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Public Rightfully Critical of the Mismanagement of Higher Education

February 18, 2010

Study Finds Public Discontent With Colleges

February 17, 2010

Repost from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/17/education/17college.html?WT.mc_id=GN-P-E-FB-WI-TXT-ME1-X-X-0000-NA&WT.mc_ev=click

By TAMAR LEWIN

Most Americans believe that colleges today operate like businesses, concerned more with their bottom line than with the educational experience of students, according to a new study. And the proportion of people who hold that view has increased to 60 percent, from 52 percent in 2007. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said that colleges should use federal stimulus money to hold down tuition, even if it means less money for operations and programs.

The study, a joint project of Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, also found that most Americans believe that colleges could admit a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices, and that colleges could spend less and maintain a high quality of education. “One of the really disturbing things about this, for those of us who work in higher education,” said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “is the vote of no confidence we’re getting from the public. They think college is important, but they’re really losing trust in the management and leadership.”

According to the study, “Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges are Run,” a growing share of Americans believes that college is essential to success — 55 percent, compared with 31 percent in 2000. But at the same time, a dwindling share — 28 percent, compared with 45 percent a decade earlier — thinks college is available to the vast majority of qualified, motivated students. “People are increasingly seeing themselves caught between these two trends,” said John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow at Public Agenda and an author of the report. “It’s a new kind of misery index. This is really important, and it’s really inaccessible.” The report is based on a December telephone survey of more than 1,000 Americans. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.05 percentage points.

The report found some areas of optimism. Nine in 10 Americans say it is somewhat or very likely that their own high-school-age child will attend college, and the majority believe that almost anyone who needs financial help to go to college can get loans or financial aid. But 83 percent said that students had to borrow too much money to pay for college. In “Iron Triangle,” a 2008 study of 25 college presidents, Public Agenda and the center found that most saw an unbreakable link between the cost of running their operations, the number of students they can educate and maintaining educational quality. To serve more students or offer higher quality education, the college presidents said, would require more money — and conversely, cuts in their budgets would inevitably translate into either a smaller number of students or diminished educational quality.

According to the new report, the public disagrees. “It’s nice to think that we can have guns and butter, but it’s not that easy,” said Terry Hartle, the senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education. “The public is not always right.” While it is true that colleges and universities could provide higher education for less money, Mr. Hartle said, it would require cuts in areas that most people see as fundamental to quality. “We probably wouldn’t have libraries open as much, we wouldn’t update I.T. regularly, we wouldn’t have small classes,” he said. “Running a first-class college or university costs money. It’s a very labor-intensive enterprise, in which it’s common to spend 70 to 76 percent of the budget on faculty and staff.”

(Personal aside: Don’t believe Hartle. Administration has risen, on average, by 20% or more while expenditure directly related to teaching and facilities has remained stagnant or declined.)

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