October 11, 2013

Voters back higher education, worry about access

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new poll finds a strong majority of Southern Illinoisans believes many people in the state who are qualified for higher education don’t have the opportunity to pursue it.

The survey, by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, also shows people believe students from lower-income families have even less opportunity to get a higher education. While most believe their generation has had greater higher education opportunities than their parents had, far fewer thought today’s children would have the same educational opportunities that today’s generation has.

“Education is the best stimulus package there is,” said David Yepsen, director of the Institute. “For a hard pressed region like Southern Illinois, it’s good that people believe in quality higher education. That’s the ticket to a better life for people -- and a healthier economy for this region.”

Yepsen said, “My grandmother back in Iowa -- who taught in a one-room school -- always told us to ‘get a good education because nobody can take that away from you.’ That was good advice from the Great Depression and it’s good that people in Southern Illinois still believe it. They need to be telling kids that today, too.”

This is the fourth Southern Illinois Poll the Simon Institute has conducted since 2010. Registered voters were randomly sampled across Southern Illinois -- generally south of I-64, but excluding the Metro East suburbs. The sample of 403 voters has a margin for error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Even during a slow economic recovery that at times seems to have left the region behind, Southern Illinoisans surveyed believe college education is a worthwhile, long-term investment for today’s high school graduates. Most believe having quality higher education should be a top priority for Illinois, and that having top-quality higher education results in more economic development for the state.

“Anecdotally, we hear complaints around our region that higher education isn’t worth the money or the trouble it takes to get a college degree,” said Charlie Leonard, the Simon Institute visiting professor who supervised the poll. “We wanted to empirically test whether that opinion was widely held here in SIU’s backyard. We think it is good news that our neighbors in Southern Illinois believe in the value of higher education -- not just for individuals, but for the economic vitality of the region.”

The study also found that three-fourths of Southern Illinoisans surveyed have a positive opinion of SIU.

On the other hand, Southern Illinoisans seem to have significant concerns about higher education funding. Most thought higher education in Illinois is insufficiently funded.  Opinion was roughly evenly split on whether the increased funding should come from state tax increases or higher tuition and fees.

Despite a positive view of Illinois higher education, and concern about whether it has enough funding or offers enough access, Southern Illinoisans surveyed have doubts about whether the state’s four-year universities are concerned with controlling costs.

Community colleges compare favorably, both in cost control and quality of education in the first two years.

Results of the poll are available here.

Positive highlights from the survey’s findings:

  • Eight Southern Illinois voters in ten (83.1 percent) said that achieving a college degree is more important today than it was for their parents’ generation.
  • A telling statistic during times of economic hardship is that two-thirds (66.5 percent) of voters surveyed said a high school graduate should go to college to improve his or her long-term prospects, while fewer than two in ten (17.9 percent) said a high school graduate should take whatever job out of high school they can get.
  • Three-fourths (75.7 percent) believe it is essential for the State of Illinois to have top quality public colleges and universities. One in three (33.0 percent) overall said it should be a top priority, and another four in ten (42.7 percent) said it was a very important priority.
  • A plurality of voters said the quality of public higher education in Illinois is excellent or good (43.7 percent), and another four in ten (39.0 percent) said it was average. The numbers are slightly better for public higher education “in your area of the state,” with about half (49.8 percent) saying it was excellent or good, and just over a third (34.7 percent) calling it average.
  • Most (54.6 percent) thought states with top-quality public colleges and universities were more likely to attract economic development than states without.
  • Three-fourths held a positive view of Southern Illinois University, with 54.1 percent having a favorable opinion and 22.1 percent holding a very favorable opinion of SIU. Respondents also have good feelings toward college students: 27.5 percent view them very favorably, and 55.6 percent view them somewhat favorably.

Concerns over funding and access:

  • Half (53.1 percent) of registered voters interviewed believed that Illinois public colleges and universities do not have enough funding to meet their needs. Opinion was fairly evenly divided over whether extra funding should come from state tax increases (32.3 percent) or higher tuition and fees (29.5 percent). One in 10 (10.2 percent)  volunteered that revenue was needed from both sources, and about one in seven (14.6 percent) said neither source was appropriate.
  • Two-thirds (65.0 percent) of respondents said they thought there were many people in Illinois who are qualified to go to college but don’t have the opportunity -- twice as many as those (31.3 percent) who thought the majority of people qualified to go to college had the opportunity.
  • Respondents were asked whether they thought students from low-income families had the same opportunities to go to college as others. The plurality (43.7 percent) thought low-income students had less opportunity to go to college, while a little over a third (37.2 percent) thought they had the same opportunity. Fewer still (15.9 percent) thought students from low-income families had more opportunities than others to go to college.
  • Southern Illinois voters surveyed overwhelmingly believe (77.7 percent) that there are greater opportunities to achieve a college education today than in their parents’ generation. Far fewer (56.1 percent) believe that when today’s children reach college age, their opportunities will be greater than those of the current generation.

Four-year vs. two year schools:

  • Just over a quarter (27.3 percent) thought four-year colleges and universities work hard to keep the price of a college education down. Twice as many thought four-year institutions “raise prices whenever they can to bring in more money.”
  • The results were flipped for two-year community colleges. Seven in ten (71.5 percent) thought two-year institutions worked hard to keep costs down, while only two in ten (20.1 percent) thought they raised prices whenever they can.
  • Six in ten (63.5 percent) strongly agreed and another one-fifth (19.9 percent) somewhat agreed that students at two-year colleges can learn as much as they would in the first two years at a four-year school.

The poll of 403 registered voters covered the 18 southernmost counties in Illinois: Alexander, Franklin, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnson, Massac, Perry, Pope, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline, Union, Washington, White, and Williamson. Live phone interviews were conducted September 20 through October 2. The sample has a margin for error of 4.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. This means that if we conducted the survey 100 times, in 95 of those instances, the result would be within plus or minus 4.9 percentage points from the results obtained here. The sample included 30 percent cell phone interviews.

Telephone interviews were conducted by Customer Research International of San Marcos, Texas. It reports no Illinois political figures as clients. The poll was paid for with non-state dollars using proceeds from the Institute’s endowment fund.

Note: The “Simon Poll” and “Southern Illinois Poll” are copyrighted trademarks of the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University. Use of publication of these polls is encouraged, but only with credit to the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.