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Americans on Higher Education: Give Me a Good Job, Not Just a Degree

Americans on Higher Education: Give Me a Good Job, Not Just a Degree

by Brandon Busteed

I've plowed through a lot of survey and polling data on the subject of education, and the findings from a Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll of Americans released on Tuesday are among the most important I have seen.

Of the roughly 231 million Americans age 18 or over, nearly all (97%) agree that having a certificate or degree beyond high school is important. Still, there are about 168 million U.S. adults who currently do not have a postsecondary degree -- a number no one is happy with. But of those U.S. adults surveyed in the Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll who currently don't have degrees, 41%, or about 68 million when extrapolated to the U.S. population, tell us they have thought about getting one in the last 12 months. And a whopping 21% of that group tells us they are "very likely" to do so. This translates to roughly 35 million Americans ready and eager to jump into higher education.

Clearly, Americans value higher education. However, of profound interest to education leaders and champions of economic growth alike is why Americans say they want to get a degree. What's most important to understand is that Americans aren't interested in getting a degree just for the sake of having one. When asked about how important attaining a college degree is to get a good job, 67% of U.S. adults said it was "very important." So, the math as to whether they will make the leap and pursue a postsecondary degree is based on their confidence that it will help them get a good job.

This may not sound surprising, given the state of our economy, but what is surprising is that I don't think a single institution of higher education is measuring whether their graduates actually get good jobs. They only measure whether graduates get a job -- any job. Gallup research tells us there is a very big difference between a job and a good job -- and this difference can be measured.

There's the old expression, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Maybe. Adult Americans have the will to get college degrees, but they are asking higher education, accreditation, and government leaders to give them better and different ways to accomplish this. Americans say they desire a redesign of higher education to help them. For example, the vast majority of U.S. adults support students being able to receive college credit for skills and knowledge learned outside the classroom (87%). Another 70% say that if a student demonstrates mastery of the course material, that student should be able to receive credit without completing the typical 16-week program.

Tens of millions of Americans have the desire to pursue postsecondary degrees and they want new ways of obtaining them. We need to get our antiquated system out of their way.

Lumina Foundation's Goal 2025 attempts to fill the gap in college completion rates, with President Barack Obama, Complete College America, and other leaders pushing similar agendas to get America back to the No. 1 position in the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees. According to Lumina Foundation, if the U.S. continues at the current rates, to accomplish the 60% postsecondary completion by 2025 goal, that gap will be about 23 million. So, with 68 million of U.S. adults having thought about getting a degree in the last 12 months, and 35 million "very likely" to pursue one, we have more than enough demand to meet this goal.

Gallup estimates there are roughly 1.8 billion people in the world who want a good job and do not currently have one. That represents an avalanche of demand and competition for good jobs on a global scale. The education-beyond-high-school imperative for the United States is as critical to our success as anything else. If we want to win a large portion of the $140 trillion that will be up for grabs in the next 30 years, we've got to move fast and hard on the mandate Americans have given us in this poll.

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