Bookmark and ShareShare
Friday, February 8, 2013

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

By Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education

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.

To get more advice to help students, teachers, and schools succeed, visit our Education Knowledge Center.

Share your thoughts on Twitter about how to #RedesignHigherEd.


Paul McNeal said...
February 8, 2013 at 11:28 AM  

Brandon - here is a company working toward some of the things you've highlighted: While education is very important, what I think is equally important is that we infuse into the young people of today to do two things: 1. Create Value. 2 Make a Difference. While not everyone will obtain a college degree (I didn't) everyone can find a way to make an impact in the world in which they live.

Anonymous said...
February 8, 2013 at 12:11 PM  

Interesting data! Certainly seems like those of us in higher ed have some job security at least if higher ed stays the same or better. My one concern about increasing opportunities for college credit for out of the classroom work is how does one rate the value of that work and are we just looking for numbers and not quality? It would be great if we were able to increase the number with college degrees but again what is the meaning of that degree. Is it just a number that we can use as a statistic or does it have value in knowledge growth and development in the individual?

Bart Timm said...
February 8, 2013 at 12:44 PM  

One of the problems that needs to be addressed is that the 68 million or 35 million who have thought about or are very likely to pursue a degree need to figure out how to continue with their lifestyle (I suspect most are currently working) and commit to taking on the significant debt necessary to finance a degree. Some colleges, like Hiram College in Ohio, freeze tuition rates when a student is accepted, and they have a weekend college which allows students to continue to work while obtaining a degree from an accredited four year college. Many colleges and universities have not yet addressed the needs of this constituency, and so for many the thought of a college education remains just a thought.

Kenneth Dodge said...
February 8, 2013 at 1:11 PM  

These are illuminating findings. There are many shades of valuing post-secondary education, and these findings indicate that the quality of a job is important to assess. Furthermore, I would bet that value goes well beyond any job: Members of a civilized society want education in order to learn how to become contributing members of a democratic society. They also want to be civilized for aesthetic value. After all, we do not live to get a job. We get a job to live.

Kate Chase said...
February 8, 2013 at 2:51 PM  

Well said, Brandon. There are two topics at work here: the desire to get an education that facilitates a new standard of living and the state of the work opportunities available in the market. Just as higher education isn't doing all it can to prepare students for meaningful work or track their success in getting a job that utilizes their strengths, companies in the work force aren't doing all they can to develop jobs and company cultures that appeal to the new generation of workers. It's hard to place blame, but everyone is suffering for it. Money is tight and neither workers nor employers have the training or expertise to change the way hiring works. But we've entered a new era of "work" where design thinking, employee engagement and real culture are must-haves for much of the generation coming out of school - and really for business itself. Clearly the old paradigm isn’t working anymore! Higher education and employers need to step up to the plate and recognize that skills aren't enough to determine success. A well-rounded, self-reflecting, strengths-based matchmaking relationship would better serve hiring needs. We also need leaders who have a BIG vision for how sustainable solutions can change the ways we do business. Without a whole-hearted change, we run the risk of losing more than just the $140 trillion up for grabs in the next 30 years. We could lose the momentum of a generation.

John H. Pryor said...
February 10, 2013 at 9:00 AM  

This dovetails nicely with the results we just published from the CIRP Freshman Survey, the annual survey of students entering four-year colleges. The most prevalent reason for going to college is "to be able to get a better job," which is at an all-time high of 88%. This reason has climbed 20 percentage points since 1976. 56% report that an important reason why they chose the college they are attending is that graduates of that college get good jobs. That is the second most-important consideration, behind academic reputation.

Although it is still the case that many students also pursue a college degree for the sake of learning, we have certainly seen a rise in those factors related to future use of a degree in employment.

The full report that fits nicely with the Gallup/Lumina findings can be found at

Anonymous said...
February 11, 2013 at 9:50 AM  

Here's a thought from someone who teaches at a college every day. I'm going to let the cat out of the bag. I'm probably going to get killed for revealing this secret, but here goes. Ready? Don't tell anybody, but going to college doesn't mean that you'll get a good job. In fact, getting you a job is not why we are here. You could come to our classes all you want, get multiple degrees, but we don't promise you anything. That's because getting you a job is not our main concern. Our main concern is ensuring that you not only escape from us with a well defined area of knowledge, but that you also know a little bit about other important subjects in the world. And here's the important thing...employers certainly want you to have specialized knowledge that is important to their field of business, but here's a shocker: they also want you to be a person who is well-rounded, who possesses a wide range of knowledge, can read well, write well, and use sound reasoning.

Suggesting that colleges and universities should change to meet the expectations of a group of uneducated people who have no idea what the college experience is all about, is like walking into a KFC and telling them that they should start serving fine steaks and seafood, simply because that's what you'd like KFC to do for you.

Forget about it.

Brian Peddle said...
March 28, 2013 at 11:34 AM  

I recently wrote something similar on this topic --

Theodore Levitt’s wrote -- “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” I think in most cases the same could said of the college degree — “People don’t want a degree. They want a job.”

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated by Gallup and may not appear on this blog until they have been reviewed and deemed appropriate for posting.

Copyright © 2010 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. | Terms of Use | Privacy Statement