Most Americans Think Government Support for Public Colleges Is Rising or Flat. They’re Wrong.

A majority of Americans mistakenly believe that government support for public higher education has increased or stayed the same over the past decade, according to survey results released on Monday.

The survey, conducted by American Public Media and The Hechinger Report,found that 27 percent of respondents thought “government funding” for public colleges had risen since 2009, and 32 percent said it had stayed the same. The survey question did not distinguish between local, state, or federal support.

Only 29 percent of respondents correctly answered that government support had dropped. In 2017 state support for public colleges over all was down by $9 billion compared with 2009, when adjusted for inflation.

While many states have increased annual support for several years now, buoyed by strong economies, in most cases the increases have not made up the ground lost to huge cuts in the years immediately after the Great Recession.

People can be forgiven for not fully understanding government funding for higher education, as it can be a complex mix of local, state, and federal support, said Thomas L. Harnisch, director of state relations and a policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But state spending per student, over all, is down from pre-recession levels, he said, and “that’s resulted in a cost shift from states to students and family.”

The Tuition Pricing Crisis

The survey findings signal that Americans are somewhat aware of the shift in who pays for college. A second question asked if respondents believe that “publicly funded grants and loans” have failed to keep up with the cost of tuition over the past decade; 44 percent said they had, compared with 22 percent who believe they have kept pace and 20 percent who think they have increased, relative to tuition costs. Thirteen percent said they didn’t know. The survey did not distinguish between state or federal grants, or private loans or subsidized loans, and it did not specify tuition at public or private institutions.

The survey offers a peek into public misperceptions about higher-education funding, but it may not be a true picture. Ten percent of respondents said they didn’t know whether government support had risen, fallen, or stayed the same. Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, tweeted that the survey might indicate that “a lot of people are willing to guess answers rather than honestly report ‘don’t know.’”

While the survey results may be imprecise, they still show the challenge facing public colleges, said Kevin R. McClure, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “It’s further discouraging evidence,” he said, “that there isn’t necessarily a lot of support for increasing funding to public colleges and universities if the public believes that they’re already being supported in the way that they should.”