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Gallup Poll: Americans See Higher Education as Essential, yet Often Unaffordable

Gallup Student Poll director Valerie Calderon says creativity is needed to help prospects achieve education goals.Gallup Student Poll director Valerie Calderon says creativity is needed to help prospects achieve education goals.

WASHINGTON — In what was described as a major impetus to redesign higher education, a new Gallup poll released Tuesday found that most Americans — 71 percent — view higher education as important to a person’s financial security in the future, but that 74 percent also thought higher education was unaffordable for everyone who needs it.

The poll also found that 41 percent of Americans thought about going back to school to earn a college degree or certificate within the last year. Family responsibilities, the cost of higher education and job responsibilities, however, were cited as the biggest barriers to returning to school, the poll found.

“This is a very important population that we need to figure out how to tap and move them from this strong intentionality to action,” Valerie Calderon, director of the Gallup Student Poll, said of those whom the poll found had recently considered going to college to earn a degree or certificate.

Calderon made her remarks Tuesday at Gallup World Headquarters during an event to formally release the new poll, titled, “America’s Call for Higher Education Redesign.”

“There is lots of will around higher education, lots of intentionality around higher education,” Calderon said. “We need to help folks to find the ways to get there. And we need to address those ways, be creative about them and bring the village together and think about what those new ways might be.”

A series of panelists made similar remarks.

“This system is largely predicated on a delivery model that’s not going to meet our needs,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation.

Among other things, Merisotis and other panelists suggested that new ways to measure learning — beyond the traditional credit-hour, for instance — and new ways of delivering education — such as via online — are needed to put higher education more within reach.

Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, suggested a more “student-centered” approach to education design and delivery.

“We have to start with the student,” Cooper said. “We have to recognize and center all policies from a student-centered perspective and not a policy-centered perspective or institution-centered perspective.”

She said online education, where students study “on your own time,” is one of several ways to make higher education more accessible. To make higher education a more attractive option, Cooper pointed to a poll statistic that found 75 percent of Americans would be “more likely to enroll in a higher education program” if they cold be evaluated and receive credits for what they already know.

The poll also dealt with a variety of subjects — from perceptions of quality at traditional colleges and universities versus community colleges and online colleges and universities, to the quality of institutions of higher learning now versus in the past, and here in the United States versus other parts of the world.

The poll also found that 67 percent of Americans say “to get a good job” is a very important reason to get higher education, and that 65 percent said “to earn more money” is a very important reason.

In some ways, the findings of the quantitative survey — which Gallup conducted in consultation with and on behalf of Lumina Foundation — seem to mirror or at least support Lumina’s college completion agenda, known as Goal 2025, which is to increase to 60 percent by 2025 the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials. An emphasis is placed on learning knowledge and skills that are valued in the labor market.

Though there are various ways to calculate it, the percentage of college-educated Americans stands at about 42 percent.

In addition to boosting college degree attainment rates, Lumina has also promoted competency-based learning over the traditional credit-hour and sought to improve degree quality by means of a “Degree Qualifications Profile” that would spell out more specifically what knowledge, skills and abilities a degree should signify.

Along those lines, the poll asked if students should get credit for a course if they can master the material in less than the 16 weeks that the average college course typically takes — a question to which 70 percent said, “Yes.”

The Gallup survey released Tuesday came with a disclaimer that “question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings.”

Even without the disclaimer, some who attended the survey’s release at Gallup World Headquarters called its validity and usefulness into question.

Among the skeptics was Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar.

“To have people who have been excluded and disadvantaged in the higher education, to ask them whether they think higher education should be less expensive and better is interesting, but it’s not really substantially meaningful,” Ungar said. “It’s a little bit like asking people if they think food should be cheaper and redefine nutrition standards so everyone can feel that he or she is gong to be healthier based on what they’re doing now.”

Others asked how the poll’s findings square with a recent study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity that found roughly half of all recent college graduates were “underemployed.”

“That’s an effect of the economy and not necessary the value of education and what it can do,” Cooper, of IHEP, responded. “Right now, we’re just going through a tough economic period. And as that levels off, those people who are underemployed will find better employment options.”

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