Executive Summary
Finding One
Finding Two
Finding Three
Finding Four
Finding Five
Supporting Tables
About the Author
Public Agenda
The National Center for Public Policy
Consortium for Policy Research
The National Center for Postsecondary Improvement

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Page 6 of 18

Finding Two: More Than a Piece of Paper

To the public, getting a higher education is much more than putting in time and walking away with a sheepskin -- the public holds a long list of expectations for higher education institutions. Colleges should help students develop maturity, organizational skills and an ability to get along with others, and should provide specific skills, such as problem solving and communication. People also have high expectations for the institutions themselves. They want institutions to keep the costs down, but they also want to ensure quality by hiring good teachers and holding students to high standards.

A Degree and So Much More

When we started our research on higher education in 1993, many of the people we spoke with were rather dismissive about what the college experience offered students aside from a degree. Although they spoke frequently about the importance of access to higher education, most took a utilitarian approach, viewing college as not much more than a ticket to a better job. In contrast, we now see a much greater emphasis on the less tangible qualities bestowed by a higher education, over and above the degree itself. This shift is evident when we compare the 1993 focus groups with the 1998 groups. This comment by a California woman in 1993 was typical:

My husband's boss is 24 years old. He is a kid; he still has a baby face. He has no idea what is going on, but he is the boss. They hired him because he has a degree, and it impressed the bigwigs because they have the same education.

Many people we talked to in 1993 were frankly mystified by what students actually learned from the courses taught in colleges and universities, other than specific job-related skills. As one mechanic from San Jose said, "Why would I need to study psychology? Am I going to psych out a bus engine?" In 1993 fully 54% agreed that "too many people are going to college instead of alternatives to college where they can learn trades like plumbing or computer repair."

Today people still cite the importance of the credential, but they also emphasize what they expect students to obtain from a college education. In our most recent survey, for example, we asked people why college graduates tend to get higher salaries. While there is still a significant minority (41%) who think that the higher salaries are due to the fact that "employers just get impressed by a college degree," the majority (52%) feel that the reason for the higher salaries is that "a college degree means someone has skills and accomplishments." In the most recent focus groups, participants sometimes had trouble describing exactly what these skills and accomplishments are, but throughout these groups there was a palpable sense that colleges are expected to deliver much more than a degree.

Focusing on an Array of Skills

Americans clearly expect colleges and universities to provide a full-service, "value- added" experience for their students. Rather than only emphasizing the basics, the public's list of expectations for higher education institutions is expansive. To examine the public's priorities, we presented respondents with an inventory of eight competencies that a student might be expected to acquire from attending college. As Table 7 reveals, the public has high expectations for what is important, identifying several factors as absolutely essential.

1. Self-Direction and Interpersonal Skills

At the top of people's list of expectations was what one of the focus group participants from Charlotte, North Carolina, called "life skills," such as time management, organization and an ability to get along with other people. While these skills are obviously important in the workplace, they are broader in their implications for and impact on every area of life.

For many people, especially when they think about younger students, what is most remarkable about the college years is that students are exposed to a much more diverse and challenging environment and are given a great deal more freedom. Students must learn how to be the captains of their own ships, without parents or teachers regularly monitoring them. This in turn challenges them to develop self-discipline and self-direction. As one woman in a New Jersey focus group said:

You gain your independence in college. When you cut a class in high school, someone is after you, but in college it's up to you. And you meet a lot of people from different backgrounds. You hear what someone else is talking about -- maybe it is about abortion or the Catholic Church -- and you defend your view. It tests your character.

Seventy-one percent said that a sense of maturity and the ability to manage on one's own are an absolutely essential competency that students need to acquire in college, and an equally high percentage (68%) also said that an ability to get along with different people is absolutely essential (see Table 7). When we asked people to pick out the single most important factor, getting along with different people rose to the top of the list (see Table D in the Supporting Tables).

In focus groups, people constantly stressed the importance of these skills, and thought that they were valuable even if they did not translate directly into a job (or a higher-paying job) right out of college. The general feeling was that self-direction and knowing how to get along with others were skills that could best be developed in college and that would be of enormous value at many stages in one's life.

I really want my son to go away from home to a four-year college. It is not that I want to get rid of him, but college was the time when I really grew up and was away from my parents and had to make decisions on my own. Everything I was doing was on me, and I got to learn about myself.

