Iowa State University

Iowa State University

Strategic Plan 2005-2010

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Report Brief

What Americans Think About Higher Education


This report discusses the findings of a national poll of public opinion conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Educatio in 2003. The American public is more than satisfied with the quality of higher education. However, the public dislikes several things about colleges and universities, including the priorities of presidents, affirmative action, tenure, and big-time athletics.


  • According to respondents, the most important role for a college is to prepare undergraduates for careers
  • College presidents comment that the public does not truly understand things like tenure, affirmative action, and research
  • Lawmakers believe that colleges have lost their way when it comes to teacher education, tenure, political diversity among faculty members, and what the public wants
  • 3 in 5 people think it is important for colleges to offer a broad-based education to undergraduates
  • 63% of people think that colleges should help elementary and secondary schools teach children better
  • Half of Americans believe that a four-year degree is essential to success, and responses were influenced by age and race
    • 82% of Asian Americans believe a degree is essential versus 48% of whites, 60% of African Americans, and 59% of Hispanics
    • 39% of people born before 1940 believe a four-year degree is essential versus 62% of those born after 1970
  • Most people think that the quality of higher education in their states is at least good, with many ranking it high or very high
  • Confidence in community colleges is increasing
  • 41% of respondents believe that the quality of private colleges is better despite the fact that 8 in 10 college students attend public schools; 2 out of 5 people believe that in general, the quality of education at publics and privates is about the same
  • 53% of Americans believe it is more difficult to be admitted into a four-year college than it was ten years ago
  • The public more accurately estimates the cost of college than it did in the late 1990s
  • Two-thirds of Americans believe that students should pay the largest share of a college education
  • The biggest criticisms of colleges involve the publics perceptions that colleges are playing politics or unfairly favor some groups of students over others


Some groups, such as the American Council on Education (ACE), hope that positive poll results like these will encourage the federal government to take a hands-off approach with higher education. Also, they hope that lawmakers steer clear of strict accountability measures for higher education, like the No Child Left Behind Act for elementary and secondary education. In addition, the report quotes several higher education leaders as stating that the public does not truly understand some components of higher education, such as the way in which tenure works or the value of affirmative action and how it is actually used. No specific recommendation is offered, but the message that higher education needs to do a better job of explaining itself to the public can not be ignored.


Three small articles are included within this article, all of which use data from the same poll:

Public Colleges Emphasize Research, but the Public Wants a Focus on Students (by Sara Hebel)

  • This article discusses the gap between what the public wants from its universities and the goals of state leaders. The public believes that the top roles of colleges are to prepare undergraduates for careers, provide education to adults so they qualify for better jobs, help elementary and high schools do a better job of teaching children, and offer a broad-based general education. Leaders of public colleges tend to emphasize their schools abilities to stimulate economic growth, however. Some leaders believe that the publics views are outdated, and that institutions must assume broader roles of helping states expand their economies. Other leaders would like to pay more attention to priorities beyond economic development, but feel obliged to embrace state priorities, especially during budget crunches. Furthermore, some leaders highlight ways to help states economies in addition to research programs, such as by assisting adults with degree completion. This article sheds light on the complexities of these issues, and the different perspectives influencing the debate.

Families See Plentiful Options and Tough Choices on Paying for College (by Eric Hoover)

  • This article highlights the financial considerations of students and their families during the college search process. Many Americans believe that the more something costs, the more valuable it is, which holds true for the perception of private colleges. Many students apply to both public and private colleges, and struggle with decisions when finances come into play.

Sports as the Universitys Front Porch? The Public is Skeptical (by Welch Suggs)

  • Only 35% of poll respondents said that college sports are somewhat or very important for colleges, and more than three-quarters believe that athletes are not held to the same academic performance standards as other students. One college president states that the results are sobering and indicate that the base of support for athletics tends to be driven more by dollar value than by any underlying commitment by the public. Despite the debate about the role of college athletics on campus and in the community, however, the bottom line is that colleges are only responsible to a small subset of the public trustees. At most Division I schools, at least a few trustees have significant interest in promoting athletics, and given the publics significant interest in some sports, such as football and mens basketball, emphasis on athletics is unlikely to change.


Selingo, J. (2003, May 3). What Americans think about higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A10-A17.

Submitted by Leah Ewing Ross, March 2004. This is a report summary and excerpts are quoted directly from the text.

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Iowa State was the first chartered land-grant institution.