63 percent of college presidents think students should pay for education

College presidents and the American public have very different ideas about who should pay for college and whether higher education is a good deal, a new Pew Research Center study finds.

Almost two-thirds of the presidents of public and private four-year and two-year colleges say that students should pay for their own education.

Meanwhile, less than half of members of the general public agrees with that assessment, with a majority saying either the federal or state government, private donors, or a combination of those should pick up the largest share of a student's college tab.

Perhaps this reluctance to pay is due in part to a widespread belief that colleges are ripping people off. Nearly 60 percent of Americans say the U.S. higher education system is not providing students with a good value. And 75 percent of Americans say college is financially out of reach for most people.

Three-quarters of college presidents, on the other hand, say college is a good or excellent value, and 42 percent of them say college is affordable for most people.

Terry Hartle, chief lobbyist at the American Council on Education, tells the Lookout that there's a simple reason college presidents and the general public are so out of sync.

"I think the reason that college presidents think college is more affordable than the general public is that college presidents are acutely aware of how much money is going into student aid each year," he says. Hartle also points out that 25 years ago, when college was much cheaper on average, 60 percent of Americans said higher education was unaffordable for most people.

It's true that the sticker price of college has nearly tripled since 1980, even after costs are adjusted for inflation. Advocates of higher education, like Hartle, argue that grants and financial aid have filled that gap--but economists have found that the average family is paying a higher percentage of its income to finance college than it did 30 years ago. Families in the lowest 20th percentile of income have found college more financially out of reach over the same period, suggesting that financial aid has not kept pace with ballooning costs.

Meanwhile, six in 10 college presidents say students are less prepared for college and study less than their counterparts had 10 years ago. Their pessimism is borne out by research. A comprehensive study finds college students only study 12 hours a week on average. And a 2008 study found that one-third of college students are enrolled in pricey remedial courses because they lack proficiency in basic math or reading.

Hartle says skepticism over the value of a college education are not new: A 1976 Newsweek cover asked "Who Needs College?" and Harvard economist Richard Freeman argued in "The Overeducated American" the same year that as more Americans racked up degrees their value would go down. (The opposite has proven true so far.)

College graduates enjoy a strong economic advantage over lesser educated Americans on average. The Pew researchers estimate that the average college graduate makes $650,000 more over his or her lifetime than a high school graduate. And even if they don't think college was the best deal, more than 85 percent of college grads surveyed say their education was a good investment for them personally.

(Poll: Pew Research Center)