Natasha Quadlin (University of California, Los Angeles) and Brian Powell (Indiana University) are the authors of the RSF book Who Should Pay? Higher Education, Responsibility, and the Public. In Who Should Pay? Quadlin and Powell draw on a decade’s worth of public opinion surveys analyzing public attitudes about whether parents, students, or the government should be primarily responsible for funding higher education and how public opinion has changed over time. In a new interview with the foundation, Quadlin and Powell discuss findings and policy implications from Who Should Pay? The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Natasha Quadlin is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She will be an RSF visiting scholar during the 2022-2023 academic year.
Brian Powell is James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology at Indiana University. He is a former RSF visiting scholar and is co-editor of the RSF volume Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family.
Q. What motivated you to write Who Should Pay? and why is the topic important?
Powell: I’ve been studying family relations and education for a long time. Decades ago, I wrote several articles about Americans’ views about who should be funding college. We relied on a national survey collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics that included a very simple question: Who should be responsible for the funding of college? This is a question that's embedded in contemporary debates about loans, free tuition, the challenges faced by college students today. I pivoted away from this topic for a while, but returned to it when I realized that no one had asked this core question for a long time. We found it surprising, because the question about paying for college and who should be responsible continues to be important. Regardless of their generation, many people are going to have an account about how they funded college or the barriers that prevented them from attending college.
But the question about responsibility in funding college is especially timely today. I think of my students who talked about their struggles of being able to go to college. For example, one student works three different jobs so she can pay for her tuition. Another student works three different jobs so he can both help out his mother and pay for college. Still another student lost funding from his family because he came out as gay. The examples are not exceptions. The struggles that so many college students face are very clear. So, who should be responsible for the funding of college, and what does the American public think about responsibility, are important questions to ask.
Q. Public opinion is typically extremely slow to change. However, you saw a massive shift in public opinion on who should be primarily responsible for the costs of higher education in a relatively short period of time. Can you discuss how public opinion changed over the course of your study and how it compares to changes in public opinion on other issues?
Quadlin: This is one of the core questions that we unpack in this book. In 2010, when we started conducting the survey, we found that people overwhelmingly believed that students and parents should pay for college. We describe this as an "individualist" solution because people are saying that we should rely on the economic resources of individuals to pay for college. At that time, we thought that we were going to be writing a book about the stickiness of culture. The data Brian used in his earlier research related to this topic were from 1980, and we essentially see the same patterns from 1980 replicated in our data in 2010. From 1980 to 2010, we find that individuals are seen as responsible for the funding of college. We thought that this would not change for the foreseeable future.
We were wrong. By 2015, when we did a follow up study, we see a huge increase in support for government investment in higher education—and this takes a couple of different forms. There are some people who we call “collectivists.” These people believe that the government should be primarily responsible for the funding of college, with less investment from individuals, or fewer direct contributions from students and parents. At the same time, there are other people who want to see what we a call a “compact” or a “partnership” between individuals and government.
The number of people who cite government as being responsible, at some level, really increased from 2010 to 2015. This is a huge change in public opinion. As a general rule, things do not change in the world of public opinion; it is very slow to change. There are only two social issues in our minds that are comparable to this rate of change in public opinion. The first is attitudes towards same-sex marriage. Brian’s book Counted Out,published by the Russell Sage Foundation, really unpacks and addresses the change in public opinion toward same-sex marriage. Another issue that’s similar is the legalization of marijuana. People’s views on these two issues have changed really rapidly in a short period of time. Otherwise, we do not see massive shifts in public opinion in the same way that we see people’s views change on who should be responsible for the funding of college.
Q. Can you briefly talk about the differences in respondents’ reasoning for why they believed that parents, students, or the government should be primarily responsible for paying for higher education?
