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Who Do Americans Think Should Pay for College?

Ten years ago, the idea that policies like student loan debt forgiveness or free two-year college would soon be debated in mainstream national politics would have sounded ridiculous. I was writing my first book on higher education during that time, and as I traveled across the country and occasionally abroad to talk about college in America, I got two questions every time: “Why don’t people worried about student loans just get a job to pay their tuition?” and “Why shouldn’t private for-profit companies make money on college when Harvard does the same thing?” These questions were driven by folk economics: People had filled a lot of gaps in their understanding about the mechanics of debt and tuition with a simplified view of how college works. Neither of these questions suggested the sea change that was coming.

The rise of student loan debt upended everything. It is over $1.7 trillion now, the largest debt class of any asset other than mortgages. And, not to be cute, but you can live in a house. You cannot live in a degree. To say that these are different kinds of debts is an understatement, as sociologist Louise Seamster told me recently when we talked for The Ezra Klein podcast.

A few years ago, I sat with Brian Powell, professor of sociology at Indiana University, on a panel about higher education and inequality. He presented in-progress findings about how higher education should be financed. Now he and his colleague Natasha Quadlin, of UCLA, have written a book about what Americans think about paying for college. The book “Who Should Pay?” reports on a nationally-representative survey of Americans’ ideas about the ideal mix of government, family and student responsibility for the cost of higher education. This is important because public opinion shapes agendas, as Brian pointed out when we talked just ahead of the book’s release — it arguably matters more how people think college works than how it actually does. And much of the media discourse about the details of higher education funding — such as how endowments work or even how student loans work — far overestimates the general public’s understanding.

Three data stories emerge from Powell and Quadlin’s book. We overestimate how much people know or care about higher education finance or university conflict. Quadlin and Powell’s survey data suggests that, by and large, Americans still value college, even if they are increasingly confused about why it costs so much. To the issue of cost, younger adults and racial minorities (including Asian American, Latinx, and African Americans) understand college as a collective value that should have a more equal distribution of cost between families, students and governments. And, finally, I was struck by a null finding: Despite being the primary beneficiaries of higher education for decades now, women viewed the responsibility of paying for college pretty much the same way as men.

I talked with Quadlin and Powell about these findings and asked them to put them into context. How should we interpret them without over-interpreting them, given how little most people know about the way college financing works? And, I asked them the question that many of you would surely want to ask. What does their polling data of American attitudes about shared responsibility for college say about the cultural wars roiling campuses?

Tressie McMillan Cottom: The basic question: “What do we talk about when we talk about higher education funding” is so interesting. Your research shows that the policymakers and the general public are having two almost completely different debates.

Natasha Quadlin: Right. The general public’s focus is not on the details that higher ed policymakers and researchers often care so much about and debate. We talk about things like how FAFSA works, or incremental changes in appropriation for this or that program. But for the average person either doesn’t know or care about that. What’s more important to them are theses very broad conceptions of things like responsibility: That the student knew how much they were going to pay based on the terms on which they agreed when they received the money. So we wanted to really hone in on those broad concepts like responsibility and worthiness and value that the public definitely understands and grapples with when it comes to higher education.

Tressie: I was surprised the question “Who should pay for college?” wasn’t polarized by gender. Did that surprise y’all?

Natasha: Yes and no. I think that lack of a difference masks some other very salient differences between the way men and women think about college.

Brian Powell: One aspect at work here is that women may have a more positive view of higher education and see greater value in higher education. Women may view college funding through the role of the mother: “These are our children, so we should take care of them.” Men may also have that view for children, but they think of those going to college as “students” rather than “children.” That shifts responsibility from the general public to the college-goer themselves.

Tressie: The easy explanation for your finding that racial minorities think that the government should play a larger role in funding higher education is “they just want free stuff.” But what I see in the data is a different conception of the state.

Natasha: Right. Racial minorities are much more receptive toward a compact between individuals and government. So they believe that each group is supposed to be making some kind of contribution. And the government’s role should be a larger one because the cost is getting out of hand.

Brian: Parents who are racial minorities think the parents should have a larger role, too. The logic goes that it’s the job of parents and the government to support and protect the next generation. And it’s the student’s job to focus on school and doing well there.

Tressie: That jumped out at me. Earlier in the book you talk about the late 20th-century category of “emerging adult,” that comes out of a sort of life-cycle way of understanding college’s role. I think of your results about minority parents as them wanting to extend the protections to that category of emerging adult, this really fragile chrysalis, that their kids don’t often get.

I also thought your results about how age affects the way people think about who should pay for college were really interesting. It’s easy to take a cursory look at how: “It’s generational warfare. The olds hate the youngs because they won’t get a haircut and a job.” But when you dig in, there’s something more complicated going on.

Brian: Right, the older people say parents should be responsible. It’s not the older people saying, “Well, these lazy kids, they should be doing it.” Maybe they do think young college students are lazy, but they still think that parents have an obligation. I think one of the most interesting patterns is in the younger people, because they completely disagree with that. In fact, it’s the only group who are more likely to say it’s the student’s responsibility than the parent’s responsibility. Younger people think it’s the government and the student who should be responsible. In the interviews, you get an idea of why. They say, “We are adults, and so we are responsible.”

Natasha: It makes me sad in some ways, because they are basically children when they’re being asked to take on all the student loans, and they feel responsible, and they make these choices where they make these investments in higher education. We tell them that they’re old enough to make these choices and these decisions, and they’ve internalized that, obviously, based on their responses But should they internalize it? I think that’s a different question.

Tressie: I’m personally over the debate over “critical race theory,” but it is a discussion that’s happening in education right now. And though it’s primarily about elementary and high schools, the “dangerous ideas” are portrayed as coming from higher education.

Natasha: Yeah, I think its an attack on public education generally, which of course includes higher education. One of the big takeaways from our research — a point that we wanted to make in this book — is that for the vast majority of people, higher education holds value. And it’s value that is important in the labor market, but also outside the labor market.

Even people who don’t necessarily think that college is essential for a person’s life also think that life gets a lot easier when a person has attended college as opposed to not attended. So I think that’s what most people are thinking, when they think about college. There are of course some people that are steadfastly against college, that care very much about critical race theory. But it really is a contained group of people for whom that message really resonates, I think.

Brian: I think that if you asked most people “Are they teaching critical race theory at the school near you?” their answer would be, “I have no idea.” So I don’t believe this the debate going to have much of an impact on how people ultimately think about how college should be funded.

There are some historical precedents, too. I think about the radical college student in the late ’60s and very early ’70s, across the country. If you look at government support for universities then, it didn’t go down in response. In fact, there was a great deal of state support for public universities back then. So were there legislators who were really annoyed and upset about it? Sure. Was there public there may have been? Yes. Did it connect then to the notions of funding? No, I don’t think so.

Tressie: That’s all true, but the profile of the average college student is much different than it was back in the ’60s and early ’70s. I think there’s a case to be made that funding overall for higher education starts to decline as universities become more racially diverse and more women start to going to college. I don’t know that we have any evidence that those are necessarily causal, but they do seem to be part of the same stew. What do you think, Natasha?

Natasha: It’s complicated, but I think there’s something to the idea that when higher education gets seen as advancement for racial minorities and women, it becomes more open to attack.

But the climate surrounding higher education was so different due to the legislature and all of that stuff. I think that when higher education gets connected to the advancement of racial minorities and women and people of color, I think that it becomes more open to attack. I think you’re right. I don’t know. I think it’s complicated. But I think there’s something to it.


Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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