• September 30, 2014

Americans Value Higher Education but Question Its Quality, National Survey Finds

Americans overwhelmingly view a higher education as essential to landing a good job and achieving financial security, but they have doubts about its quality and affordability, according to a new report from the Lumina Foundation and Gallup.

They also favor changes in higher education that would make obtaining a degree more realistic for working adults. A majority of respondents to a survey underlying the report said they supported the awarding of credit for prior learning and skills acquired outside the classroom. Three-quarters, meanwhile, said that they would be more likely to enroll in college if they could receive credit for what they already knew.

"The demand for postsecondary education is as high or higher than it's ever been," said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, which conducted the survey. But civic and economic demands are driving more Americans to view higher education through a pragmatic, job-focused lens, he said. "They're asking for something very different from what we've done in the past."

The report, "America's Call for Higher Education Redesign," was released on Tuesday and is based on more than 1,000 interviews that Gallup researchers conducted in November and December 2012 on behalf of Lumina.

The findings suggest that Americans acknowledge the central role of postsecondary education in employment and financial stability—but hardly think the current model is perfect. Three-quarters said college is unaffordable. And more than half said the quality of higher education is the same as or worse than in the past.

Despite those concerns, the notion of earning a college degree appears to be powerful. Of those who do not have a college degree or certificate, more than four in 10 said they had thought about going back to college in the past year. More than one in five said they were "very likely" to do so.

Mr. Busteed said that enthusiasm could provide a critical boost to Lumina's college-completion agenda, which aims to restore the United States as the world leader in the proportion of adults who hold college degrees by 2025. Lumina's goal is for 60 percent of Americans to hold a "high-quality degree, certificate, or other credential." Currently, about 40 percent of American adults hold a two- or four-year degree.

Since the data set of those interviewed was statistically weighted to reflect the adult population of the United States, Mr. Busteed said, that means 55 million Americans said they had thought about going back to college. And 28 million are very likely to do it. About 23 million adults would need to earn college credentials to close the completion gap, he said.

But the quality of that education—and whether it results in a certificate or a degree that leads to employment—matters most. "A good job is now what Americans want out of college," Mr. Busteed said. "Not just a degree."

Calls for a Redesign

Several leaders in higher-education policy said the survey's findings should prod campus officials and policy makers to shed outdated notions of who students are, why they enroll in college, how to educate them, and how to assess what they've learned.

Breaking free of the credit hour, as currently defined, could liberate colleges to be innovative in delivering a quality education to students, suggested Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University. Speaking during a panel discussion here following the report's release, he said that at his institution the creation of competency-based education has allowed for a more-direct determination of what students are learning. The approach, which has been approved by the university's regional accreditor, would allow students who pass a series of assessments to earn credits without attending classes.

For Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a successful redesign of higher education means focusing more—and meaningfully—on adult students' needs. The survey findings, she said, indicate that nearly all adults think higher education is important—but only a quarter think it's affordable, and more than a third say that family responsibilities are a barrier to re-enrollment. It's time, she said, to "think about education in a different way."

"We have refused to allow ourselves to think creatively and act creatively about what college can be for today's students," Ms. Cooper said. "The model that we're using is a model that is based in a traditional notion of higher education, and now, when we look at today's student body, over 75 percent of the student body is nontraditional."

Collaboration across sectors, strong partnerships between campuses and industry, meaningful engagement from civic leaders, and better communication with policy makers for elementary and secondary schools—all are necessary approaches to recast today's higher-education landscape in a way that will benefit students for generations to come, the experts said.

"We've got to think about how to create more opportunities for a large number of people at a very high-quality level," said Jamie P. Merisotis, Lumina's president and chief executive. "Because that's what society demands."

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