Poll: Education backed, but not new school taxes

December 07, 2010

The public verdict is in and overwhelming: The better the education people get, the stronger the U.S. economy will be, a poll shows. But don't count on folks to support higher taxes to improve schools.

Eighty-eight percent say a country's education system has a major effect on its economic health. Nearly as many — 79 percent — say the U.S. economy would improve if all Americans had at least a two-year college degree, according to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll.

Yet when it comes to financing public school improvements, people tilt slightly against raising taxes to do so, with 47 percent opposing and 42 percent in support. The findings underscore the tensions confronting federal and local officials across the country balancing the competing pressures of strengthening education while not overburdening taxpayers at a time of economic weakness and huge federal and state budget deficits.

"Education is vitally important to our country today," said Ronald Bartlett, 66, of Marshall, Texas, who works at a mechanic's shop. But when it comes to higher taxes for schools he says no, adding, "We're continually pouring money into the government supposedly to improve education,and it's not improving. Too much government control is not good."

The consensus about education's impact on the country's economy differs little by gender, age, race or levels of education and income. The responses were similar to when the same questions were asked in a June 2008 AP-Knowledge Networks poll, though the number saying the economy would get a very large boost from better education has grown somewhat.

"Obviously, the public is getting the message that colleges give you a better shot at a good job, and that's going up because of the economy," said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.

The tendency to oppose raising taxes to help schools is also fairly consistent among different groups of people.

The AP-Stanford University poll also shows that people mostly blame students and their parents for poor college graduation rates. And they give high marks to all sectors of American higher education including for-profit colleges, despite recent criticism of dubious recruiting tactics, high student loan default rates and other problems at some schools.

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. Between about a quarter and a third blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.

Kirst said the tendency to mostly blame students 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. But Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, which championed such efforts, disagreed.

"This will play out like the high school dropout issue," Jones 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.

Overall, about 4 in 10 Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have a two-year college degree or more, according to Census Bureau data.

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 poll also found that:

— Seventy-seven percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats fault students heavily for low graduation rates. Republicans are also slightly likelier than Democrats to blame federal officials for the problem.

— Fifty-seven percent of minorities blame parents for college graduation rates, while just 40 percent of whites do.

— 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.

—Asked about the quality of schools, public four-year colleges received the highest marks, with 74 percent calling them excellent or good.

—Other 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).

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.

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.