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    What America Thinks
    A College Education Is Important, But ...

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, March 30, 1998

    A growing majority of Americans say a college degree is the key to the middle class, but most of the public also believes that many students "are just wasting their time and money in college," according to a new national survey conducted by Public Agenda for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

    The survey found that strong majorities of Americans believe that no student should be denied an opportunity to attend college because he or she cannot afford it. Most survey respondents also supported increasing government funding for work-study programs, giving tax breaks to help students and their families pay for college, and increasing student loan programs. Nearly nine out of 10 poll respondents said today's students have to borrow too much money to pay for college, and half said that students from poor families face considerable obstacles to obtaining a higher education.

    Still, concerns that students will be "shut out" of college have decreased significantly since a 1993 Public Agenda survey.

    The February survey of 700 randomly selected adults found most Americans believe college is "more important than it ever has been, both as a key to a middle class lifestyle and as a resource for the local economy," wrote John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow at Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization based in New York.

    Nearly nine in 10 – 86 percent – of those interviewed said high school graduates should go on to college "because in the long run they'll have better job prospects," up from 79 percent in 1993. Only 9 percent said they would urge high school grads to "take any decent job offer because there are so many unemployed people already."

    "Most everything today is getting to be so high-tech that a high school diploma just won't cut it," said an Altoona, Pa., man who was interviewed in the poll. "When I was in school you could graduate high school and be a pretty good auto mechanic. Today the cars are so full of electronics that you have to go to college just to be able to work on a car."

    College benefits communities as well as individuals, the survey respondents said. Six in 10 survey respondents said their state "needs more college-educated workers so that the state can attract high-tech jobs and businesses." Less than a third said their state has "too many college graduates" competing for too few jobs.

    Contrary to some critics (and the suspicions of some parents and students), half of those interviewed – 53 percent – said colleges are teaching students "the important things they need to know," up from 44 percent five years ago. Still, more than one in four – 28 percent – interviewed in the latest poll said colleges are failing to provide a relevant education to their students.

    But most of those interviewed feared students weren't taking full advantage of college. According to the poll, 59 percent said that "many young people are just wasting their time and money in college because they don't know what else to do with their lives."

    One solution to the problem of academic aimlessness was implied by the responses to another question: 77 percent said students appreciated a college education "only when they have some personal responsibility for paying for what it costs."

    "I think that college students who work to help pay their way do better than those who don't," said a Twin Falls, Idaho, man. "It disciplines you, and makes you feel more committed to your education because it is not just a free ride."

    Worries about access have lessened since 1993, the survey found. The proportion who believed that it would be more difficult to get a college education 10 years from now fell from 66 percent in 1993 to 53 percent in the latest survey. And fewer than half – 45 percent – said there are many qualified people who "don't have the opportunity" to go to college, down from 60 percent five years ago.

    The survey also found growing support for public higher education. Today, 39 percent said their state's public college and university system "needs to be fundamentally overhauled." Five years ago, a 54-percent majority expressed that view. And about half – 48 percent – said the state public college system "should be basically left alone," up from 33 percent in 1993.

    Most Americans also have a practical view of prestige colleges and universities. Nine in 10 agreed that the benefits of a college education "mostly depend on how much of an effort he or she puts into it" while just 7 percent said the benefits depend on "the quality of the college" the student attends.

    "Don't get me wrong, a quality school has some value," a Denver man said. "But really, they are teaching the same math at a rinky-dink college that they are at the big state university. They have to. Math is math. What matters is how much the kid puts himself into it."

    Stop That!

    Most Americans don't want newspapers to endorse candidates for political office, according to a national survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults conducted by Rasmussen Research, a North Carolina survey firm. Six in 10 survey respondents said papers should not endorse candidates, while 23 percent said endorsements were a good idea.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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