New Study Examines Public Perceptions, Student Needs Regarding Higher Education in America

Photo from Northeastern University’s Innovation Imperative: The Future of Higher EducationLast week, the Brookings Institution held an event titled “Innovation Imperative: The Future of Higher Education,” and centered around a new study released by Northeastern University that examined both public perceptions of higher education in the United States as well as what young Americans today want out of their college and university experiences.

Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun began the event by summarizing several key findings from the survey.

“In a period where people are questioning higher education, the overwhelming majority of respondents through the survey believed very strongly that [the] American higher education system is a gem,” Aoun said. He stated that a majority of respondents believed that higher education in the United States needs to be “nurtured,” and that most Americans still believe that college is an essential experience for individuals that desire personal fulfillment and economic success.

“It allows the nation to remain strong and competitive and a leader in the world,” he added.

Aoun said that college students fostered serious concerns about overall education costs, as well as global competition from international higher education systems. Many students, he said, are particularly worried that their degrees may not earn them a job right out of college. He called survey findings indicating that many young people believe that they will have less career opportunities than their parents a “profound” concern for the future of the United States.

Today’s college students demand flexibility, in terms of access and online options, Aoun stated. He also said that a majority of students prefer hybrid models that merge academics with work experiences, and noted that most college students sought “global proficiency” programs in order to better prepare themselves for a more globalized job market.

To supplement standard higher education systems, more and more colleges and universities are adopting what Aoun considers “horizontal integration” models. He notes that more colleges and universities are experiencing a “decoupling of knowledge transmission and the assessment,” likening the structural change to how the automotive industry has evolved over time. “When the car industry started, everything was done in house, by the same company,” he said. “Now, the car industry is much more horizontal. They buy brakes from another company, they buy this part from [another].” A similar transition is occurring today in higher education, he said, with some universities shifting from a focus on “input” to “output” measures.

“Traditionally, the institutions gave the credentialing,” he stated. “Some people say the states are going to do it, other people are pushing for some entities that hire the institution to do it.” This transition from vertical to horizontal integration models in American higher education, Aoun said, “has profound consequences on us.”

Edward Reilly, Global Chief CEO of FTI Consulting, explored the results of survey in depth.

“Americans, by and large, believe there is a consensus that we are a global leader in higher education, but there is this sense that a greater and greater investment in change and innovation is required in order to maintain that leadership position,” he said. “Americans strongly value higher education and consider it an integral part of the American experience.”

Reilly said the public opinion results indicate that a majority of Americans feel as if higher education is a key tool by which citizens can achieve upward mobility, stating that most people in the United States feel as if college is more important today than in previous generations. However, while most Americans believe there are more opportunities for individuals to go to college today, Reilly said a sizable minority of respondents (32 percent) believed college graduates today will still have less occupational opportunities than their parents.

“There are significant obstacles that are developing that are making it harder and harder to achieve that four-year degree,“ he said. “And in that, they see a need for the institutions to change. To innovate, to meet them in the workplace in a way that allows for a more adaptable solution to the lifestyles they are living and to the challenges they face as they look at those opportunities.”

Despite the economic downturn, Reilly said most Americans still believe the most important aspects of higher education are intellectual benefits, like critical thinking, and not career preparation. He also cites an apparent break between those that are 30 and younger and those that are 50 and older on the opinion that college helps individuals build “global perspectives” – a statement held in much higher esteem by younger respondents than older survey talkers.

Overall, he said about three out of every four Americans believe it is more important that it has been in the past to gain a college education.

“Seven in 10 Americans,” he said, “believe that college is extremely important or very important in achieving the American Dream.”

The results of the survey, Reilly said, indicate a majority of Americans believe the nation cannot remain globally competitive if the total number of college attendees and graduates decline in the United States. Eighty percent of parents, he said, believe it is “extremely likely” that their children will attend a college or university when they are older.

“This knows no ideological boundaries,” he said. A majority of respondents, across all major political affiliations, believe that cutting public university and college funding has lowered the nation’s stature as a global education leader, while 81 percent of the national sample said they believe the federal government should invest more money in higher education. However, an estimated 83 percent of respondents said higher education must to change for the nation to remain a world leader in education.

While 64 percent of the national sample said they were in favor of the federal government granting visas to international students who graduate from U.S. colleges, so they may continue to work and study in the country, only 49 percent of respondents believed that federal financial aid should be allotted to “deserving international students.”

About 73 percent of respondents said they would prefer a “no-frills” education, in which universities, in exchange for lower tuition costs, did not provide auxiliary services like gyms and dormitories. About 72 percent of respondents said they would perform one-to-two years of public service in return for reduced tuition levels.

A majority of respondents believe online-only education is similar in quality to traditional college courses, and most survey-takers believe that in five-to-seven years, most employers will view online degrees as just as valuable as traditional college and university diplomas. Almost nine out of 10 respondents said they believed cooperative education programs consisting of a mixture of academic work and full-time, paid internship employment were superior to in-class only educations. Indeed, 88 percent of respondents stated that co-op models help students better learn applied skills, develop prepared candidates for real world jobs and prepare students for the job market than traditional academics-only programs.

“American higher education flourished because it was built on a social compact between the citizens and higher education,” Aoun said. “We said – agreed — that we have two roles: one is to educate the citizens and prepare them for a life of fulfillment and accomplishment, and also we wanted to insure that the nation remains strong and competitive.”

The survey, he said, is a “wake up call” that students believe higher education administrators should be more in tune with their needs. A rethinking and redefinition of the “social compact,” Aoun believes, is something higher education stakeholders cannot afford to ignore.

“Higher education,” Aoun concluded, “is not standing still.”

Photo from Northeastern University’s Innovation Imperative: The Future of Higher Education


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