Powell: In our research, we didn't just ask Americans who they think should be responsible; we also asked whythey think they should be responsible. The reaction by many people who said parents are responsible was befuddlement. They said things like, “Why are you even asking me this question? Of course parents should be responsible, they are responsible for their children.” They often gave very brief answers—for example, “It’s your child.” “It’s their education.” “They’re yours.” In contrast, respondents who said students or government should be responsible for paying for college gave much longer answers. The brevity of their comments suggest that to these people, the idea that parents should be responsible is so obvious that it doesn’t even require much of a justification.
A second theme was that parents should be responsible because government should not be. To these interviewees, “The government should not be involved, so that by definition means that parents or students should be responsible, so I choose parents.” Another theme was that people generalized from their own experiences. They said, “I went to college and my parents paid.” “My children went to college, and I paid.” “This is how it worked for me, and if it worked for me then this is the way I think it should be.” Still another theme that emerged focused on parental investment. It’s not just that parents are responsible, but funding for college is an investment, and who should be responsible for that investment? For these people, the answer is the parent.
Quadlin: Right, so there are a lot of people who saw parents as the default or obvious answer. The people that said students should be responsible were a little bit different. They were very much insistent on the notion of personal responsibility, which is something that comes up a lot in the book. People who honed in on students believed that college was a pivotal point in the life course and that maybe it was a point where people's sense of responsibility should be changing. They would say that college students are adults - most of them are over the age of 18 - and because college students are adults, they are responsible for paying for their own affairs. Therefore, they’re responsible for college. This is different from people who said parents. While both of these groups tend to focus on individual funding and individual solutions, the locus of responsibility or where the sources that people should be drawing on to pay for college differed between those two groups.
Powell: Several themes emerged when people said it was the government’s responsibility to pay for college. The theme that was mentioned most frequently—in fact, by over half of these respondents—deals with the idea of a collective good. People believe that education doesn’t just benefit the student or the individual, but that it benefits society. They believe that we as a country are better off with a larger percentage of people who have a college degree. Many people, for example, emphasized the need for a college educated population to strengthen our economy. In other words, college is not just an individual or private good. It also is a public good that benefits all of us, even if we don’t end up going to college.
A second theme focused on college affordability. People believe that college has become so costly that we cannot place the burden on students and parents; it is the government’s responsibility to help make college affordable for all. A third theme—one that surprised us—was taxes. We actually thought people were going to say, “Well, we don’t want to pay taxes, so the government shouldn’t be responsible.” Instead, we found that quite a few people flipped that argument. They said, “We pay taxes, and we should see a tangible benefit as a result of paying taxes. Making college affordable for my children, for people in my community, and in my country should be a tangible result of our paying for taxes.” A fourth theme compared the U.S. to other countries. And the argument was, "We are a wealthy country—Why is it that in other countries, college is free?"
Q. You broke down respondents’ opinions by sociodemographic characteristics such as race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, parental status, etc. What trends did you observe? Were there any that surprised you?
Quadlin: Two of the most notable cleavages that we found were in the areas of race and age. With race and ethnicity, we find a big divide between White respondents and respondents of color. In the book we focus on the perceptions of White respondents, Black respondents, Latinx respondents, and Asian respondents. In this particular case, there was a big divide between White respondents and everybody else. White respondents tended to hone in on those individualist solutions. They tended to see students and parents as responsible for the cost of college. People of color, however, tended to hone in on compacts or partnerships between parents and government. They didn’t necessarily gravitate toward the government-only solutions, where government would be fully or mostly responsible for the cost of college. Instead, they said that parents and government should partner together in the funding of higher education. This is a really notable pattern in our minds because respondents of color are essentially saying that it’s the parents’ and the government’s job to sponsor the next generation of youth. It’s not the job of the student, however. Their job is just to be a student, not to pay for college. It’s their job to learn, get an education, and earn a credential that can ultimately better themselves and their families. This was not a particularly surprising pattern to us because we’ve seen similar patterns in our research over the years. Still, the racial differences in public opinion were really clear and something that we saw as very obvious coming out of these data.
