A new poll highlights Americans' conflicted feelings about affirmative action at colleges: A majority of those surveyed said it benefits society, but even more said schools should not admit minorities who have lower grades than other qualified candidates.
The finding is part of a comprehensive survey of American attitudes toward colleges and universities being released Monday by The Chronicle of Higher Education (search).
Among other findings, the survey revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans believe skyrocketing tuition has made higher education less affordable to the middle class. At the same time, 75 percent believe a college education is "worth the price."
The telephone survey of 1,000 adults ages 25 to 65 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
With the Supreme Court deciding a critical case that challenges the University of Michigan's (search) use of race as a factor in admissions, 58 percent of respondents to the Chronicle poll said affirmative action (search) programs benefit society.
But 64 percent of those surveyed said they thought minority students should not be admitted to a school if their grades and test scores didn't meet the level of other applicants.
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education (search), expects those conflicting attitudes to continue even after the Supreme Court ruling.
He said Americans have a deeply ingrained sense of fair play and individual rights - and for many, affirmative action doesn't seem fair. "If you feel you've been deprived of something by a process, it is felt very strongly," he said. "And that is an area where universities are struggling."
Overall, survey respondents gave the nation's colleges and universities high marks for credibility and effectiveness.
Ranking confidence in various institutions, the study placed private four-year colleges, public-four year schools and community colleges in three of the top five positions. The United States military - which ranked first - and local police departments were awarded the other top spots.
"Our overall take is there is widespread approval and respect at the most general level for the American higher education system," said Chronicle managing editor Doug Lederman.
"People think good thoughts about it, they generally think it's successful and they generally think that colleges do a good job. But when you start peeling back the layers and go deeper and more specific ... they see problems."
One problem, the survey found, is the importance placed on college sports. To 67 percent of those surveyed, sports are overemphasized. And 77 percent believe college athletes are not held to the same academic standards as other students.
"The perceptions are simply ammunition for the academic reform initiatives currently underway," said NCAA President Myles Brand.
Milton Friedman, the Hoover Institute (search) economist who has criticized the high-profile sports program at his alma mater, Rutgers University, was not surprised by the finding.
"On one hand, the public pays to see the sports spectacles and make it profitable for the universities," he said. "On the other hand, they say they don't want the universities to do it. So they act privately in different way than they regard it publicly."