Higher-Education Poll

The TIME/Carnegie survey shows the American public and senior administrators at colleges and universities are divided over how to fix higher education

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The American public and senior administrators at U.S. colleges and universities overwhelmingly agree that higher education is in crisis, according to a new poll, but they fundamentally disagree over how to fix it and even what the main purpose of higher education is.

According to a survey sponsored by TIME and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, 89% of U.S. adults and 96% of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and nearly 4 in 10 in both groups considered the crisis to be “severe.”

But half of the college leaders (52%) said the state of higher education is moving in the right direction, while half of the general public (54%) said it’s on the wrong track. The two groups also disagree over the value of a college diploma and how to curb the increases in tuition costs and student-debt loads.

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The Web-based poll, conducted by GfK Custom Research North America from Oct. 1 to Oct. 8, surveyed a national sample of 1,000 U.S. adults and 540 senior administrators at public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities. The poll noted that the average debt load for college students who took out loans and graduated in 2010 was $25,250. Three-quarters of college leaders (74%) said they thought this was a reasonable amount of debt for a college degree, but only 38% of the public agreed with them. A majority of the public (55%) thought this debt load was too high, compared with 24% of college leaders.

Likewise, members of the general popuation were twice as likely as college leaders to say that college isn’t worth the price: 80% of U.S. adults agreed that at many colleges, the education students receive is not worth what they pay for it. Only 41% of college leaders agreed with them.

Similarly, more Americans support federal price caps or controls on tuition (73%) than do college leaders (16%), largely because the public doesn’t seem to think colleges can control costs on their own. More than 90% of Americans said colleges aren’t doing enough to improve affordability. Only 56% of educators agreed, even as roughly the same percentage (58%) said they don’t think the cost of a college degree will ever stop rising.

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There are a few areas in which the public and educators overlap, including the belief that “not everyone should be encouraged to go to college.” Fifty-eight percent of the public and 69% of college leaders said they agree with that statement.

Both the public (79%) and college leaders (69%) support the idea of making greater use of online classes. But more than two-thirds of the general public (68%) said much of the teaching on college campuses can be replaced by online courses, whereas only 22% of college leaders agreed. Thirty-four percent of the adults surveyed said that either they or a family member had taken an online college course.

Even something as fundamental as the role of college isn’t agreed upon. Only 26% of the general public ranked “to learn to think critically” as either the most important or second most important reason people should go to college, compared with close to two-thirds of college leaders (62%) who included critical thinking in their top two choices.

College leaders themselves aren’t in agreement on a number of issues, and the differences often break down between those who work at public vs. private schools. For instance, 44% of senior administrators at public institutions said the cost of college is too high, while only 13% of private-school officials did. Similarly, 84% of leaders of public institutions agreed that there is too much emphasis on attending a four-year college as opposed to community college or vocational schools; 45% of private-school officials agreed with them.

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With such a wide gulf between educators and the public, solutions to fixing what both perceive to be an educational system in crisis will be difficult. When asked in the survey about the best, most radical idea they’d heard on how to control tuition costs, many college leaders suggested abolishing tenure. Others recommended eliminating college sports. Several pointed to massive open online courses (MOOCs).

John McCardell, vice chancellor and president of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., suggested eliminating merit scholarships and awarding aid solely on the basis of need. Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, recommended getting public and private colleges and universities to share services, curriculum and research facilities.

Another intriguing suggestion came from John Sexton, president of New York University. “The best idea to make college affordable for our graduates is the Australian model,” he said. “Income-contingent loan repayment, with forgiveness if students go into public-service careers.” That’s something that both educators and the general public might actually be able to agree on.

MORE: MOOC Brigade: Will Massive, Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?