The public pins most of the blame for poor college graduation rates on students and their parents and gives a pass to colleges, government officials and others, a new Associated Press-Stanford University poll shows.
All sectors of American higher education received high marks for quality. That extends to for-profit colleges, despite recent criticism of dubious recruiting tactics, high student loan default rates and other problems at some schools.
The belief that students are most at fault for graduation rates is a troubling sign for reformers who have elevated college completion to the forefront of higher education policy debates and pushed colleges to fix the problem, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.
"The message is, 'Students, you had your shot at college and failed and it's your fault, not the college,'" Kirst said.
When asked where the blame lies for graduation rates at public four-year colleges, 7 in 10 said students shouldered either a great deal or a lot of it, and 45 percent felt that way about parents.
Others got off relatively easy: Anywhere between 25 percent and 32 percent of those polled blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.
"We're all responsible for our own education, and by the time you get to college you are definitely responsible and mature," said Deanna Ginn, a mother of 12 from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Taking a closer look at the numbers:
- Republicans are likelier than Democrats to blame federal officials for today's college graduation rates - 34 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats point at them.
- There's a small partisan difference on the student blame question: Seventy-seven percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats fault students heavily.
- Minorities are more prone than whites to blame professors and teachers for college graduation rates, with 40 percent of minorities but just 29 percent of whites doing so.
- Fifty-seven percent of minorities blame parents for college graduation rates, while just 40 percent of whites do.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the results are deeply troubling and mean elite colleges and universities have succeeded in diverting blame from themselves.
"Those supporting the completion agenda need to push back - hard - and emphasize the role colleges play in supporting or undermining student success," she said.
After long emphasizing access to college, higher education policy debates have shifted only recently to focusing on getting students through. The Obama administration has called for the United States to again lead the world in number of college graduates by 2020.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation and others have directed money and attention to states and colleges to improve completion rates, and several states are taking action.
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, which championed such efforts, disagreed that the poll spells trouble for reform.
"This will play out like the high school dropout issue," he said. "The more it becomes a subject of public discussion the more advances we will make on confronting the college dropout problem."
Just over half of first-time students who entered college in 2003-04 had not earned a degree or credential within six years, the Education Department reported recently. That's slightly worse than students who started in 1995-96.
Experts caution it is tricky to measure success and compare graduation rates because today's older, less-traditional college student population takes more time to finish school and is harder to track.
The AP-Stanford poll found most people were happy with the quality of higher education in their states.
Despite severe budget cuts and spiraling tuition at many public four-year colleges, those schools received the highest marks: Seventy-four percent in the poll called them excellent or good.
But others institutions got strong marks, too: Four-year private nonprofit colleges (71 percent), two-year public colleges (69 percent), private for-profit colleges (66 percent) and private for-profit trade schools (57 percent).
That's a rare glimpse at public opinion about for-profit colleges, which have been fighting proposed regulations that would that would cut off federal aid.
The poll also found overwhelming agreement that there is a link between the nation's prosperity and the quality of its education system.
Overall, 88 percent say economic prosperity and quality education are closely entwined, a 12-percentage-point increase over a similar poll two years ago. Nearly 80 percent said that having all Americans graduate from a two- or four-year college would help the economy.
Yet most in the poll are unwilling to invest more in the nation's school systems in order to obtain that economic payoff - just 42 percent favor raising taxes to pay for better education.
The poll was conducted September 23-30 by Abt SRBI Inc. It involved interviews on landline and cellular telephones with 1,001 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Stanford University's participation was made possible by a grant from the Gates Foundation.