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Public Perception of Higher Ed

February 6, 2013

Despite the popular narrative of recent years that a college degree might not be “worth it,” Americans still generally agree that a degree is important. But they might be likelier to pursue one if colleges were more flexible and – of course – less expensive.

That’s the impression left by a new survey by Gallup (on behalf of the Lumina Foundation), which asked 1,009 adults 18 and older what they think about the quality, accessibility and financing of American higher education.

While 38 percent of respondents without a college degree said they were likely to go back and get one, many struggle with obstacles like time and family that keep them from doing so. But they seemed to indicate that newer models (such as prior learning assessment and competency-based education) that place less weight on learning tied to a specific place and time could help more adults get back in the classroom.

“We’ve got to help them understand that their pathway does not have to follow a traditional model – that there are ways to get their traditional credential, faster,” Jamie Merisotis, Lumina's president, said in an interview. “When you think about the rapidly rising demand for talent that we have in American society…. our ability to deliver that, and deliver it in a way that people can get access to, is going to be really important.”

The public’s overall impression of higher education is mixed, the findings suggest, with 46 percent saying the quality of higher education is better than in other countries, but 38 percent saying it was still better in the past. (Three in 10 people said the quality is the same in America as in other countries, and 31 percent said quality in America is the same as it was in the past.) People place more faith in "traditional colleges and universities" than they do in community colleges or online programs. (See chart below.)

On a 5-point scale, Americans' level of agreement
with the following statements:
  1: Strongly disagree 2 3 4 5: Strongly agree
Traditional colleges and universities offer high-quality education. 1% 3% 20% 47% 29%
Community colleges offer high-quality education. 2% 8% 36% 35% 19%
Online colleges and universities offer high-quality education. 7% 18% 39% 22% 11%

Lumina asked survey takers about their openness to new ideas that Lumina says are crucial to increasing degree attainment. (Currently, 4 in 10 Americans hold a two- or four-year degree; Lumina wants to raise that to 6 in 10 by 2025. At the current rate of attainment, the country would be 23 million degrees short by that deadline.)

Eighty-seven percent of respondents said students should be able to receive college credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom (through, say, community partnerships). Three in four said they would be more likely to enroll in a higher education program if they could be evaluated and receive credits for what they already know, and 70 percent said students should get credit without completing an entire course if they can demonstrate they’ve mastered the material in less time.

 

 

Still, only 26 percent of people said higher education is affordable “for everyone who needs it,” despite the fact that the vast majority believe a certificate or degree is either “very” (72 percent) or “somewhat” (25 percent) important. That’s largely for financial reasons: 96 percent say education beyond high school is important to earn more money and to get a good job.

Many adults without a degree -- 41 percent -- said they’ve thought about going back to college in the last year. But all respondents, those with and without a degree, acknowledged they face significant barriers.

Only 4 percent say the biggest barrier is a lack of information; most (36 percent) said it’s family responsibilities. That’s followed by the cost of higher education, at 28 percent, and job responsibilities, at 15 percent. About one in 10 people say job responsibilities are the biggest barrier, and 3 percent said it’s a lack of social support.

 

 

To help address the cost issue, people clearly think other entities – institutions, government and employers – should do more to chip in. (See chart below.)

On a 5-point scale, Americans' level of agreement
with the following statements:
  1: Strongly disagree 2 3 4 5: Strongly agree
Higher education institutions should reduce tuition and fees 4% 6% 13% 18% 59%
State governments should provide more assistance 10% 11% 20% 21% 38%
The federal government should provide more assistance 15% 10% 19% 15% 40%
Companies should provide more assistance to employees 6% 6% 20% 22% 46%

Some college presidents and policy makers have gotten behind Lumina’s push for competency-based education and other, more innovative models, but uncertainty about application and accreditation has kept the movement from taking hold. Merisotis says the survey results – looking at the esteem in which people hold academe and the barriers that make it hard to access -- are evidence that the public, at least, is ready for a new direction.

“The public’s understanding that the system’s got to change is growing,” he said.

 

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