said, "The kids who don't work for college and have been handed everything, they don't seem to have gotten anything out of their degree."

Contrast that with how people think about health care. What if most people thought that a patient's recovery depended on his or her effort rather than the quality of medical care, or if they blamed hospital deaths on the poor health habits of the patients?

But despite the general level of satisfaction with higher education, we have seen signs of a gradual erosion of the public's good will. Two basic attitudes seem to be heading toward collision. The first is that people are becoming increasingly convinced that a college education is not just a good thing but an absolute necessity. As recently as 2000, two-thirds of Americans believed that there are many ways to succeed without going to college. In focus groups, we heard a lot about how Bill Gates, a college dropout, became the country's richest man. Today less than half of Americans share the view that one can succeed without a college degree.

At the same time, although people now believe that anyone who makes enough sacrifices can still get a good education, they are worried that rising costs may put college out of reach for more and more students. The levels of concern are greatest among minority parents of high-school students: In focus groups, they tell us that education is more necessary than ever for their children yet increasingly less available. The ease of obtaining loans is also counterbalanced by a nearly universal concern that students are borrowing too much.

Our research shows that concerns have been growing even in a time of relative economic strength. What could really set people off would be a situation where the economy plunges while tuition continues to spiral upward faster than wages or inflation. That could be equivalent to a higher-education third rail ("touch it and you die"). Those were the conditions we found in 1993, when 54 percent of those surveyed said their state's higher-education system needed to be completely overhauled. In the economic good times of 1998, only 39 percent thought that. But in today's economy, the number has jumped to 48 percent. One could only speculate as to what that figure would be in a major recession.

We have also seen erosion in the public's appreciation of the altruistic mission of higher education. In our recent focus groups, we were surprised by how many people spoke of higher education as "a growing business" with "money coming in from everywhere." Today 52 percent say that colleges mainly care about the bottom line, while only 43 percent see colleges as focused primarily on education. Such results predate the student-loan scandals; perhaps they would be even higher now.

What will happen if colleges lose some of the good will they now enjoy? It is no secret that many leaders in business and government, starting with the U.S. Secretary of Education, are calling for greater transparency, productivity, and accountability from higher education. Institutions could eventually find themselves responding to more demands from government while simultaneously facing skepticism and anger from the public. Although no one expects college leaders to react slavishly to either the government or the public, it would be folly to ignore those trends. For a vision of what such a world could look like, one need only look to our elementary and secondary schools and listen to the chorus of complaints about overregulation.

What should college leaders do if they want to keep the public's good will? Our findings suggest the following:
Think outside the box. Higher-education administrators have typically felt that access, the actual cost of running the institution, and its quality are in a delicately balanced zero-sum game, and that they can't increase access without increasing costs or decreasing quality. The public doesn't buy that: 58 percent say that colleges could take in more students without affecting quality or raising tuition, and 56 percent say that colleges could spend less money and still maintain quality. To keep the public's good will, colleges need to find ways to provide access to a new wave of students.

Don't fan the flames of discontent. So far, concerns about "waste and mismanagement" in higher education haven't reached majority levels. Today the country is evenly divided on the question of whether college price increases have meant that students are learning more with 51 percent saying that they have led to increased learning, and 49 percent saying that they have not. But one could easily imagine a world where people, incensed by their perception of rising tuition and decreasing access, start to focus even more on student-aid scandals, high salaries for coaches, private jets for presidents, and other symbols of profligate spending. In the short run, then, colleges should do whatever possible to avoid flagrant "golden geese" programs. The public's tolerance for such activities may be decreasing.

Looking to the long run, one of the most productive steps that college leaders can take to maintain and even enhance their public standing is to get out in front of the growing demand for accountability. Although public-opinion research should not be the principal basis for it, developing better accountability measures will allow higher education and its defenders to deflect public unrest. Conventional indexes, like rankings based primarily on input measures and the judgments of other educators, are not likely to suffice. What's needed are more clear measures of institutional performance, including indicators of educational and cost-effectiveness. In short, colleges must try to demonstrate what the public is actually getting for its money.

While there is no "one size fits all" model, we do have examples of leadership in higher education that has successfully addressed and demonstrated improvements in performance and productivity. For example, in the early and mid-1990s, public institutions in Illinois achieved significant savings by reducing administrative costs and eliminating marginal academic programs. They reinvested $120-million of those savings in meeting high-priority needs, including strengthening undergraduate education and improving libraries and instructional technology.

In much the same way, the University of Maryland has recently undertaken a series of "effectiveness and efficiency" enhancements, including administrative streamlining, increasing faculty members' teaching loads, accepting some enrollment increases without additional state support, and taking steps to reduce the time required to earn a bachelor's degree. The initial savings have been estimated at $40-million.

Further, in the years immediately following the initiatives in Illinois and Maryland, state appropriations for public colleges and universities increased significantly, reportedly due in no small part to improved public, gubernatorial, and legislative confidence.

Educators can and should play a significant role in defining how college quality and affordability should be measured. But that will happen only if they recognize a growing shift away from the deference traditionally accorded to higher education. The most important lesson for the future is that higher education still has time to shape its own destiny with regard to public trust and accountability. But that will require that its leaders genuinely involve themselves in emerging public concerns.

Patrick Callan is founding president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. John Immerwahr is senior research fellow at Public Agenda and a professor of philosophy at Villanova University.
Section: Commentary
Volume 54, Issue 18, Page A56