College & Workforce Readiness

Poll Shows Confidence in College Preparation and Value of Degree Declining

By Caralee J. Adams — April 08, 2014 5 min read
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While most Americans feel their own education prepared them for college, they have less faith in how well schools are doing today to get children ready. And in the past two years, public opinion about the value of a four-year degree has been declining, according to national survey released Tuesday by the National Journal.

The Next America Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates by telephone asked 1,271 adults in late March their opinions about a range of issue including education and the economy. The poll was underwritten by the College Board, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Regardless of how much education they had obtained, adults were asked if they felt their schooling at the high school level prepared them to do college work successfully. Overall, 69 percent of respondents said yes (71 percent of whites, 67 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of blacks).

However, just 53 percent of those polled felt the schooling that children are receiving today in elementary, middle, and high school is preparing them adequately. Interestingly, minorities were more optimistic. Of African-Americans surveyed, 60 percent agreed that students today were being prepared for success in college, compared to 64 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of Asians.

The results were shared Tuesday at an event in downtown Washington. The full poll and story will be posted on the National Journal‘s website later in the week.

Just 45 percent of adults think that young people in the United States today need a four-year college degree in order to be successful, compared to 57 percent who were asked the same question in September 2012. While minority groups had more favorable views about the merits of a degree, the decline occurred in all groups measured.

Asked more broadly about postsecondary training, Gallup found support for higher education in a poll just released. Asked, “How important is having a certificate or degree beyond high school?,” 70 percent of adults said it was “very important” and 24 percent said it was “somewhat important.”

Early Education to Close College-Readiness Gap

To help students be ready for the rigor of college, experts gathered at the National Journal event talked about the importance of starting early with high expectations, interventions, and developing sound social skills along with academics.

Michael Cordell, the chief academic officer for the KIPP DC charter schools, said early pre-K intervention can help students learn to have self-control and learn the rules of school early so they are able to focus on reading, writing, and mathematics in the upper grades. Quality instruction at an early age can help close the vocabulary gap that puts many disadvantaged students behind from the beginning of their school career, he said.

“It’s about a love of learning. Our goal is that the kids do the heavy lifting. We don’t want teachers to do all the talking,” said Cordell. “Our kids have been taught to work hard and we value their opinion.”

By middle school, students need to be working on higher-order thinking skills to prepare for more demanding careers, said Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, dedicated to expanding and modernizing the school calendar. At the event, she spoke of the need for a longer school day and more overall instructional days to allow for more hands-on learning and individualized support for students, as well as time for teachers to share data and collaborate.

Influences on Choices After High School

When making decisions about what to do after high school, 17 percent of respondents from the Next America poll said they relied most on guidance counselors and teachers for advice, while parents and relatives were the bigger influence among 55 percent of those polled. Attending a four-year college is the most popular path that parents are advocating (38 percent), followed by getting a job (25 percent), and pushing for a two-year college pathway (10 percent).

“Not everyone needs a 4-year degree to punch a ticket to the middle class,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez at the National Journal forum. “We need to adjust parental expectations,” he said, adding that there is value to getting an apprenticeship or going to an early-college high school. “You are getting on that education superhighway that has a remarkable return.”

Perez added that too many K-12 systems are failing students by giving them a diploma without the needed competencies to make the transition to a middle-skill economy.

Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization that advocates for students of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, described the inequities in the educational system that contribute to achievement gaps. “Low-income kids continue to be educated in schools that spend less, expect less, where the teachers assigned have the least experience,” she said.

While preparation is part of the explanation, government and higher education policies also hurt the chances for all students to succeed, said Haycock. She described how federal dollars and institutional aid from colleges has shifted to help fewer low-income students and more from middle- and upper-income families. “The choices that colleges make about resources are hugely important to who comes and who doesn’t,” said Haycock. “It’s not about money. It’s about leadership.”

Preparing a Diverse Workforce

Higher education needs to support the diverse student population that is growing and needs support, said Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “The old American competitive model will not work in the future,” he said. “We need education in the middle and we’ve been terrible at that.” While the United States is 13th in production of bachelor’s degrees among developed countries in the world, it is ranked 18th in the sub-bachelor-degree category, he added.

Carnevale advocates investing less money in the top 500 American colleges and putting more in the open-enrollment institutions where minorities often attend. He suggested the K-12 “Title I” framework be applied to higher education to target extra fudning on special programs and special populations.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.