Campus leaders must think outside the box to keep U.S. higher education ahead of the rest of the world and also control costs, survey respondents said.

A majority of Americans still believe that college is very or extremely important in order to experience the “American Dream,” according to a national survey that paints a picture of how higher education is viewed today. But 83 percent of respondents also believe that U.S. colleges and universities must “innovate” to remain globally competitive and keep down costs.

Last October, Northeastern University asked FTI Consulting to conduct 1,001 telephone interviews across the country to examine Americans’ views of college today. The survey, “Innovation Imperative: The Future of Higher Education,” revealed that nationally, 70 percent of Americans think that college is either extremely important or very important, and three out of four older Americans think that college degrees are more important today than in previous generations.

“Higher education is not standing still. When you hear higher education is not moving fast enough—think again,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University.

But the survey found an evident discrepancy between parents’ wishes for their children to attend college, and the current number of students who actually attend college.

Eight out of 10 people surveyed who identified themselves as having at least one child under the age of 18 believe it is “extremely likely” that their child will attend college, yet 64 percent of the 18- to 30-year-olds surveyed reported opting to postpone or not attend college at all. Both younger and older groups acknowledged the heightened obstacles that today’s students face, such as cost, navigating the complex financial aid processes, and allocating the time and resources needed to complete college degrees.

On Nov. 27, Northeastern University and the Governance Studies program at Brookings Institute hosted a panel of higher-education stakeholders who discussed and analyzed the survey results—and what they mean for U.S. colleges.

“Only about half of all people who enter colleges manage to get a degree,” said David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times. “[Yet] with all the problems [in higher education], it continues to deliver a phenomenal return.” Leonhardt pointed to the 3.8-percent unemployment rate for college graduates, a much stronger figure than the current 7.9-percent national unemployment rate.

“There are massive gaps by economic status,” said Leonhardt.

John Sexton, president of New York University, agreed that educators must not “exasperate the exclusion.”

Sexton expressed concerns that educators might focus too much on what he called “the cost cloud.” He suggested that educators can become too concerned with lowering educational costs and, in turn, diminish educational quality.

It is evident that today’s students are still feeling the effects of the “Great Recession” of 2008. Studies show that in recent years, the number of people graduating from college has decreased, and 2011 also showed a decline in the number of students enrolling in college.

These figures lead many to wonder if college attendance is worth its often hefty price tag.

National survey results show that 83 percent of all college graduates believe college was a good investment, and 76 percent of 18- to 30-year-old college graduates surveyed agreed.

Most who were surveyed believe that the American higher-education system remains globally elite. Seventy-five percent of the national sample believes that American colleges are ahead of all or most of other countries’ colleges. More 18- to 30-year-olds surveyed were concerned about America’s global competitiveness than older Americans surveyed.

Northeastern’s Aoun outlined what he believes are the top four concerns for today’s students: cost of education, heightening global competition, the lackluster job market, and the belief that there are generally fewer opportunities for them than there were for their parents.

“They want to be given opportunities to practice, to risk, to fail, and to start all over again,” said Aoun. “They want global proficiency.”

Aoun also cited students’ desire for greater flexibility, online opportunities, a better balance of studying and working, and entrepreneurship.

Prateek Tandon, an economist at World Bank, agreed that today’s students need to hone non-technical skills, too. He asserted that today’s employers seek workers with strong leadership and communicative skills who are willing to be team players.

“Beyond learning outcomes, beyond looking at a transcript, employers want some kind of evaluation to learn what [a potential worker’s] communication skills are,” said Tandon.

“It’s not possible to just use traditional assessment mechanisms that we have employed in higher ed,” said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera.

Michael Horn, co-founder of Innosight Institute, agreed that educators must let go of traditional constraints and open themselves up to many possible outcomes. “Having an expansive view of what those outcomes could be is important,” he said.

The panelists agreed with survey data that reflected younger Americans’ desire for flexible online course formats.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) allow students more opportunities to explore their interests without relying on their friends’ or family’s opinions, leaving home, spending money, or failing on their transcripts, attested Koller.

Rising college dropout rates are often contributed to frustrating remedial math courses, said Rep. George Miller, the democratic ranking member of the House Education & the Workforce Committee. He suggested that MOOCs could be successful in remedying this growing problem.

This begs the larger question: Should MOOCs become eligible for college credit?

“The first population that was the bulk of [Coursera’s] initial pool were people who were continuing education,” said Koller. “They’re never going to go back to school and get another degree, [so] they couldn’t care less [if the courses were credited].”

However, Koller acknowledged that as Coursera has gained popularity, younger students are taking the courses, and more introductory courses are being offered to cater to this growing population. As a result, the demand for credit has greatly increased.

The American Council on Education (ACE) recently announced its plans to begin evaluating Coursera courses for credit deservedness early next year. ACE President Molly Broad said: “It’s an exciting opportunity for us to raise our game.” Broad looks forward to identifying what parts of MOOCs are more effective, and what technological tools allow students to learn best.

Aoun highlighted the two greatest American higher-ed initiatives, something that he described as “the social contract”: to educate the citizens and prepare them for a fulfilling life, and to ensure that the nation remains strong and competitive.

“This is a wake-up call for us,” said Aoun. “We cannot afford to ignore it. The social contract needs to be rethought and redefined, and we are here to do that.”


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