Americans believe higher education must innovate

Although a majority of Amer­i­cans believes higher edu­ca­tion remains crit­ical to the nation’s com­pet­i­tive­ness and the best way for indi­vid­uals to achieve the Amer­ican Dream, 83 per­cent say that higher edu­ca­tion must inno­vate for the United States to main­tain its global lead­er­ship, according to a new North­eastern Uni­ver­sity survey.

The national opinion poll, con­ducted for North­eastern by FTI Con­sulting, under­scores the cen­trality of higher edu­ca­tion to the country’s com­pet­i­tive­ness and char­acter, but also illus­trates the belief of most Amer­i­cans — par­tic­u­larly those under 30 — that the world’s pre­em­i­nent higher edu­ca­tion system must change.

“These results show that while Amer­i­cans are very proud of our higher edu­ca­tion system, they’re also con­cerned about the future,” said North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun. “In over­whelming num­bers, they’re telling us that the system of today will not meet the chal­lenges of tomorrow. These find­ings are a wake-​​up call for those of us in higher edu­ca­tion to renew the social com­pact we have always had with Amer­i­cans by inno­vating across mul­tiple dimensions.”

According to the survey, seven in 10 Amer­i­cans believe higher edu­ca­tion is “extremely” or “very impor­tant” to achieving the Amer­ican Dream. Among those who have attended col­lege, 83 per­cent con­sider col­lege a good invest­ment. In addi­tion, most Amer­i­cans say col­lege pro­vides impor­tant intel­lec­tual ben­e­fits (88 per­cent) and is impor­tant to finding a good job (75 percent).

But 83 per­cent — an over­whelming majority — say the U.S. higher edu­ca­tion system needs to change in order to remain com­pet­i­tive with other coun­tries around the world. This finding is even more pro­nounced among younger Amer­i­cans. Nine in 10 respon­dents between the ages of 18 and 30 believe Amer­ican higher edu­ca­tion needs to change.

Amer­i­cans are split on the value of col­lege today. Overall, 51 per­cent of Amer­i­cans rate the state of higher edu­ca­tion in America as “excel­lent” or “good,” while 46 per­cent con­sider it “fair” or “poor.” More­over, just 39 per­cent say that the U.S. higher edu­ca­tion system is pro­viding an “excel­lent” or “good” value for the money, while 60 per­cent rate its value as “fair” or “poor.”

A large majority believes the cost of col­lege is a sub­stan­tial bar­rier that is increas­ingly putting higher edu­ca­tion out of the reach of middle-​​class Amer­i­cans. Eighty-​​six per­cent of respon­dents rate paying for col­lege as a big obstacle to obtaining a col­lege degree. Half of those sur­veyed (49 per­cent) — and 64 per­cent of those between the ages of 18 and 30 — say con­cerns about col­lege costs caused a close friend or family member to post­pone or forego attending college.

The survey reveals a gen­er­a­tional divide on the per­cep­tion of online pro­grams as an accepted alter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional class­room model. Half of respon­dents (49 per­cent) — including 61 per­cent between the ages of 18 and 30 — believe an online degree pro­vides a sim­ilar quality of edu­ca­tion to a tra­di­tional degree. More­over, 68 per­cent of younger adults say an online degree will be just as rec­og­nized and accepted among employers as a tra­di­tional degree in the next five to seven years, com­pared with 53 per­cent of Amer­i­cans as a whole.

A large majority of young adults, 87 per­cent, believes hybrid learning models that pro­vide a mix of online and tra­di­tional class­room learning are a good option for working people inter­ested in going back to school. Eighty-​​four per­cent of young Amer­i­cans believe a hybrid learning approach pro­vides more ben­e­fits to stu­dents than online courses alone.

Younger Amer­i­cans strongly prefer inno­va­tions that help defray the cost of higher edu­ca­tion. For example, 73 per­cent say a “no-​​frills” option that gives stu­dents access to classes, courses, and fac­ulty at a reduced price — but not ameni­ties such as res­i­dence halls and ath­letic facil­i­ties — would have been a good option for them.

One of the largest majori­ties in the survey was the public’s sup­port for coop­er­a­tive learning, a model in which stu­dents inte­grate semes­ters of aca­d­emic study with semes­ters of full-​​time paid employ­ment in their chosen fields. Nearly nine in 10 Amer­i­cans (88 per­cent) — and 94 per­cent of young adults — say that coop­er­a­tive edu­ca­tion better pre­pares stu­dents for pro­fes­sional success.

Other note­worthy find­ings:

The survey results were released today at a North­eastern University/​Brookings Insti­tu­tion forum in Wash­ington, D.C., attended by leaders from gov­ern­ment, acad­emia, the news media, and the pri­vate sector.

The find­ings are based on 1,001 tele­phone inter­views of Amer­ican adults con­ducted Oct. 13–18, 2012, and an over­sample of 250 Amer­ican young adults, ages 18 to 30, sur­veyed via the Internet on Oct. 16–19, 2012. The margin of error for the national survey is 3.1 percent.

FTI Con­sulting is a global busi­ness advi­sory firm that pro­vides mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary solu­tions to com­plex chal­lenges and opportunities.

More poll data is avail­able at north​eastern​.edu/​i​n​n​o​v​a​t​i​o​n​s​u​r​vey.