-- Man, Chicago, Illinois

2. Specific Skills and Knowledge

The maturity and breadth of outlook mentioned above are important, but this is not all that people expect students to take away from higher education. As Table 7 shows, the public also wants students to become problem solvers. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say that it is absolutely essential that students learn to solve problems and think analytically. The public also places a strong emphasis on high-tech skills, as well as the specific expertise that will be needed in the student's chosen career. Top-notch writing and speaking skills are deemed just a bit less important. As the emphasis on these skills suggests, people are very much concerned about what students learn in their classes. As we will see in a moment, the importance of these academic skills is further reinforced by the public's emphasis on good teachers and high standards. Some comments from a focus group in Charlotte, North Carolina:

You learn how to approach a problem, how to think, and you get to know yourself.

When we hire someone without a college degree, they just don't seem to have the knowledge that they need for a job. We ask them to produce a quarterly report, and they say, "What's that?"

The public is somewhat more ambivalent about areas such as citizenship and exposure to the humanities, which score significantly lower. We found considerable division, for example, on whether students in college should undertake activities that are designed to increase a sense of civic responsibility, such as community service. Some of our respondents felt that this was as essential a part of learning as any other. One African American man in Chicago put it this way:

They should be made to do community service. Many students have come from little small towns and that is all they have seen, and when they leave they haven't learned anything. If they were to go out to African American communities, they would learn something.

Other respondents felt that while it might be commendable for students to involve themselves in civic activities if they want to, this was a frill rather than the main reason why they are attending college.

I want my son to learn civic responsibility, but it is not the core issue in college. You either have it before you go to college -- and it helps you broaden your horizons -- or you don't have it and probably won't get it.

-- Man, Santa Clara, California

For supporters of the liberal arts curricula, the findings present good and bad news. Of the items on the list of expectations, the public places the least importance on "exposure to great writers and thinkers in subjects like literature and history." The value of the "great books" -- or the humanities field itself -- seems to be relegated to a lower level of interest. On the other hand, the public emphasizes skills also valued by advocates of the liberal arts, such as analytical thinking and top-notch writing and speaking skills.

Higher Education Administrators Charged with Many Duties

While Americans expect colleges and universities to teach many different skills to students, they also hold high expectations for the manner in which these institutions are run. To gauge these, we presented a list of 11 tasks and asked which were absolutely essential priorities for higher education administrators (see Table 8). The two tasks most often rated as absolutely essential were controlling the cost of running the institution and hiring excellent teachers. Maintaining high academic standards is another area of importance. The general message is clear: not surprisingly, the public likes efficient institutions with low costs, but at the same time wants institutions to provide the highest academic quality.

1. Holding Down Costs

The public thinks that higher education institutions must do their own part in keeping college affordable, so that qualified and motivated students have an opportunity for a higher education. People in focus groups tended to view colleges as big organizations with their own agendas, and they were concerned that, left to themselves, colleges would run up both the costs and the tuition. This is reflected in the public's priorities. At the top of the list of what people expect administrators to do is to control costs. Nearly three out of four (73%) say that it is absolutely essential that colleges and universities control their costs and spend money efficiently. There is also strong support for the view that administrators should keep tuition from rising, with 60% rating this as absolutely essential. We also found a high level of support for the idea that "colleges should be doing a much better job of keeping their costs down" -- 60% strongly agree with this statement. One of our callback interviewees put it this way:

Lots of kids can't go to school because it costs so darn much. When they borrow the money they need, they get so swamped with debts that they are broke even before they start their jobs. The colleges need to help by not raising their rates all of the time.

-- Woman, Spencer, Nebraska

2. Hiring Good Teachers and Maintaining High Quality

In addition to being concerned about holding costs down, the public is equally concerned about preserving quality. Seventy percent say that attracting the best teachers and researchers is an absolutely essential goal for college administrators. This factor also topped the list when people were asked to identify the single most important factor. As a man in Philadelphia said:

A good teacher in college could really grab a student who is maybe taking the class because they have to, and really catapult them into a different area that the student might not have been exposed to. But a bad teacher might not recognize a talent in a student, and it might not be developed in a way beneficial for mankind.

A high percentage (61%) also rate high academic standards as absolutely essential. In focus groups, people said that high standards are important both as a way to challenge students and to improve the reputation of the college and the marketability of its graduates.

I think it's important that colleges have high standards. They need to focus on something, and they need to reach for something, they need something to strive for. If they don't have these sorts of standards, then things can fall apart.

-- Man, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

As Table 8 shows, other factors, such as monitoring students' behavior and helping students find jobs when they graduate, fall to a slightly lower level. Interest in maintaining a diverse population (often a high priority with college administrators) is perceived as relatively less important. African American parents, however, are much more likely to stress diversity, with 59% saying that this is absolutely essential, compared to 39% of the population as a whole.



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