Some Thoughts on Inside Higher Ed’s 2013 Survey of Parents

This article is part 2 of a 2 part series reviewing the results of Inside Higher Ed’s most recently-released surveys.  The first survey took the pulse of higher education from the perspective of college and university presidents.  The second survey asked largely similar questions of parents of students in grades 5 through 12.  While both offer insightful glimpses into the ways in which each group views the current trends in online education, there are notable differences in how respondents of the two surveys view the higher educational situation in America today.

Earlier this week I provided some thoughts on the results of Inside Higher Ed’s 2013 survey of college and university presidents.  Though the survey of college and university presidents is in its third year, this is the first year that Inside Higher Ed has surveyed parents regarding their thoughts on higher education today.  While college and university presidents generally appear to view the higher education landscape in an optimistic way, parents’ responses indicate a bit more trepidation about the process and even the value of higher education today. 

Like the majority of college and university presidents, a majority of parents who responded to the survey agreed that affirmative action (namely the consideration of race in the college admissions process) has had a positive impact on higher education.  As Scott Jaschik points out in his summary of the survey results, “…most parents (including most white parents) do not believe that affirmative action is costing their students spots in college.” 

Not surprisingly, parents’ biggest concerns for their children when considering colleges is cost.  More than a third (34 percent) of parents who responded to the survey indicate that they would be “very likely” to restrict their child’s college selections based on tuition costs and another 34 percent indicated that it is “somewhat likely” that they would do so.  Only 16 percent indicated that it is “not at all likely” that they would consider tuition costs in the selection of college.  It is  not surprising that parents of children in grades 9 through 12 (closer to beginning the college application process) are more likely to restrict the college selection process based on the cost of tuition.  Jaschick notes that “For decades now, a consistent message from college and university leaders has been that potential students should not be scared off by sticker price…” because of generous financial aid packages that many schools offer to students.  Jaschik also notes that the results of the survey indicate that “this message is not getting through in a consistent way to parents.”  Perhaps the reason for this disconnect can be found in parents’ awareness about the high levels of student loan obligations, slow job market for recent college graduates, or political speeches given by the president and other politicians about waning college affordability. 

Another significant concern for parents is the ability of their children to get a good job upon graduation.  Regardless of their child’s current grade, “to get a good job” was cited as the most important reason for a college education.  What should be quite alarming for educators (and, for society at large) however, is the percentage of parents who indicated that they felt their children could get a good job without a college education.  Some 31 percent of parents “strongly agree” with the statement, “I am confident that there are ways other than going to college that could lead my child to a good job.”  In addition, “…parents were more likely to strongly believe that no college at all can lead to a good job than to believe that a liberal arts education can lead to a good job.”  In these cases, parents may be weighing the current employment environment with the potential debt their students (and themselves) could incur with a college education. 

At least one state politician has also called into question the return on investment (measured in terms of getting a well-paying job after college) of higher education.  Earlier this year, North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory stated on a national radio broadcast that he is considering legislation “’which would change the basic formula in how education money is given to our universities and community colleges…It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.’” In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has suggested a similar reform, proposing a funding shift that would take money from liberal arts programs and redirect them to STEM programs at state funded schools.  Texas Governor Rick Perry has made similar statements.  Obviously STEM programs and student proficiency in math and science is imperative to the success of the nation but I am not convinced that there is less value in a liberal arts education.    In addition to specific content knowledge, liberal arts curriculums teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills along with fundamental communication skills.  The importance of these skills in today’s workplace and in graduate school cannot be overstated. 

While there are some similarities in the responses of college and university presidents and parents with children in grades 5 through 12, there are marked differences, as well.  In general, college and university presidents appear to have a generally optimistic view of the higher educational landscape while parents arguably view the system with greater cynicism.  I would be interested in seeing how the views of students line up against those of their parents and college presidents.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence