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CORONADO, Calif. -- Everywhere you look, politicians are asserting that the public and taxpayers are questioning the value of higher education – and that their disappointment stems primarily from the fact that increasingly pricey college degrees aren’t leading to jobs.

Governors in states such as Florida and North Carolina have asserted that their investments in higher education should be focused like a laser on degrees that lead directly to jobs. "If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state," said Florida's governor, Rick Scott. Even President Obama seemed to endorse that view last month with a dig at the value of art history degrees.

A soon-to-be-released survey – of students, parents, employers and professors who participated in extensive discussions around the country about the value of higher education – shows that the politicians have part of the story right: Americans are concerned about the value of a college degree.

But the survey, a joint project of Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Issues Forum, also suggests that policy makers pushing colleges to focus more on short-term job outcomes, and on science and technology disciplines over other fields, are not accurately reflecting  the public’s views -- at least when members of the public have spent some time thinking about higher education.

“It seems clear from our results that leaders have underestimated the value that families and students place on college as somewhere that students can receive a rich and broad education. They’re concerned about the movement toward specific job training at the exclusion of these broader goals,” said William V. Muse, president of the National Issues Forum Institute, who presented on the survey’s results at a meeting here of academic administrators at public colleges.

The findings come from a not-yet-released report called “Divided We Fail: Why It’s Time for a Broader, More Inclusive Conversation on the Future of Higher Education,” which Muse, a former president of Auburn University and the University of Akron, previewed Saturday at the winter academic affairs meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities here. 

The conclusions stem from 115 forums held from summer 2012 through December 2013, in which groups of participants prepped by reading a white paper on higher education, discussed the issues together for 90 minutes, and then answered a set of questions about their preferred future for higher education nationally.

The participants – 45 percent of whom were current college students, 20 percent of whom were college instructors, and the rest parents, employers and others – were presented with three scenarios commonly suggested by policy makers for the the direction of higher education: concentrating on preparing students for jobs that are or soon will be available, with an emphasis on science and technology fields; focusing on helping students develop skills (such as communication, critical thinking, working with others) that will allow them to work in a variety of fields over the course of a career; or emphasizing access by lowering the cost of attendance, notably through online education. 

Participants in the dozens of focus groups expressed many of the concerns that policy makers have emphasized about the rising price of college and the risk of a higher education growing out of reach for many. But when asked a set of questions about the goals of higher education and what should be done to ensure that high quality postsecondary education remains accessible, respondents took a far more nuanced view about whether higher education is a private benefit or a public good than do many of the politicians who claim to represent them.

Three-quarters of respondents embraced the notion that the “primary purpose of a college education should be to help young people acquire skills that will enable them to get well-paying jobs,” and that the country’s long-term prosperity depends “heavily” on education more students in STEM fields. They also overwhelmingly said that colleges should require courses that incorporate internships, opportunities to solve community problems, and other hands-on learning experiences.

But an even larger majority – 89 percent -- agreed that “college should be where students learn the ability to think critically by studying a rich curriculum that includes history, art and literature, government, economics and philosophy." And two-thirds supported the idea that colleges should play a significant role in teaching young people to be more socially concerned and responsible.  

When offered a set of possible changes in colleges' curriculum and financial aid policies, respondents expressed strongest support for those options that emphasized broad learning and access rather than a strong vocational orientation, as seen in the table below.

Percentage of Respondents Saying Colleges Should:

Possible Approaches Strongly or Somewhat Favor
Require hands-on projects that teach collaborative problem solving, even if that reduces time for academic learning. 76%
Encourage all students to take diverse range of courses to understand the world they live in, even if such courses have little direct bearing on the jobs available when they graduate. 74%
Provide education of the highest possible academic quality, even if that means costs continue to rise. 60%
(Community colleges should) gear class offerings to needs of local employers, even if that limits students' abilities to move on to four-year colleges. 42%
Adopt cost-cutting measures, such as online learning, even if that does not enrich educational enrichment in the classroom. 36%
Focus scholarships and other aid on highest-achieving students in STEM fields that most benefit the economy, even at the expense of aid to students in other fields. 22%

Among other conclusions that researchers drew from the participants' survey responses and comments in the focus groups:

  • "Many participants ... raised questions about whether it's a good idea to encourage all high school students to continue on to college, especially traditional four-year college programs."
  • "Higher education can't succeed unless families and K-12 education do their part. What happens in these dimensions can be more powerful than anything colleges and universities do later. Higher education is simply too late to address the educational hurdles facing students who are poorly prepared."

"The primary conclusion is that there is a considerable disconnect between our leaders in public arena and citizens who have a direct, vested interest in what is offered and made available," said Muse. "The public has a broader definition of what it means to be prepared for the world of work. If we don’t give students broader skills, it will be difficult for them to move from jobs that have become obsolete."

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