Both federal and state governments have been taking a hard look at
higher education lately, talking about everything from access and
accountability to financial aid and endowments. And higher education is
talking back, complaining about more regulation and a declining share of
state funding. Which side does the public support? Although,
traditionally the public has been positive about higher education, new
Public Agenda research shows that the current economic crisis may also
be feeding a greater public willingness to hold higher education’s feet
to the fire.

Changing economic realities are driving a shift in public attitudes on
higher education. On the one hand, there is a dramatic increase in the
number of people who think that having a college degree is absolutely
essential for success. Only a minority (43%) now think that there are
many ways to succeed without a college degree, down from 67% who felt
this way only eight years ago. Colleges will certainly welcome that trend.

The problem for higher education comes from another equally striking
trend -- the growing number of people who think that in today’s tough
economy college is becoming inaccessible to many qualified people, with
67% endorsing this view, up by five points since 2007, and 20 points
since 2000. High college prices may be the trigger, with 63% saying
that college prices are increasing faster than other things, and with
77% of those saying that college costs are increasing as fast or faster
even than health care. The survey (conducted for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education) finds the public squeezed between increasing
college importance and declining availability. As a result, the "bloom
is off the rose." Only 35% of Americans say that colleges care mostly
about education, as compared to 55% who say that colleges are just like
other businesses. Perhaps this should be a wakeup call to the entire
higher education sector.