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Wanting Access to College, Americans Report Feeling ‘Squeezed’ by Higher Education

An increasing number of Americans say college is important but is becoming less accessible for qualified students due to rising tuition, says a national report on public perceptions about higher education released on Tuesday.

Americans are being “squeezed” by the bloated costs of higher education, according to “Squeeze Play 2010,” a study prepared by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public opinion research firm.

“People want college but are really losing trust in management and leadership,” said Patrick Callan, president of The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education organization, which collaborated in the survey.

An anxious public is questioning whether colleges are working toward affordability or their bottom line. Six out of 10 of surveyed respondents agreed colleges today operate more like businesses than nonprofit organizations, which purportedly educate students for the public good.

“People are convinced colleges are not spending money wisely or well,” said report author Dr. John Immerwahr. “People are opposed to cutting programs and raising tuition prices because they both diminish access.”

Nearly 70 percent of Americans said qualified students do not have access to a college education, the largest percentage since the Public Agenda in 1993 began tracking public attitudes toward higher education. Over half said colleges can do more — increase enrollments and maintain quality — with less.

But, despite their skepticism, Americans are optimistic their children will attend college with improved financial aid and loan availability. Immerwahr added that those perceptions will be tempered as the population emerges from the recession more debt-averse.

“The public’s hunches about these things are fairly close to reality,” Callan said, adding that higher education prices have outpaced healthcare costs. “The perception that financial aid is available is correct, but it’s being devoured by tuition increases. It isn’t buying the nation more access or availability.”

In the last 20 years, the price of attending a public university has doubled while family income has flatlined, according to research by Education Sector policy director Kevin Carey.

The public’s disenchantment with higher education institutions was emerging before the economic downturn, report data show, and it may be reaching a critical point. Some state legislatures with tight budgets that share the public’s concern are demanding better accountability measures from public higher education systems.

“People are understanding that this economy requires people to have some education and training,” Callan said.

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