What Do the People Want?

Do Americans have a more nuanced view of higher ed reform than the politicians they elect? Perhaps, says a new survey.

April 24, 2014

Americans might take a more nuanced view of higher education than the agendas advanced by the politicians they elect, according to a report released today based on 115 forums conducted across the country.

The survey – a joint project of Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and the National Issues Forum – found participants were alarmed by debt, but not government spending; didn’t want the country's colleges and universities to abandon philosophy and the liberal arts as it focuses on science, technology, engineering and math; and were struggling to balance the pros and cons of a traditional four-year degree. Primary results were made public in February.

David Holwerk, a spokesman for Dayton, Ohio-based Kettering, said politicians should take more notice of the public’s views than they did when they pushed through health care reform or Common Core, which are both suffering.

"If it’s not what the public has in mind, it’s going to stumble,” Holwerk said.

The surveys are based on 90-minute forums conducted across the country but mostly on or near four-year college campuses, which are by no means representative of the American population. More than two-thirds of the respondents were college students or instructors, for instance. Nationally, less than a third of Americans have a college degree.

The survey's authors said the conversations were valuable even if they did not come from a good sample of the American public.

But, based on those detailed conversations over the past two years, rather than representative polling, Holwerk said it looks like the public wants a less expensive higher ed system but one that retains its flexibility.

The mostly college-affiliated participants, perhaps not surprisingly, focused much of their talk on traditional college experiences and did not often talk about community colleges. They “struggled with tensions between the idea of college as career preparation versus college as an opportunity for intellectual and personal growth.”

In questionnaires filled out by about 1,300 people after the forums, 9 in 10 said students should study history, art, literature, government, economics and philosophy.

More than 8 in 10 strongly or somewhat agreed that even if the United States works to increase students' STEM skills, it wouldn’t help most Americans “unless we have an economy that supports a strong middle class and offers more opportunity.”

Participants repeatedly contrasted the United States with China and decided China’s model – which was perceived to be skilled but not innovative – was not for America.

Jean Johnson, a senior fellow at Public Agenda, said even though politicians are not saying they plan to do away with traditional college to focus on STEM and vocational training, their position is sometimes misunderstood.

“I’m not sure that is what people are hearing,” she said. “They are hearing, ‘Let’s focus on STEM.’ ”

Here's a table from the report that talks about the researchers' view of what policymakers say and what the forum participants said:

Leaders and Experts Participants in the Forums
Both inside and outside higher education, innovation is the watchword. Facing a more competitive international economy and relentlessly rising college costs, many leaders say now is the moment for higher education to reinvent itself. Developing approaches that help a broader span of students acquire skills for today’s workplace is a major thrust For most of those attending the forums, the benefit of a rich, varied college education was their starting point. Most saw enormous value in the classic four-year residential experience where, in their view, students have time to explore new ideas and diverse fields. For many, being able to take advantage of this experience is the key to becoming an educated person.
Business and government leaders have called for higher education to graduate more scientists, engineers, and technology innovators to bolster U.S. competitiveness. Most participants saw this as a laudable goal, but not a pressing one, or one that would improve the economy for most Americans. Many stressed that professionals in science and technology will be more creative with exposure to a broad course of study.
Leaders often voice deep concern about how governments and students can afford higher education’s rising costs. Most participants seemed to be at a very early stage of their thinking on this issue. Many were alarmed by student debt, but not the cost to government. There was little focused discussion about the difficult choices involved in containing costs in the system overall.
Many leaders see community colleges as an increasingly crucial part of the system overall, and they are advancing specific ideas — competency-based education, for example — that they believe will make higher education more affordable, more responsive to different kinds of students, and more in step with the needs of the job market. For most participants, “college” meant a traditional four-year degree, and few initially talked about community colleges, even though discussion materials specifically referred to them. Only a handful of participants seemed to have thought much about innovations like competency-based education or the role of MOOCs. This was generally true even of faculty or college administrators attending the forums.
For leaders, degree completion is a top priority. Most say that it is imperative to increase the number of Americans attending and completing two-year and four-year degrees in a timely fashion in order to strengthen the economy.
Envisioning “college” almost exclusively as four-year degree
programs, many participants asked whether the country has
gone too far in encouraging students to pursue this type of
education. At the same time, many worried about the lack of
options for high school graduates who don’t want or aren’t
ready for four-year programs. Many suggested the country is
neglecting non-college-bound students.


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