Americans View College as Path to Better Life

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Americans still value higher education as the path to a better job and a richer life, according to a new poll. But they are concerned that even a college degree will not guarantee jobs during a recession, and they are increasingly worried about their ability to pay for college.

These are among the findings of the nationwide survey, which was conducted by an independent polling firm for 11 higher-education organizations and released as part of National Higher Education Week earlier this month.

To get a good job, the respondents said, a person must have a postsecondary education. But about two-thirds said that a person with a college degree is just as likely to be out of work in a recession as someone with only a high-school education.

Concerned About Costs

Over half of those who have plans to put their children through college said they were worried that they would not have the money to do so, while 34 percent said they were concerned but felt they would manage somehow. Only 11 percent said they were confident that they could afford a college education.

The survey of a representative sample of 1,188 adults was conducted for the higher-education groups by Group Attitudes Corporation of New York.

Respondents rated the high cost of a college education as the most important reason people choose not to go to college.

Those who never went to college, did not graduate, or who are in lower income brackets expressed greater support for the idea of universal access to higher education and for federal financial-aid programs than did college graduates and respondents with incomes of more than $40,000 a year.

Over 70 percent of those surveyed favor continued federal grants to low-income students, while over three-quarters said the government should keep providing low-interest loans to middle-class students.

Among major federal spending commitments, higher education ranked fourth behind health care and medical and energy research in terms of the number of respondents who thought they "should not be cut at all."

About 40 percent of respondents felt that aid to higher education should be cut back only slightly; 15 percent said it should be cut back drastically.

"In the vast expansion of higher education since World War II comes a little fat," the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, said at a briefing in Washington on the survey's findings. "If everything is being cut, we can be cut, and we could live with it somehow. We could stand with a little belt tightening ... But the one thing people don't want to see cut is the money that would allow needy students to go on to higher education."

Father Hesburgh noted that there are 400,000 young people in inner cities who are unemployed and unemployable because they lack the basic skills to work. These youths cannot "recapture the promise of American life" without some support, he said.

Three-quarters of the respondents rated higher education in the United States as excellent or good.

When asked to assess the relative importance of various characteristics of postsecondary education, the respondents reacted most favorably to "preparation for a career," "scientific research," and "adult education." "Pursuit of academic excellence," "academic freedom," and "free inquiry into controversial ideas" were rated as less important among the choices given, according to the survey.

If college curricula had to be cut back, the respondents would preserve programs in engineering, applied sciences, professional fields, and the hard sciences, and make substantial cuts in remedial learning programs, the fine and performing arts, and the humanities, the pollsters found.

Father Hesburgh lamented the fact that Americans rate the vocational aspects of education as more important than the humanistic ones. "In one sense, people are pragmatic, but perhaps they are too pragmatic," he said.

Copies of the report, American Attitudes Toward Higher Education, are available for $14 each from case Publications, Order Department, Box 298, Alexandria, Va. 22313.

Vol. 02, Issue 07

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