CKF Poll: Majority of Americans think colleges should innovate, adapt to students’ needs
September 1, 2021 – Future of Work

CKF Poll: Majority of Americans think colleges should innovate, adapt to students’ needs


A new survey the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF) shows Americans believe colleges and universities should do a better job of changing to meet the needs and preferences of students. The poll also shows less than one-fifth of Americans think higher education is headed in the right direction. The survey of 1,000 respondents was conducted by YouGov from August 11-16, 2021 and is representative of the U.S general public.

Specifically, the survey found:

  • When asked which statement they agree with more, 61 percent of respondents said universities should do a better job of changing to meet the needs of students. Just 16 percent felt that students needed to do a better job of adjusting to the “tried and tested model” of a traditional four-year college.
  • More than eight in 10 respondents said colleges are headed in the wrong direction (49 percent) or were not sure what direction they are headed (32 percent). Only 19 percent said colleges are going in the right direction.

Americans also believe postsecondary education institutions need to offer a wider range of innovations and programs to meet the changing needs of students. For example:

  • Americans overwhelmingly favor the type of programs being offered by companies like Walmart and Target where employers pay for employees’ college tuition. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of respondents said these “work-to-learn” programs could be a good idea for young people.
  • Most respondents (51 percent) would recommend someone they know pursue a credential provided by a reputable tech company over attending a highly prestigious college—if it provided a high likelihood of landing a job. Additionally, 30 percent of respondents said they think these kinds of credentials offered by companies that are not colleges or universities will compete directly with four-year college degrees fairly soon. Another 22 percent think that future of credentialing is coming, but not for a long time.
  • When presented with a list of educational options, a plurality of respondents (32 percent) said technical education programs do the best job of preparing learners for successful careers. Four-year college or university came in second at 21 percent.

“Now is the time to empower all learners to discover, develop, and apply their unique aptitudes,” said CKF Executive Director Ryan Stowers. “Our survey indicates that Americans are supportive of more individualized options that accelerate innovation over the status quo.”

One way institutions can remove barriers and accommodate the changing needs of learners is to offer more accessible and flexible options. Sixty-two percent of respondents, for example, said they believe there will be heightened demand for online classes. When asked why they felt this way, most respondents cited the need for flexibility over any other factor, including costs. Specifically, half of respondents said they think online classes will be more popular because they can accommodate the schedules of all students. Nineteen percent said they think access to online classes will be popular because they will help lower the cost of postsecondary education.

The poll, fielded by YouGov, identified one potential barrier to adoption of these alternatives: the opinions of employers. A plurality of respondents (36 percent) said they think employers value an online degree less than an in-person degree. Just 5 percent of respondents said employers will value an online degree more and 29 percent said employers would value it the same as an in-person degree. The rest were not sure.

“Learning is a lifelong endeavor. We must remove barriers like cost and inflexibility that stand in the way of people reaching their potential,” said Stowers. “By supporting education entrepreneurs and bottom-up solutions, we can help to transform the postsecondary education landscape.”