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Gallup/Lumina Foundation Poll Reveals Public Perception of Higher Ed

Despite recent conversations that have been stirring about the value and return on investment of American higher education, there is still a strong public opinion in favor of it, according to a new Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll. The issue, the poll found, lies in how people feel about attainment and the current model of higher ed.

“We expected there to be a broad public support for the need for higher education and the link between higher ed and good jobs and a strong economic future,” says Dewayne Matthews, VP of policy and strategy and Lumina. “What we did not expect was how strong that linkage was.” Seventy-two percent of respondents said it was very important to have a degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma, while only 3 percent felt it was not important.

“There does not appear to be any evidence that Americans are believing the naysayers,” says Matthews. “They simply don’t buy the notion that you don’t really need higher education.”

One thing Matthews says did surprise him was that 41 percent of Americans said they had thought about going back to school to earn a college degree or certificate in the past year. Twenty-four percent said they were very likely to go back to school and an additional 17 percent said they were somewhat likely. If all those who said they were likely to go back to school actually did, the U.S. would exceed a 60 percent higher ed attainment rate, says Matthews, a goal the Lumina Foundation has committed itself to helping reach by 2025.

“This rate seems like a stretch and so high an aspirational goal, but this is evidence that in fact there’s easily that number of Americans who see themselves as needing to do this,” he says. But of course, many of those who intend to go back to school will not actually do so, which begs the question of what needs to be done to change the system and get those students to enroll.

Not surprisingly, the poll pointed to cost as one barrier for enrollment, with 74 percent of Americans saying higher education is not affordable to everyone who needs it. But cost was second to family responsibilities, with 36 percent saying it was the biggest barrier to re-enrollment. Twenty-eight percent said cost was the biggest barrier. “How do you make education accessible to adult learners is a big issue, and we tried to tease some of those things out in the poll,” says Matthews.

One suggestion that comes out of the results is supporting a model where credit is given for demonstrating knowledge and skills learned outside the classroom, which 87 percent of those polled were in favor of. Seventy-five percent said if this was possible they would be more likely to go back to school. Another 70 percent said that if a student can prove mastery of course material he or she should be given credit before the end of a 16-week course.

“There is a sense very clearly in this data that there is public notion that credits should have a large element of demonstration of skills and less reliance strictly on time and completion of courses as the main standard,” says Matthews, noting that some institutions are already seriously looking into hybrid models that could incorporate these ideas. “There’s a long way to go, but clearly there’s a future direction here. There seems to be little doubt now that this is going to play a much bigger role in the future of higher education than it has in the past.”

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