While demand for a college education is higher than it's ever been, Americans are increasingly worried about the quality of that education and the rising price tag.
A new national poll released yesterday by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation finds nearly all Americans (97 percent) say having a degree or certificate beyond high school is very or somewhat important, yet 74 percent don't believe higher education is affordable for everyone who needs it.
And many question the quality of a college degree today. More than half (58 percent) feel the quality of higher education is the same or worse than in the past, while 38 percent think it is better, Gallup discovered.
"If we don't focus on the quality part of the equation, we can expect erosion of demand over time," said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education at an event in Washington Tuesday. "A good job is what Americans want out of college, not just a degree."
Students no longer say the main reason for pursuing postsecondary education is to develop a more meaningful understanding of life, as they did in the past. Today, the top reason is to get a good job (67 percent), followed by earning more money (65 percent), the poll found.
About half the Gallup respondents felt higher education in the U.S. was better and half felt it was the same or worse than in other countries.
This poll includes skeptics of online education, with just 11 percent saying they "strongly agree" that online universities and colleges offer a high-quality education. Community colleges didn't fare much better, with 19 percent, and traditional colleges and universities with 29 percent of respondents saying they "strongly agree" those institutions offer high-quality educations.
The new poll reflects a willingness by the public to consider new approaches to college completion, including granting credit for previous experience and rewarding competency over seat time. Of those surveyed, 87 percent think students should get credit for knowledge and skills acquired outside the classroom. Also, if a student has mastered the college material in less time than a traditional class, the Gallup survey found 70 percent of respondents feel they should be able to get credit without completing the entire class.
To improve the college landscape, 59 percent strongly agree that institutions should reduce tuition and fees. About 40 percent feel federal and state governments should provide more assistance, and 46 percent say companies should do more to support employees who want to pursue postsecondary training.
The Gallup/Lumina poll was based on 1,009 interviews by phone of adults older than 18 in November and December 2012.
(The Lumina Foundation helps underwrite coverage of the K-12 to college pipeline in Education Week.)
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University and a panelist at the event, said a new, competency-based model that is not tethered to credit hours is part of the answer. "If we can break from credit hour, we can shift from input and focus on outcome," he said. That can open up a wave of innovation."
Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of the Lumina Foundation, said that the survey results show the public really believes college matters, but it is looking for improvements in the system to help overcome the barriers of time and money.
Higher education should be better tailored to meet the needs of the student and provide supports, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. She also advocated more cross-sector collaboration between leaders in K-12, postsecondary education, and the business community. "College completion is an issue that starts long before college," she said.
There is a gap between what employers need and what schools are producing. Added Merisotis: "We don't hear the employer voice in higher education as in K-12, and they need to be at the table."
The panelists called for more measures of student learning so an employer could have a clearer picture of the competencies that a college graduate has to offer. Now, the proxy for quality of a degree is the reputation of a college. "We don't have a meaningful common understanding about what that degree represents," said Merisotis.
Each institution can decide what that quality is, added LeBlanc, but schools should be clear about their claims for learning, assessment, integrity, and transparency.
"If the demand for talent is growing rapidly, certifying that talent is critical," said Merisotis.