June 2004  
Surveys Find High Level of Public Confidence in Higher Education but Growing Concern about College Access

Recent surveys by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Public Agenda suggest that while Americans continue to regard higher education institutions as valuable resources, they are concerned about access to college. Most respondents to the surveys expressed support for wide access to college and agreed that a college education is crucial to success. The Chronicle survey also shows continued support for student aid and tenure, although a majority of Americans said they disapprove of what they see as a "liberal" bias in higher education. Despite the largely positive view of colleges and universities, results from both surveys indicate that Americans are worried that a college education is out reach for some qualified young people. The fear that access is not keeping pace with need—especially as college prices continue to climb—could erode the public's faith in institutions of higher learning over coming years.


General Views

  • Americans overwhelmingly view U.S. colleges and universities as valuable resources: Ninety-three percent of survey respondents agree or strongly agree that colleges and universities are among the country's most valuable resources.
  • Ninety-four percent of respondents think that every high school student who wants a four-year college degree should have the opportunity to earn one.
  • Sixty-five percent of Americans think Congress should increase grants for students, and seventy-four percent think Congress should increase money for student loans.
  • A majority of Americans support tenure. Sixty-one percent agree or strongly agree that "tenure for faculty members is essential to preserving an atmosphere of academic freedom at colleges and universities."
  • Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that colleges and universities improperly introduce a "liberal" bias into what they teach.

Concerns about Access

  • Forty-seven percent of survey respondents believe that it is more difficult to be admitted to a four-year college or university now than it was ten years ago.
  • Fifty-seven percent of respondents believe that there are many people in their state who are qualified to attend college but do not have the opportunity to do so. Thirty-seven percent believe that the vast majority of qualified people have an opportunity to attend college.
  • Forty-four percent of Americans believe that qualified students from low-income families have less opportunity to attend college than students from wealthier families. Responding to a separate question, 27 percent said they believe that qualified ethnic or racial minorities have less opportunity to attend college, while 22 percent said they believe that minorities have more opportunity.
  • Fifty-three percent of Americans believe that some preference in college admissions should be given to minority students. A solid majority (75 percent) oppose giving extra consideration to "legacy" applicants.

Results from the Chronicle of Higher Education poll are available to subscribers only. The Public Agenda/National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education survey is accessible to all online.




  • Colleges and universities rank alongside the U.S. military and churches as the institutions in which Americans have the most confidence.
  • Fifty-two percent of Americans believe that a four-year college degree is essential for success in our society.
  • Twenty-four percent of Americans believe that the Democratic Party has the greatest interest in improving higher education; 21 percent believe that Republicans have a greater interest.