American frustration with college costs reaches all-time high

Some 69 percent of Americans polled say that many people who are qualified don't get the chance, according to a new poll -- the highest number ever.

Millions of Americans hope to boost their education level, especially in today’s troubled economy – but their frustration with the seemingly out-of-control costs of college is reaching new heights.

Sixty-nine percent say that many who are qualified to attend college don’t have the opportunity to do so, the highest number since the question was first tracked in 1993 in a series of reports by Public Agenda, a policy research group in New York.

Fifty-four percent say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education, according to “Squeeze Play 2010,” a national survey the group released Wednesday in partnership with The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif.

“People aren’t convinced that colleges are spending their money wisely and well,” says John Immerwahr, a Public Agenda research fellow. “Higher education has presented an argument ... [that] ‘We’re kind of trapped: We’d like to have higher quality, we’d like to make higher education more accessible, and we’re trying to keep the costs down, but we can’t do all three.’... The public isn’t really buying that argument.”

“It’s very easy for people who are not part of an industry to think the industry can do more with less money. It’s much harder when you have to manage the institutions,” says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, a Washington group representing college leaders. His group has found similar trends in public attitudes, but he also notes that it’s common for people to say that the things they most need are overpriced.

For more than 20 years, the costs of college have risen even more than those of healthcare. This academic year, the average price for public, four-year university tuition and fees is $7,020, up 6.5 percent from last year, according to the College Board in New York. Private schools average $26,273, up 4.4 percent. Financial aid offsets these expenses for many students significantly, but the sticker shock still reverberates.

College leaders, especially in the public sector, are most worried about what’s going to happen to their ability to enroll enough students to meet demand and maintain quality next year, when they face the prospect of continued state budget cuts, Mr. Hartle says.

But legislators and governors who control the purse strings often share the view of the public that “there hasn’t been much emphasis on innovation” by colleges to keep costs down, says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Optimism is up in one area: 62 percent say people are able to get loans and scholarships. But 83 percent believe students have to borrow too much to attend college.

“We may be reaching the point on the tuition side that it’s simply not sustainable, if we’re going to keep anything like a semblance of an accessible system of higher education in this country,” Mr. Callan says.


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