Georgia College and State University
Georgia College and State University freshmen Ashlynn Anglin, right, and Meghan Murphy, second from right, wear face masks as they talk while walking through the campus in Milledgeville, Georgia on August 21, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The four-year, full-time college experience remains a rite of passage. In 2019, some 11 million students were enrolled in the nation’s four-year colleges, roughly three-quarters of them attending full-time.

But an eye-opening new survey finds that many Americans would like to see college become something very different: flexibly scheduled, available online, career oriented, and even linked to specific jobs or companies. As higher education struggles to redefine itself in an era of rising costs, explosive student debt, and a COVID-19 epidemic to boot, schools would do well to heed these findings.

The poll, which sampled 1,000 American adults in August, comes from the London-based global public opinion firm YouGov and was commissioned by the conservative-leaning Charles Koch Foundation. (The survey’s margin of error is +/– 3.3 percent.) It found that Americans are taking an increasingly transactional view of higher education, with a hard focus on the job market. For instance, 63 percent said they thought a company-paid college program for employees was preferable to a “traditional full time 4-year college,” even if it meant that the benefit only applied to a limited number of programs and schools. Just 10 percent said they “don’t think it would be a good option.”

Many also said they believed that industry-recognized or company-sponsored credentials (like an IT certification from Microsoft) could be just as valuable, or more so, as a traditional college degree. Respondents were also asked to decide what they would recommend to a family member who was choosing between earning a “credential provided by a reputable tech company with a high likelihood of landing a job” and “attending a highly prestigious college.” Nearly 51 percent of them—including 54 percent of those with a four-year degree—said they would recommend the company-sponsored credential, while just 16 percent said they would recommend the “highly prestigious” college.

Forty-four percent said they thought credentials offered by companies such as Microsoft, Google, and IBM “will compete directly with a 4-year college degree,” while 52 percent said they thought these credentials would eventually become “more popular” than traditional degrees. At Google, for instance, anyone can study for certifications in fields like IT support, data analytics, project management, and Android development.

These numbers seem to echo Americans’ weariness and dissatisfaction with traditional higher education, rather than a real belief that the “University of Microsoft” will someday supplant Harvard. Mirroring other polls that find declining trust in higher education, the YouGov survey found that only 19 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. higher education system is “headed in the right direction,” including just 20 percent of those with four-year degrees and only 30 percent of Democrats—the groups presumably the most sympathetic to higher ed.

In contrast, 49 percent of Americans said they thought higher education was going “in the wrong direction,” including 34 percent of Biden voters, 71 percent of Trump voters, and even 52 percent of those with four-year degrees.

But the real value in YouGov’s survey comes from some intriguing ideas about how colleges and universities can turn things around. The poll asked opinions about a number of proposed reforms aimed at making the American higher education system more flexible and consumer friendly. Among the most popular ideas was to offer “more partnerships with external employers where work experience could also receive academic credit,” which 81 percent of Americans support and 51 percent “strongly” support; provide “more choice in credentials, including non-degree credentials,” which 71 percent support; and improve credit-transfer policies for students switching from one institution to another, which 60 percent strongly support.

Many students would be willing to forego the traditional campus experience if it meant a more affordable education, the YouGov findings suggest. Sixty-seven percent said they would “strongly” or “somewhat” support a system with “generally lower tuition, even if it meant cutting back on in-person learning and scaling back the use of physical space on campus,” while 64 percent said they would support “debundling” services so students pay for course work but “forego additional amenities.” (So maybe students don’t want to pay for a “lazy river,” like at the University of Alabama, or the ski lift at Michigan Tech.)

For those who believe in education for education’s sake, the YouGov poll doesn’t provide much comfort. Colleges and universities can and should prepare students for a career. But they also offer an experience that enlivens the life of the mind more than, say, an online class in IT server maintenance. Though the benefits aren’t quantifiable, young people who live on campus get their first taste of independence, develop lifelong friendships, and grow into their own identities. Broad curriculum requirements—including deep exposure to the humanities—can help produce well-rounded, civic-minded young adults who are poised to contribute meaningfully to our country.

Unfortunately, America’s colleges and universities are failing to persuade the public that those benefits are worth the cost. And Americans, in turn, are deciding that higher education is a luxury with uncertain returns that they can no longer afford.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.