Quality, Affordability and Access: Americans Speak on Higher Education

Summary of Key Findings

Grading the Education System

Although Americans offer mostly positive evaluations of our higher education system, they continue to have more negative evaluations of K–12 schools.

  • Seventy-two (72) percent of adults say that higher education in America works pretty well or needs only minor changes, compared with 50 percent who say the same about K–12.
  • A 56-percent majority of the general public award higher education an "A" or a "B" on how well these institutions are doing as a whole and only 5 percent give it a "D" or an "F." However, only 31 percent grant K–12 schools an "A" or "B" grade and 15 percent give them a "D" or an "F."
  • A 57-percent majority of adults say that the nation's education system is doing very well or well enough at graduating students from college who are prepared to succeed in the workforce. Business executives who are in a position to hire recent graduates offer a more upbeat assessment, with 73 percent reporting that higher education is doing a good job at preparing students for the workforce.
  • More than a year after its passage, only 37 percent of adults are aware that a major K–12 education bill has been signed into law, and only 12 percent believe that reforms have led to changes in the schools. After hearing a brief description of the No Child Left Behind Act, 36 percent of adults have a favorable view of the reform bill, whereas 28 percent have an unfavorable view.

Challenges to Higher Education: Student Preparation, Access and Funding

Despite the overall positive evaluations for higher education in this country, the majority of Americans think that our nation's education system is coming up short when it comes to offering young people from all backgrounds a chance to go to college, providing financial help to assist students, and graduating high school students who are prepared to succeed in college.

  • Student preparation: 62 percent believe that our nation's K–12 education system is coming up short or falling behind when it comes to graduating high school students who are prepared for success in college.
  • Providing access: More than half (52 percent) say that our nation's education system comes up short or falls behind when it comes to offering young people from all backgrounds a chance to go to a college or university.
  • Funding: The biggest complaint about America's higher education system is that it costs families too much, and more than half (51 percent) of the public feel that the nation's education system is coming up short or falling behind when it comes to providing financial help to college students.

Rising Tuition Is Biggest Problem Facing Higher Education

The public points to rising tuition and other costs as the biggest problem facing colleges and universities, yet believes that a college education is an excellent investment.

  • More than half (52 percent) of adults name rising tuition and other costs as the biggest problem facing colleges and universities; additional concerns are decreased funding from the government (20 percent) and the quality of faculty/academic programs (16 percent).
  • Nearly all (96 percent) adults believe that a college education is a good investment, including 72 percent who say it is a very good investment.

Significant Role in Higher Education for Federal Government

The public overwhelmingly says that it wants the federal government to play a significant role in higher education. In particular, the public supports different proposals to help students and families pay for a college education, and the public says it is willing to pay more in taxes to make college more affordable.

  • Eighty-four (84) percent of adults say that the federal government should play a significant role in higher education; 38 percent want to limit government's role to helping students and their families afford college; and 46 percent want government's role to include strengthening higher education accountability.
  • The public is willing to pay more taxes to increase financial support for college students (66 percent), for colleges and universities (61 percent) and to increase tax credits for families sending their children to college (72 percent).
  • Seventy-four (74) percent of adults favor placing federal limits on college tuition to keep increases in line with inflation.
  • By a differential of 73 percent to 18 percent, the public overwhelmingly prefers direct assistance to students over aid to institutions; and by 58 percent to 28 percent, the public supports financial assistance based on need versus financial assistance based on achievement.

Strong Support for Higher Education Act Reauthorization

The public expresses strong support for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and wants funding to continue at the set level or increase.

  • Three in four (76 percent) of Americans support the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, including 46 percent who strongly support it; only 15 percent oppose reauthorization.
  • Forty-five (45) percent want the Higher Education Act level of funding to remain the same; 37 percent want funding to increase; and only 7 percent want less funding.

Higher Education Accountability: Public Focuses on Quality

The public divides over questions of accountability in higher education, with nearly half saying that colleges and universities should have increased accountability, and nearly as many saying that schools of higher education already are accountable enough.

  • Whereas 45 percent say that colleges and universities should be held more accountable, 46 percent feel that they already are held accountable enough.
  • The public thinks that it is more important to hold colleges accountable for the quality of education they provide (52 percent) rather than how they spend federal dollars (24 percent). Twenty-two (22) percent believe that they should be held accountable for both.

Key Insights

Hart and Teeter have drawn several insights and conclusions from the qualitative and quantitative research that they have conducted over the past three years for ETS.

  • EDUCATION CONTINUES TO BE A NATIONAL PRIORITY. During these uncertain times, education remains at the top of the American agenda. While higher education receives high praise and is placed on the public's honor roll, the K–12 system receives a mediocre "C" average. The public is asking for an education system that works and is willing to fund reforms that will lead to changes.
  • HIGHER ED: LOWER THE LADDER, NOT THE STANDARDS. In contrast to the K–12 system, colleges and universities receive high marks for the quality of their academic programs and the value of a college degree. The public does not see a need for major reform. Instead, the public wants more people to have access to college and to receive more help affording it.
  • RISING TUITION IS THE TOP HIGHER ED CONCERN. When it comes to colleges and universities, the public's greatest concern is the rising cost of higher education today. The public wants the government to provide more financial assistance to students and their families. Americans prefer direct assistance to students over assistance to institutions and they are willing to pay more in taxes to fund an increase in this assistance.
  • THERE IS AN INFORMATION GAP ON EDUCATION REFORM. The public needs to be better informed about education reform. Only three in eight adults are aware that a national education reform bill was signed into law, and only one in eight believes that the legislation has led to real changes in schools. There is a continuing need to connect the dots in communicating about reform from policy to practice. The public wants to know: "What's happening in our schools?"
  • THE BAR IS BEING RAISED FOR EDUCATION. Although Americans are pleased with the current state of higher education, the public expects more from the nation's K–12 education system. Pushing students through the system is not enough; students must graduate equipped with the skills and knowledge needed for higher education and for the workplace.


From May 8 to May 15, 2003, Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Robert M. Teeter's Coldwater Corporation conducted a national survey among 1,003 adults. Additional interviews were conducted among 408 higher education faculty (107 among deans and department heads, 301 among professors), 321 higher education students, and 302 business leaders (152 among CEOs/CFOs/Senior Vice Presidents and 150 among senior Human Resources staff). The statistical margin of error is ±3.1 percent for the base sample of adults and is larger for the subsamples of faculty (±4.9 percent), students (±5.5 percent) and business leaders (±5.6 percent). The statistical margin of sampling error is just one form of error or bias that can affect survey results.

Prior to conducting the surveys, Hart Research held a total of six focus group discussions, one among each of the following groups: parents, business leaders, higher education students, professors, higher education administrators, and School of Education professors and administration. Groups were conducted in Los Angeles and Boston, and nationwide by telephone.

Americans Speak