Powell: The age differences also were very strong. The responses from the oldest interviewees (i.e., 65 years and older) showed a very clear pattern. They overwhelmingly believed that the parents should be mostly responsible for funding college. To this group, this is your legacy, these are your children, and it is the parents’ job to help their children. This was a very clear pattern: they did not think students should be responsible and they didn’t think the government should be responsible. We find this pattern telling because we often hear complaints that older people think that students and young kids have it really easy, that they get everything. And yet, older Americans are the group that believes that students shouldn’t be paying for college; parents should be.
What did younger adults (i.e., ages 18 to 29) say? It’s not surprising that a large portion of them said that the government should be responsible. After all, younger adults are more liberal on many different economic issues today. What surprised us, though, was how many young adults said that students should be responsible. In fact, this is the only age group that was more likely to say that students are responsible instead of parents. This pattern flies in the face of the public discourse that portrays young adults as irresponsible children who believe that others should be taking care of them. Instead, what we found in our interviews is that many young Americans said, “Students are adults. We’re adults, and as adults, we should be responsible.”
Quadlin: Another thing that surprised us was seeing which of these sociodemographic characteristics don’t tend to predict much in terms of people’s attitudes toward the funding of college. We found that gender – between men and women – and also level of education don’t seem like they matter much in predicting people’s attitudes. With education, for example, we thought a reasonable hypothesis would be that those who have been to college and earned a bachelor’s degree would be more supportive of government funding of higher education. That’s because they have personally benefited from attending college and might be more supportive of using government resources to support more enrollment. At the same time, it may also be the case that many people with a college degree might prefer an individual funding solution, in part, because it allows them to hoard opportunities or to try to prevent the democratization of a college degree. We think that both of these attitudes are co-existing among people with a college degree, and this ultimately leads to no real effect of education in predicting people’s attitudes toward college funding. We see a similar pattern with gender, where there are no real differences between men and women in terms of who they think should be responsible for funding college.
Q. You asked respondents whether they believed qualified students from low-income and middle-class families had more, less, or the same opportunity as others to get a college education. What did you observe with regard to respondents’ reference groups in these explanations?
Powell: We found that about a third of our interviewees said that the vast majority of qualified people have the opportunity to attend college. The other two-thirds said that college was not available or accessible for many. This led us to ask: who are the people who have access, and who are the people who don’t have access? The majority of Americans believe that the poor have less access and opportunity than other people. Interestingly, though, a very small number of people, about one-in-seven, said that this group had more opportunity than others.
In addition, the clear majority of Americans believe that the middle class has the same access as others. However, of those who said that middle class did not have the same opportunity as others, more respondents said the middle class had less opportunity than more opportunity. So, what does that mean? Less access than whom? Some people were comparing the middle class to the wealthy: “I cannot afford to go to college” or “I cannot afford for my children to go to college, but people with a lot more money can.” Others compared the middle class to those with lower incomes and believed that the latter had greater access to governmental loans and grants. Some respondents were, in effect, referring to the idea of the “donut hole,” where the middle class are in a position in which they make too much money to be eligible for funding but not enough money to cover the expenses.
Q. When you asked whether qualified racial and ethnic minority students had more, less, or the same opportunity as others to get a college education, some respondents expressed heightened emotions, including anger. This was most salient among White respondents who said racial and ethnic minorities had more opportunity to attend college. What do you think motivates such anger and what did you see as some of the underlying assumptions respondents may have made that were not explicitly in the questions or that were contradictory to the information provided in the question?
