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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. –Nine of 10 Tennesseans say a college education is important and want their children to earn a degree, a University of Tennessee opinion poll has found.

Nearly 92 percent of Tennesseans questioned in the survey said a four-year college education is important or very important. The figure is up 3 percent from five years ago. Ninety-three percent said two years of college is important or very important.

The Social Science Research Institute at UT-Knoxville conducted the survey, for the Office of University Relations, of 605 state residents this fall. It is the fifth poll since 1974 on attitudes toward education, state services, and confidence in the state’s and nation’s institutions. The latest survey has a margin of error of 4 percent, with a 95 percent confidence level.

Attitudes on the number of people who should have a college degree changed significantly between the 1993 and 1998 surveys. Five years ago 61 percent of those polled said there were too many college graduates. That number dropped to 33 percent this year.

Private colleges and universities get the nod for the highest quality of education by 40 percent of those polled, while 22.5 percent said state universities provide the better education. Twenty-seven percent said there is no difference.

Small colleges are viewed as having the advantage over large universities in terms of quality, the poll shows. Small colleges were favored by 57 percent, compared to 21 percent for large institutions.

For the first two years of college, those responding to the survey said students would get a better education at a four-year rather than a two-year institution.

More than two-thirds said the cost of attending a state public university has risen sharply over the last five years, and more than half say public institutions can cut costs without affecting educational quality, the survey found.

Since the first UT survey nearly 25 years ago, there has been a shift in how state residents view the financing of public higher education. Three-fourths now say a combination of additional student fees and new tax dollars should be used. In 1974, 28 percent favored the combination, but 42 percent said that new money should come from state taxes.

Attitudes about financial aid also have changed. In 1985 more than half said scholarships should be based only on academic achievement. This year that number is 40 percent.