Quadlin: This was a big sticking point in the interviews and one of the big focus points in one of the chapters of the book. To recap, we have a lot of White respondents who, when we asked them whether racial minorities have more, less, or the same opportunity to get a college education as other people – they say that racial minorities have more opportunity for college than other people. This question shows that there is a clear perception among White respondents that people of color have an advantage when it comes to higher education. But there were also people who said racial minorities have “equal opportunity” when we asked them this initial question about access to college. When we asked them to explain in their own words why racial minorities have the same access to college as other people, and we listen to their responses, it becomes very clear that although they say that racial and ethnic minority students have the “same opportunity,” what they really meant is that racial and ethnic minority students have “more opportunity” to attend college. Their explanations had a similar sentiment as the people who said “more opportunity” in the initial question. They were really angry in their responses, even though they technically said, “They have the same opportunity as us (White people).” This indicated to us that people are uncomfortable saying that people of color have more opportunity for college, but when asked to explain, their true beliefs became apparent. This is something that we’ve seen in our research and others are starting to use these follow up interview or survey techniques to really try to understand people’s authentic emotions when it comes to things like racial prejudice.
Q. You completed a supplemental survey in 2020 to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted public opinion on who should be primarily responsible for the costs of higher education. Can you discuss your findings?
Powell: With the pandemic, we knew we had to ask these questions again. The pandemic had such a profound effect on all of us and was such a shock to the system. We wanted to know what impact the pandemic had on public views about funding college. There are two plausible possibilities. One possibility is that the pandemic would make the inequality in the U.S. so palpable that people would be even more amenable to making education accessible to all. Alternatively, there are so many other consequential ways that the pandemic has affected our lives that the issue about governmental support for college may not seem quite as important. Our survey from 2020 suggests that these two possibilities may have cancelled each other: the patterns for 2020 were almost identical to those for 2019.
Q. Inflation has surged to four-decade highs in December 2021 and January 2022. It is impacting colleges and universities, leading to even more increases in cost. What does the rising cost of college mean for educational equity?
Quadlin: College costs have huge implications for educational equity, which may be obvious, but the specific implications may not be entirely clear. For some students, nothing is going to change. Either their parents or another family member will cover all of their tuition and fees no matter the cost. There are other students who attend institutions that will cover all of their demonstrated need, so they won’t need to worry about the rising costs despite coming from humble origins. So, for some students, this doesn’t matter. But most students are not in these situations and rising costs ultimately translate to more debt and potentially more financial hardship. The media emphasis on the rising costs of college is also really important for these students. We write about this in the book and others, especially economists of higher education, have written about this as well. The more that the notion of rising college costs is covered in the media, the more likely youth are potentially seeing this coverage and will internalize the message that college is not accessible to them. This may or may not be true. It’s possible that college is not accessible to them, but there are many sources of financial aid and other support that are available to them that they don’t know about. I always think about these students when I hear about the rising cost of college because it’s more complicated than just “costs are rising.” There are many opportunities in higher education for people who search for them. But the messaging on rising costs may ultimately prevent these students from doing the search that makes college possible for them. The media coverage of these topics goes far beyond the actual cost, it’s also about the pool of people who see college as a viable opportunity.
Q. While the Biden administration has cancelled $15 billion of student loans, the cancellations have been targeted, and Biden has not followed through on his campaign promise to more broadly cancel $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower. Additionally, a free community college initiative is no longer included in Build Back Better. Do you believe this will affect public opinion regarding the administration or have any political consequences? What are your thoughts on policies regarding student loan forgiveness?
Powell: We’re not political pundits, but we do have some ideas about how this might play out. From our interviews, it’s very clear that Americans are ready, willing, and eager to support students. Americans want college to be available for all who are qualified. They believe in the American Dream. It’s very clear that the public believes that the government should be primarily involved or in partnership with others for funding higher education. Yes, there is a small and very vocal group of people who still say government should stay away, but the reality is most Americans are trying to do something to make education a real possibility for more people. From that perspective, doing something to help out students will be a win-win proposition. It will be a win for President Biden, and it’ll be a win for Americans. Not doing anything or just making minimal changes is not going to be enough to satisfy the American public. As some respondents said, “We pay taxes, and we want to see something come from our taxes. We want to see a tangible benefit.” We believe that if more financial opportunity becomes available for students – in the form of tuition assistance or loan forgiveness – that will be a boon it terms of public opinion regarding the current presidency and it will also be a boon in terms of the opportunities for many Americans.